The Mediterranean History by David Abulafia – Lecture Review

Yesterday’s lecture by Cambridge Professor, David Abulafia, at Barcelona’s CaixaForum was a time capsule; a review of the Mediterranean history since the time of the Neanderthal Man (which he insisted should be called the Gibraltar Woman) and all the way to the Roman Empire.

The famous author of ‘The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean’ emphasizes the ‘human agency’, stressing the lasting legacy and the profound changes provoked by individuals like Alexander the Great and others throughout the Mediterranean history.

Following an initial review of the prehistoric civilizations and cultures of Malta and Sicily, he moved on to the Bronze Age Civilizations of present-day Greece and the nearby islands (Cycladic, Minoan and Mycenaean civilization). Mediterranean islands like Malta, Cyprus and Sicily became ‘stepping stones’ (to put it in his own words) that facilitated the contact between both shores of the Mediterranean. Trade and the search for resources brought people closer, triggering a massive cultural exchange, but then came a rupture and a wave of violent migrations by the mysterious Sea Peoples. Abulafia compares the effect of the Sea Peoples on the Eastern Mediterranean to that of the Barbarians on Rome much later.

Integration was made possible again –and at a greater scale- through the Phoenicians. The Mediterranean flourished again, the Phoenicians came in contact with Greeks, Etruscans, Iberians…and a Phoenician outpost in Carthage, Tunisia, became a super maritime power in the Mediterranean that vied for dominating the sea.

Abulafia’s lecture formed part of the cultural programme accompanying a wonderful exhibition at CaixaForum, titled ‘The Mediterranean: From Myth to Reason’. I would like to share a quote from that exhibition’s brochure that captures the exhibition’s essence: “In the 6th century BC, on the coasts of Ionia and Magna Graecia, thinkers such as Thales and Heraclitus abandoned the belief that the universe was a divine creation and attributed its existence to the action of primordial elements: water, earth, air and fire. It was a fundamental change. Myths were no longer sufficient to explain the origins and sense of the cosmos. Humans were faced with an enigma that they had to resolve by themselves, without any supernatural interventions.”

In his book ‘The Great Sea’, Abulafia speaks of the current Mediterranean as the fifth Mediterranean…a sea divided and dominated by political turmoil and economic crises on both shores. I’m half-way through the book, and I strongly recommend it for anyone interested in the Mediterranean history.

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