The Great Sea: A book

20 07 2013

David Abulafia

The Great Sea. A Human History of the Mediterranean

I travelled these days across several sites in the Mediterranean while reading the great book of Abulafia, just by chance. The book is an illuminating work that takes you through the ages, since ancient times, on the theme of how the peoples of the Meditarrean were so connected. This is a sea that joined the jews, the muslims and the christians, and of course plenty of pagans. So many wars, invasions, migrations, here you learn that main reason of all of it was trade, of grain, metal, spices, clothes, slaves, combined with religious fervour. Since the times of the Phoenicians people could sail the sea form one end to the other. There were some strategic points along the ages: Alexandria that centered international trade, Sicilia that provided grain to main civilizations and also determined the control of the connection between west and east. Genova, Pisa, Venetia, established great naval imperia at the end of the middle age. There was the Christian crusades, the will to dominate the ways across the sea to move goods, the advances of Islam. There was Acre, Rhodes, were people of all kinds met and established colonies. Abulafia describes in detail enchanting records of specific travels, the jew Benjamin of Tudela that went to Constantinople, Siria, Jerusalem and Egipt in 1160, the valencian-born ibn Jubayr, a secretary of the muslim governor of Granada, in peregrination to Mecca in 1183, leaving from Denia, my hometown. Abulafia combines the description of the great game of cities and civilizations with the moving details of what would be the regular diet and sleeping garments when such people was embarked, and the thousands of tribulations they could suffer to cross the sea. The book paints a massive landscape of facts and motivation. It is a deeply thought work, you can feel how the point is made through the language and the pages, you lose sight of the author and enjoy the thinking. It is the type of thing I appreciate in a time when surrounded everywhere by tweets and whatsapps. Further, the books allows you to see differently places, that you may have visited, why a fort was there, what was such people doing so far away from home…

In my travel I stumbled into Aigues Mortes, a city with massive walls in the middle of the marshes of Camargue in the French coast. There is not much around, the people is still living inside the walls, which is very rare, since in majority of Mediterranean towns the walls were removed in the Renaissance to allow cities to grow. In all the Valencian region only one walled town remains, Mascarell, which name happens to be my second surname. From the book you learn that Aigues Mortes was built as a way to the sea by the Francs in XII century. At this time the whole Languedoc up to Montpellier was still controlled by Catalans. In fact Jaume I, the king that established the empire comprising Catalonia, Valencia and Mallorca (and that names my university), was born there, and the exact place is known, which I happen to know because my friend François Henn, now a vicepresident of the University of Montpellier, lives not far from the spot and he showed me. Abulafia explains that Aigues Mortes did not change much since the middle age. The main local trades now are tourists, and bull games in which the torero has to pick a piece of rope that the bull bears in the horns.

The dynasty of Jaume created a strong empire in the fourteen and fifteenths centuries that competed with the Italians. Catalans and valencians at that time where very able sailors and tradesmen, and also warriors, if it was needed. I was introduced to the sea by my father, who was a very competent fisherman. I remember entering the sea in the early seventies with the first light of the morning, a calmed, totally plane sea, to take the net that could come up charged with lobsters and all kinds of beautiful and tasty fish (pagells, escorpes, mabres, i moltes sèpies). Such fishing is now forbidden, and the fish is nevertheless nearly extinguished due to pull fishing by the big ships close to the shore. The sailors of Denia had an exhuberant culture for finding their ways and reaching their ends, which was fish. Somewhere I keep a detailed map bequeathed by my father of a large rock some five miles away from the shore, La Granadella, that was traced in all details, with all parts named, though nobody had seen it. But the sailors would not go very far away. Abulafia explains that in some times the trade took long routes and in others it became more local. This happened to the sea imperium of Aragon kings.

These days I had the pleasure to enjoy again a calmed sea, just for swimming, not sailing, in the bay of Ampuries. This is an ancient Greek city north of Barcelona founded by Phoceans, coming from no less than the shore of modern Turkey. According to legend Denia was also founded by the same Phocenas, and it was named Hemeroscopion, the problem is nobody found a single piece of real evidence. In contrast to this, Empuries greekness is very real, and the ruins of the ancient city still stand. You wonder how such people could come so far away in the Sixth century bc, then Abulafia’s book helps you a lot to show the context, they came to make a market, which is indeed the meaning of the name Emporion. But how did they manage to be accepted by the people living already there? In the fine museum you learn a moving story. The greek city was divided in two sides by a middle wall. In one side where the phoceans, in the other were the primitive local peoples that preferred to be with the other ones for security rather than be alone or fight them. Maybe they were welcome because they brought wealth and beautiful things. After some centuries came the romans, which choose this point to stop the threat of Carthague peoples, that were progressively coming northwards. Publius Cornelius Scipio started here the conquest of Hispania. However since the greeks helped them to establish themselves in this this place they did not occupy the ancient city but made a new one a little upwards in the hill. The ruins are a telling mosaic of the peoples that thrived in this place along the ages.

Since the zone is a natural park it is not overbuilt as much of the rest of the coast and makes a beautiful stay, although I noted another colonization, this time by Dutch people, that filled the camping by the thousands. However they do not visit the beach in early morning, so we could enjoy the view of the pristine bay and see another Mediterranean calm baked by beautiful sand dunes, just as when I was kid.

I chose not to remain in my hometown and I became a frequent travel to distant places, for the sake of my trade, which is science. People sometimes ask me why I travel so much, and I can’t explain, I just have to. Abulafia’s book has been very helpful to explain this, I travel as people traveled always, to move things or ideas that are plenty at one place and scarce at others. Maybe I could have ideas and contributions sitting at the office, but I find more productive to discuss taking good Tuscany wine with Filippo in Peruggia, or sitting in the ground with Korean scientists. I enjoy the long distance trading but I also enjoy my own place, like everybody else.

City walls at Aigues Mortes

City walls at Aigues Mortes

Still Mediterranean at Empuries

Still Mediterranean at Empuries

In memory of my father, Juan Bisquert, 1938-2013.

Juan Bisquert and sons

Juan Bisquert and sons


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