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Mhammad Benaboud


History of the Mediterranean World


By Mhammad Benaboud and Ahmed Yousfi     



The Notion of the History of the Mediterranean World

The notion of the history of the Mediterranean World as a geographical, historical and cultural unified area has been acclaimed by some historians and rejected by others. It can not be denied as a theoretical notion which has been constructed by eminent historians of a high caliber such as Fernand Braudel as an adequate model for studying the Mediterranean area in its historical and cultural context. The term Mediterranean has acquired a new cultural dimension which applies to this area, as opposed to other cultural notions which have been associated with other geographical areas such as the North European Scandinavian, Germanic or Anglo-Saxon countries. On the other hand, other historians have rejected this notion categorically arguing that the Mediterranean cultures and nations represent a variety of antagonistic cultures. They project the history of this reason as a history of military clashes and antagonistic ideological and political confrontations. The notion of the Mediterranean area as a peaceful cultural pool is in their view a utopian vision which in no way represents historical reality and contradicts the present situation of this area. For them, this area has always been one of antagonism and clashes between individual or blocks of nations, Empires and cultures.

The Geography

The notion of the Mediterranean as a coherent area can be analyzed at various levels such as the geographical, historical, political and cultural levels. The geographical unity of the Mediterranean area is difficult to dispute. The Mediterranean Sea is a natural body of water which joins the Atlantic Ocean in the Straits of Gibraltar and there are numerous countries on its coast including Spain, Morocco, Greece or Egypt. Its climate is generally mild, but it varies from country to country along its coast. It is one of the busiest seas in the world, given its strategic situation as there are European, Asian and African countries in the Mediterranean area. The transportation of fundamental products like crude oil across the Mediterranean Sea increases its strategic importance. Further, traffic in the Mediterranean Sea is one of the busiest in the world, especially across the strategically located Straits of Gibraltar. This heavy traffic is has contributed significantly to pollute its waters. The Mediterranean Sea is also a haven for international tourists and has some of the most beautiful tourist resorts in the world. Topography along the Mediterranean coast is generally coherent, although temperatures vary from one end to the other of the coast stretching along the Mediterranean Sea. The Rif Mountains in Morocco, for example, are similar to those of the Sierra Nevada in Spain. The Mediterranean Sea has been one of the most important maritime trade routes in the World. It continues to be one of the busiest areas in the world which is why its waters are among the most polluted in the world. The Mediterranean Sea has also been closely associated with certain historical phenomena such as the crusade activities during the Middle Ages, especially in areas near Malta and corsair activities during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries between the Portuguese and the Spaniards on the one hand and the Moroccans and Algerians on the other.


Its History

The history of the Mediterranean World occupies a privileged place in the history of Mankind. It includes the history of the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, the Romans and the Arabs. Some of the world’s oldest civilizations developed in thearea, maintaining peaceful relations with each other at times and military confrontation at others. The history of the Mediterranean countries is in the final analysis a history of war and peace and of prosperity and destruction. The Mediterranean is also the cradle of world religions, especially Judaism, Christianity and Islam. There are limited areas like Palestine where they have met. There are other areas where only Chrisitans have lived such as Italy. The names of some of the greatest historical figures have been associated with Mediterranean countries. The emperors of Rome and of some of the most European countries like Napoleon have marked the history of the Mediterranean area.

The Mediterranean area has also seen the development of some of the most important cities in the world such as Rome, Alexandria or Athens. The Mediterranean trade route has been the reason for the development of important ports like Alexandria, Cadiz or Marseille. The Mediterranean countries have indeed been world centres for centuries. The history of the World would not have been the same without the Mediterranean Sea.
There has been much debate as to whether the Mediterranean area forms a coherent geographical and historical unity. The question is methodological and should be approached from this perspective. It is true that the Mediterranean area has had a long history; that this history has unified important areas within this region for many centuries and that there are specific states; civilizations and cultures which flourished in this region or in parts of it. However, any historian of the Mediterranean region must take into consideration the following elements:

Firstly, the Mediterranean World consists of a wide geographical area in which some but not all the countries and societies have been in contact with each other. So while some states, societies and cultures have been in close contact with each other, others have not.
Secondly, the wide historical context of the Mediterranean World can enable historians to study some of the areas which it comprises, but not all. It is virtually impossible to produce profound studies of such a large geographical area over a period of so many centuries. The historical context has further changed radically over the centuries, so that areas which had been dominated by the Carthage or the Byzantium were later dominated by Damascus or Baghdad. In other words, despite the continuity, the history of certain parts of the Mediterranean World went through radical changes.
Thirdly, the cultural unity of the Mediterranean World is also disputable. While the cultural unity of certain areas within the Mediterranean World is undisputable, religious and cultural wars have characterized the history of the Mediterranean World over many centuries. Examples include the wars between Romans and Carthaginians or between Byzantium and the Islamic Empire.

Fourthly, there is also disagreement between historians concerning the conceptual or ideological dimension of the problem. While some historians, especially French historians, have been convinced of the cultural unity of the Mediterranean World, others have rejected this position. It can therefore be concluded that the notion of the Mediterranean World has been the product of theoretical notions rather than being derived from historical reality. This argument is strengthened by the idea that those who have defended this notion often belong to specific countries with a vested interest in defending their national interests by attracting the support of other nations in the region to this thesis as a means of implementing a regional policy that ultimately promotes their national interests. In the name of the unity of the Mediterranean World, France, for example, can promote its interests more strongly in the Maghrib region thus eliminating other contenders like the United States. This policy also excludes some European nations like Germany. This question is therefore still open to debate.


Its Culture

There is no doubt that the cultures in the Mediterranean World have been among the most original and lasting cultures in the world. However, the fundamental question regarding this issue has been whether these cultures can be considered as forming part of one Mediterranean Culture, or whether they constitute a series of different, even antagonistic cultures?

The answer is not easy, because while these cultures have interacted over the centuries and while they have had a strong influence over each other, they have also clashed with each other. For example, while the Islam, Christianity and Judaism have developed in the Mediterranean World and belong to the same family, Muslims, Christians and Jews have often clashed. This can be explained by the difference between Islam and the Muslims or Christianity and the Christians or Judaism and the Jews. In other words, religion beliefs and dogma is one matter, and adherents to that religion quite another matter.

Cultural is a comprehensive term, so it is quite possible to find cultural similarities in the Mediterranean World at numerous cultural levels ranging from social traditions, music, language, urbanism and architecture, traditional arts and crafts or social and cultural behavior. Festivities, religious celebrations and language can be similar in many parts of the Mediterranean World, but differences can also be find in small limited areas. This is due to the great cultural diversity of the Mediterranean World, despite have a great cultural unity at a much broader level. In the final analysis, it is perhaps the individual historians who decides whether one perspective or the other should prevail in his approach to historical themes related to the Mediterranean World.  


Henri Pirenne and the Mediterranean World

Henri Pirenne is a Belgian historian whose work Mahomet et Charlemagne which was published in 1937 and summarises his thesis concerning the place of Islam and Christianity in the Mediterranean World during the medieval period. The new interest of his thesis today is due to the fact that he includes the Mediterranean World and Islam, both of which are themes of great interest in both the West and the Islamic World. His thesis has been criticised by many historians because it diverts from that of the total unity of the Mediterranean World.

Henri Pirenne’s thesis is based on the historical and cultural unity of the Christian Roman culture in the Mediterranean World. According to Pirenne, the history of the Mediterranean World can be divided into two historical phases:

The first phase represents the continuity of the Mediterranean civilisation following the Germanic invasions when the so called Barbarous people were romanised. The Germanic invaders were conquered by the Roman culture. This was followed by the spread of the Roman culture across the Mediterranean World giving it a socio-economic and cultural unity. The basic factor characterising the unity of the Roman Empire was the prosperity of cities and a commercial route across the Mediterranean Sea. This area was further safe from the attacks of the so called Barbaric people. The continuity of the Roman culture in the Mediterranean World was further success of the Byzantine Empire with Byzantium as its capital. This condition guaranteed the continuity of the Roman culture in the Mediterranean World.

The second phase of Pirenne’s theory considers that the cultural unity of the Mediterranean World was broken as a result of the Islamic Conquests of the Middle East and the Maghrib. According to Pirenne, the Islamisation of the Iberian Peninsula, Corsica, Sardinia and Southern Italy and of the Middle East, broke the previous cultural unity in the Mediterranean World when the Eastern part of the Roman Empire was separated from its Western part. The Western part of the Mediterranean World  was isolated as a consequence of these changes and the commercial relations between Europe, North Africa and the Middle East were interrupted when the Muslims dominated the Eastern Mediterranean area. As a consequence, political power moved Northwards and the French state is born. The Western economy would be based on communications by land rather than by sea.

Many Western historians have discussed Pirenne’s thesis. Most historians accept the fact that the rise of the Islamic Empire coincided with the decline of the Byzantine Empire in the Middle East. However, in the opinion of many, the decline of Byzantine influence in the Mediterranean World was due to other factors such as the pests which plagued this area. As for the prosperity of Southern Europe, historians think that this was also due to other factors such as the peace which reigned in this area and other religious factors.
The interest of Pirenne’s theory lies in the question of the relationship between the Islamic conquests and the Islamisation of the Middle East and the Maghrib on the one hand and the development of Medieval Europe on the other. Pirenne’s thesis is also of a particular interest today in the context of the debate on the clash of civilisations, especially since the relations of the West with Islam is concerned. For many historians, Pirenne’s positions are outdated, radical and unfounded, but they reflect strong similarities with many recent Western attitudes towards Islam as a religion, a culture and an important political power in the World today.


Fernand Braudel and the Mediterranean World


Fernand Braudel’s first book entitled La Méditerranée et le monde méditerranéen à l’époque de Philippe IIpublished in 1949 outlined his theory of the geographical, cultural and historical unity of the Mediterranean World.  Braudel is the most famous exponent of this theory basically because he applied a new methodological approach to the history of the Mediterranean World. The reasons for the success of his theory is due to the fact that he applied some of the most popular historical approaches of the twentieth century to the history of the Mediterranean World. Braudel developed the general lines of the School of Annals which was so popular in France during the twentieth century. Braudel’s history of the Mediterranean World is characterised by the following points:


Firstly, he approached the history of the Mediterranean World from a broad and global perspective covering many centuries. This wide temporal scope enables historians to trace the comprehensive historical framework in the context of which many states, civilisations and cultures developed. This approach is comparable to Arnold Toynbee’s theory of the rise and fall of civilisations in world history in the sense that culture is considered to be the basic unifying element of states, but differs because Braudel applies it to a specific geographical area, the Mediterranean. Braudel’s thesis gives the history of the Mediterranean region more importance, but not all historians have accepted this approach. For many historians, it is necessary to limit the period and the geographical framework of study more in order to enable the history to study his subject more profoundly. The history of specific Mediterranean regions like Al-Andalus occupy a little place in Braudel’s study precisely because his historical framework is so large, so that his approach to the history of Al-Andalus which lasted for eight centuries is general and superficial. It can be argued in his favour that his objective has never been to cover the history of Al-Andalus profoundly, but this argument does not deny the fact that the more the historical widens his scope of study, the less profoundly he can study specific areas within this wide scope. This does not discredit the global approach as an adequate comprehensive framework for our better understanding of the place of specific areas within their general context.


The historian who prefers to study specific areas more profoundly would argue that a more adequate approach would be to study the specific area during a limited period of time while linking it to its general framework while maintaining the more specific subject in the forefront.


Secondly, Fernand Braudel approached his history of the Mediterranean World very much in line with the French school of the Annals which criticises the approach which is limited to the history of events, stressing instead the social and human dimensions.  Braudel has relied on several human sciences such as geography and economy. His multi-disciplinary approach has given his approach a fresh methodological flavour. By linking the history of France to the history of the Mediterranean World, Braudel has been able to approach it from a new perspective. The great interest in the global approach to the history of the Mediterranean has attracted international interest in both the history of France and that of the Mediterranean area to which the former has always been closely linked.


Thirdly, Braudel’s work has attracted the general cultivated public as well as the specialists which has given his work a much wider audience. Rather than stressing the importance of individual historical figures who have marked their periods like Napoleon or Ghenjis Khan, Braudel stresses the relationship between groups of people and their environment, social structures which have contributed to change societies such as the great commercial or maritime routes. His approach also stresses the history of mentalities. Braudel’s history is one of the social sciences in which the historian plays the key role, because for him, without historiography and historians, there can be no history. Hence the importance of historical methodology. Braudel belongs to the French school of medievalists such as Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre. The Mediterranean World is foremost a geographical notion, and from there, Braudel studies the movement of men, products and ideas within this geographical scope.Hence the importance of the history of Mediterranean cities in his approach such as Milan or Florence, the development of capitalism, communications and money, changing frontiers, and changes in the structures of states. His objective has been the reconstruction of a new type of historiography, which has been acclaimed by some and rejected by others, leaving few indifferent.