The Compass of Cultures
Thomson, Ian, The Independent (London, England)
book of the week The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean by David Abulafia Allen Lane, Pounds 30, 783pp Pounds 27 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
The Arabs invaded Mediterranean Italy in the ninth century, leaving behind mosques and pink-domed cupolas. The Saracen influence remains strongest in the Mafia-dominated west of Sicily, where the sirocco blows hot from Tunisia. A joke told in the north of Italy (though scarcely a funny one) is that Sicily is the only Arab country not at war with Israel. For many northern Italians, Sicily is where Europe ends; beyond is an African darkness. The term "Mafia" probably derives from the Arab mahias, meaning bully or braggart. Yet, wonderfully, Sicily is the only place in Europe where they make jasmine ice cream. It was the Arabs who brought ices and sherbets to this part of the Mediterranean, and jasmine is surely a Saracen touch.
The Great Sea, Professor David Abulafia's magnificent new history of the Mediterranean, celebrates sea-faring nationalities of bewildering mixed bloods and ethnicities. Arab, Greek, Etruscan, Roman, Hittite, Assyrian and Phoenician have all intertwined to form an indecipherable blend of peoples. How to write a history of this fabulous pasticcio? The Mediterranean itself - a "sea between the lands" - defies easy definition. Rather than write a history of empires and nation-states, Abulafia has chosen to concentrate on the peoples who crossed this great sea and lived along its shores. Accordingly, his emphasis is on networks of commerce, on merchants, on human migration and conquest.
This is a quite an undertaking, and Abulafia's is not surprisingly an Everest of a book, running to almost 800 pages. Brocaded with studious observation and finely-tuned scholarship, The Great Sea is hard going at times, yet overall the effect is mesmerising, as detail accumulates meticulously.
Much of the book is taken up with Sicily. The vanished island- city of Motya, situated in a shallow lagoon off its western tip, was founded by Phoenicians in the eight century BC. Excavations began on the eve of the First World War and revealed a sacrificial burial ground, along with both Corinthian and Attic black-and-red figure vases. Scarab rings from Pharaonic Egpyt remind us that Sicily was on the Mediterranean trade route to Africa, says Abulafia.
Motya is just four kilometres square, yet only five per cent has been excavated to date. Archaeological investigations collapsed in 1987 owing to Mafia complicity in pilfering antiquities. In the nearby Sicilian town of Marsala (famous for its fortified wine) a small museum nevertheless displays artefacts. Marsla is incidentally named after the Arab Mars al Allah, "Harbour of God", after the Saracen invasion of the western Mediterranean in 831.
Most likely, the Phoenician people came from what is today Lebanon. In search of precious metals they sailed as far west as Cornwall, and may have circumnavigated Africa. For Homer they were a "shifty" trader people - in some ways, the Jews of antiquity - and not to be trusted. In 397BC, invading Greeks destroyed Motya and massacred its 15,000 inhabitants. Heinrich Schliemann, the German archaeologist who located Troy, held a fruitless dig in Motya in 1875. Silence fell, and the Phoenician outpost became a haven for migratory birds to Gaddafi's Libya.
Only with the fall of Troy in the 12th century BC did the ancient Greeks began to "wander" the Mediterranean. No other work conjures their wanderings better than Homer's Odyssey. The poem has come down to us from the dawn of Mediterranean literature, and passed from generation to generation, always enriched. Homer applies two words to Odysseus - "poll plantke" - which explain why his sea-faring hero feels close to us today. They mean "much erring", or "driven to wander far and wide". In his homesick exile, separated from his wife Penelope after destroying Troy, Odysseus bears the hardest trials and solitude before finally returning home to Ithaka in present- day Greece. …