A World of Mediterraneans
Sebastian Mueller(HK Professor, Institute for Mediterranean Studies)
The Mediterranean Sea, or the ‘Sea between the lands’, has many functions for those who live along its shores and the nearby hinterland. In the past for those who lacked the expertise in building ships and navigating the seasonally difficult waters, the sea was an impenetrable border and distanced shores were unreachable. Travelling along the dented coastline from the Moroccan pillar of Heracles, the Jebel Musa, to the Rock of Gibraltar, its Iberian counterpart, corresponds to a journey around the globe along the equator, whilst the Strait of Gibraltar measures only 13 km in width. Instead of separation, it is connectivity that is considered to be one of the defining characteristics of the Mediterranean in ancient, medieval and early modern times. Specialists such as the Phoenicians or the Genoese sailors enabled the connection of distant regions within the Mediterranean and thus contributed to the increasing entanglement of places in Europe, Asia and Africa across the sea. The convergence of different cultural traditions and the specific conditions of the natural environment have been identified as causes for the specific setting of the Mediterranean that contributed to the creation of its rich and colorful cultural canvas.
When a region is as unique and unparalleled as the Mediterranean is often perceived, it becomes actually quite difficult to distinguish what really defines it. Everything becomes special and unrivalled, although some of the observed traits might be explainable from a more universal perspective. The supposed unique nature of the region would, furthermore, diminish any adoption of theories and explanations that were developed based on other regions in the world. Since there is no doubt that the Mediterranean is a very special region of the world, the basic setting is, however, more common than usually realized.
In his contribution to the seminal edited volume “Rethinking the Mediterranean”, the famous historian David Abulafia has pointed out that our world consists of countless Mediterraneans, areas that are devoid of settlements and that function as obstacles for those who do not know how to cross them. These areas are seas, deserts and mountain ranges. Islands, oases and valleys are intermediary stations that enable the crossing of these areas. The border region of these empty spaces is often characterized by the occurrence of important nodes, cities and settlements that are the hubs of trade and ideas. People of different origin come in contact with each other and create an atmosphere that becomes the driver for cultural developments and advances.
From this perspective the Mediterranean is not a singularity, it is rather a prominent example of a geographic setting that comprises seas, deserts or mountains “between the lands,” which occurs in many parts of the world. This insight opens many new roads for the definition of the classical Mediterranean. Juxtaposing two or more regions of the world might be considered as illegitimate similar to the implication of the idiom of comparing apples and oranges. But just as the comparison of apples and oranges reveals important insights into the unique properties of the respective fruit, so our understanding of the unique nature of the classic Mediterranean and other Mediterraneans would increase. The greatest obstacle to a practical application of such a comparison is clearly the enormous knowledge that is required about each field being compared. Interdisciplinary research would be an absolute necessity. In this sense, the Mediterranean would extend its connectivity to the academic world, a consequence that could lead to new insights and approaches that are always welcome.