Somewhere, beyond the Sea

From Carthage to Bosnia, Persia to Palestine, tales of warfare and hubris, excess and murder line the Mediterranean. David Abulafia proffers up a sweeping narrative steeped in culture, commerce and the struggle for dominance on the Great Sea.

Issue: Nov-Dec 2011

David Abulafia, The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 816 pp., $34.95.

[amazon 0195323343 full]IN THE Rebel, his treatise against totalitarianism, particularly of the Left, and in some of his earlier essays, Albert Camus hailed the Mediterranean, which for him embodied life, light, beauty (quite probably sex) and a sense of limits. He contrasted what Cambridge don David Abulafia calls “the Great Sea”—actually a Hebrew designation (hayam hagadol)—with the darkness of northern Europe’s cities and forests, seedbeds as they were of the twentieth century’s encompassing murderous ideologies, Bolshevism and Nazism.

“The Mediterranean sun has something tragic about it,” Camus wrote in “Helen’s Exile” (1948):

quite different from the tragedy of [northern] fogs. Certain evenings at the base of the seaside mountains, night falls over the flawless curve of a little bay, and there rises from the silent waters a sense of anguished fulfillment. In such spots one can understand that if the Greeks knew despair, they always did so through beauty. . . . Our time, on the other hand, has fed its despair on ugliness and convulsions. This is why Europe would be vile, if suffering could ever be so.

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