The Great Sea – A Human History of the Mediterranean (II)

Here’s my first post about the book. As mentioned I started reading it last year but I didn’t get very far back then. I’ve had some social obligations over the last few days, but I still managed to read the last 400 pages in between the other stuff. I think I’ve read about ~20 pages/hour or so on average (if you don’t include the sizeable index and the notes in the page-count), meaning that there’s a total of ~32 hours spent here. The book requires less work than what it takes to complete most textbooks but it’s not a book you can just read during an afternoon where you happen to be bored, at least not unless you read much faster than I do.

I knew far more about the prehistoric era of the region and the stuff that took place during the (particularly the first half of the…) first millenium AD than I did about the stuff that happened later on (the Crusades; Venice, Genoa, and Pisa; The Fatimid Caliphate; the rise and fall of the Habsburgs; the Ottoman empire; the Barbary Wars; British domination; the Suez Canal…) and so I’m probably one of the few readers who knew sufficiently little about the stuff covered to actually learn a great deal – at least I like to think so. It must be said that Abulafia at some points may be somewhat unaware of just how much he’s actually assuming the reader already knows; these assumptions sometimes make the book harder to read than it otherwise would have been and had me visit wikipedia a couple of times. At a few points I was sort of missing a ‘box’ or something like that with a list of key events – the inclusion of something like that would have made the book easier to read, and it would certainly have been more helpful than quite a few of the maps included in the book, most of which look pretty much the same only with an occasional new town added here and there. Along the way I was somewhat surprised to learn that he’d apparently decided at no point to include more detailed maps of key areas like e.g. the Aegean Sea, the Tyrrhenian Sea, or the Dardanelles – or just close-ups of some of the islands, like Crete, Cyprus, or Sicily, which he spends so much time telling us about. Some of the amazon reviews touch upon the problem with the maps as well, so it’s not just me – for instance here’s one comment from a 4/5 review from

“the maps are too few, and lack detail. It appears the publisher outsourced the illustrations to a minimalist. It is exactly these kinds of books that appeal to geography students and students of geography. And students of geography love maps. […] Easily 5-star had the maps been up to speed.”

Even so, the book has a lot of good stuff. Had it had some better maps and a few lists/boxes, I’d have had a hard time getting my arms down – though there are a few other things I’m not perfectly happy with (a few places where he lets the notes and references do a bit too much of the work, to take an example, but then again this is almost impossible to avoid in a book covering such a huge amount of stuff) overall it’s a really nice book. There’s a lot of stuff on the economic development that took place, or did not take place, in the regions of interest (what was produced and traded, and with whom), and a great deal of emphasis on how trading patterns changed over time and how trade flows were determined. This of course was closely related to the naval power balances, so naturally there’s also a lot of stuff about the wars and conflicts that have taken place in the region – there were a lot of those – and how and why power balances changed over time. Piracy, and related themes such as slavery, is covered in some detail. Most of the book deals with ‘big-picture stuff’, but there’s also some ‘down to earth stuff’ about e.g. the diet of galley slaves, or travel times of merchants during the Medieval period. Demographic stuff is covered; both ‘traditional stuff’ like migration patterns, but also less traditional stuff like how long it took a town to recover from the plague or how the population exchange between Greece and Turkey in the modern period affected the areas involved. Naturally, given how important that stuff has been, he also talks a lot about the various religious groups in the region and how they interacted with each other (and how that interaction changed over time). He spends much less time on the 20th century than you’d perhaps expect from his thorough treatment of the Medieval period, but I didn’t mind that.

It’s a great read.

January 29, 2013 - Posted by | books, Geography, history

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