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A sea of stories

Book>> The Great Sea, A Human History Of The Mediterranean • by David Abulafia, Allen Lane • RS 1,500

 
By Nadim Kasim
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

BookThis magisterial history of the Mediterranean is a healthy corrective to romantic accounts which regard the sea as friendly grounds for trade in merchandise and ideas.

While taking the reader from the age of the Phoenicians and Trojans to the advent of modern tourism, The Great Sea, A Human History of the Mediterranean throws light on the seafarers who made the sea their own.

imageCambridge historian David Abulafia also emphasises the repeated failure of individual nations and empires to gain mastery over the Mediterranean. Even the Romans, effective elsewhere, had trouble with pirates.

Abulafia deploys arcane details to bolster his arguments. Explaining the rise of Barcelona as a naval power to rival Italian city-states like Pisa and Genoa, he notes the balanced diet of Catalan sailors: more biscuit and cheese than the Venetians, less wine than the Neapoli-tans, but plenty of garlic, onions and spices to make hard biscuits palatable.

The seascape in his account is dotted with communities from whose enterprise a common maritime lingua franca evolved, mixing bits of Greek, Italian and Spanish with Arabic and Turkish. This “Frankish speech”, reflected the mercurial, shape-shifting quality of life around the Mediterranean.

Nadim Kasim is a research fellow at humanities and social sciences faculty, La Trobe University, Australia

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