The title of David Abulafia’s magisterial book comes, as he reminds us, from a Hebrew blessing, to be recited when setting eyes on the Mediterranean: ‘Blessed are you, Lord our God, king of the Universe, who made the Great Sea.’ His book is a two-fold history: first of the trade and the traders who discovered the sea, created its ports and never ceased thereafter to animate it in pursuit of commerce. (The ports could be said to be the principal players in this story.) Second, it is a history of religious and territorial struggles and subsequent accommodations. A vast body of material and reference – some of it quite new – is astutely marshalled. Abulafia sketches out five successive epochs of Mediterranean history, and gives fair emphasis to Muslim, Christian and Jewish stories. Individual lives – of nomadic Jews, Arab pilgrims, Italian antiquarians – illustrate the pleasures and hardships of travel by sea in pre-industrial times. In Abulafia’s hands, the Phoenicians are not altogether outshone by the Greeks, or the ancient Iberians by the Etruscans, or Genoa by Venice; the Barbary corsairs and the murky world of piracy are given their just weight, and some less familiar places are brought to light: the maritime republic of Amalfi, the cities of Salonica, Trieste and Livorno, even the little town of San Gimignano, which grew rich on its trade in saffron.
LRB 22 March 2012 | PDF Download