Mediterranean Metamorphosis: Lessons From The Past
September 2, 2012
How can a historical approach to the Mediterranean help us understand modern dilemmas? And by historical approach I mean not a study of the last 20 or 30 years but an analysis of trends within the Mediterranean reaching far back in time, into antiquity and the Middle Ages. After all, this is not the same Mediterranean as that of 2,000 years ago, in any number of ways: tree cover has disappeared from islands and coastal regions, rich agricultural terrain has experienced abandonment and even desertification, the choice of crops has shifted back and forth, including the arrival of a great many New World products such as maize and potatoes
Then, thinking of the human setting, we can observe waves of migration that have altered the ethnic, religious and social composition of the lands around the Mediterranean and the islands within it. It is roughly 90 years since the Treaty of Lausanne resulted in massive population exchanges between Greece and Turkey, including the departure of the Muslim (but Greek-speaking) population of Crete, who numbered about 30,000 people. Against this, we can point to sometimes surprising signs of stability. Between the emergence of Venice and the foundation of Tunis in the early Middle Ages, and the foundation of Tel Aviv a century ago, no major city was built on the shores of the Mediterranean, and even Tunis was a replacement for its Christian and pre-Christian neighbour nearby, the great city of Carthage. The urban map of the Mediterranean was in large measure created by the ancient Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans.
It is important to understand the history of the Mediterranean as a series of phases of integration and disintegration, sometimes sharply divided by severe economic contraction and by political disjuncture. Viewed from this perspective, the Mediterranean is at the moment disjointed, fragmented, fractured. This is actually a deviation from its character over most of the past centuries, indeed millennia. The challenge is to bring the facing shores together again so that they interact creatively in the political, economic and cultural arenas and so that an integrated Mediterranean can once again come into being.
Taken as a whole, the Mediterranean has had great economic potential throughout its history. During periods of integration, the sum of the parts is and always has been impressive: the historical example of the massive and regular grain traffic supplying ancient Rome with grain from Tunisia and Egypt comes to mind, although no one before or after the Romans has managed to achieve political control over the entire sea, which was truly mare nostrum, “our sea”. Under Roman rule, piracy was suppressed and there was easy movement between the shores of the Mediterranean, making Rome itself into a composite community of people of the most varied origins. The process of political integration resulted in the breaking down of ethnic, religious and social barriers, especially in major cities such as Alexandria, Rome and Carthage. But its individual corners have always lacked some vital commodity. This has had the straightforward but beneficial effect of stimulating trade across the sea from prehistoric times onwards. Merchants from ancient Phoenicia, Greece and Etruria, from medieval Genoa, Venice and Barcelona, from early modern Izmir, Dubrovnik and Livorno, are the heroes of Mediterranean history, men (for they were almost always men and not women) who made their profits from satisfying and stimulating demand for foodstuffs, raw materials and luxury goods all around the Mediterranean.
The human presence on the shores and in the islands of the Mediterranean has altered the environment; just as wastes have been created, new land has been brought under cultivation (a recent example is the Pontine Marshes in Italy). Environmental degradation already occurred in antiquity, and ecological historians have debated how far the Mediterranean was capable of adjusting to the impact of humans by a process of what might be called self-correction. Gains in one area may have compensated for losses in another: the granaries of Tunisia declined precipitately in the Middle Ages, but other sources of supply (such as Morocco) came into their own. In the modern Mediterranean, advanced technology makes it possible to dream of sophisticated agriculture using sea water or dry soils to produce basic crops — one thinks here of the achievements of agronomists in Israel. And yet the simple fundamental point stands: the Mediterranean has always been, and will have to remain, a zone in which shortages of some essential goods are compensated by exchange with regions better endowed with those goods.
The challenge now is to make that system work once again, for it has largely broken down. The countries on the northern shores of the Mediterranean look to Brussels (or maybe Berlin and Frankfurt) for a solution to their economic problems. They have turned their backs on the Mediterranean, and on their true vocation which lies there as much as, or more than, in Europe. Economic interdependence can, in the right conditions, have the capacity to reduce tensions — and, in the wrong conditions, to inflame them: an argument has been developing around the energy supplies to be found beneath the seabed off the Cypriot coast, the focus of competition between Turkey, Cyprus, Syria, Lebanon and Israel….