Mediterranean Metamorphosis

For the sake of the euro, the peoples of southern Europe have turned their backs on the sea that once gave them prosperity

How can a historical approach to the Mediterranean help us understand modern dilemmas? And by historical approach I mean not a study of the last 20 or 30 years but an analysis of trends within the Mediterranean reaching far back in time, into antiquity and the Middle Ages. After all, this is not the same Mediterranean as that of 2,000 years ago, in any number of ways: tree cover has disappeared from islands and coastal regions, rich agricultural terrain has experienced abandonment and even desertification, the choice of crops has shifted back and forth, including the arrival of a great many New World products such as maize and potatoes. 


Then, thinking of the human setting, we can observe waves of migration that have altered the ethnic, religious and social composition of the lands around the Mediterranean and the islands within it. It is roughly 90 years since the Treaty of Lausanne resulted in massive population exchanges between Greece and Turkey, including the departure of the Muslim (but Greek-speaking) population of Crete, who numbered about 30,000 people. Against this, we can point to sometimes surprising signs of stability. Between the emergence of Venice and the foundation of Tunis in the early Middle Ages, and the foundation of Tel Aviv a century ago, no major city was built on the shores of the Mediterranean, and even Tunis was a replacement for its Christian and pre-Christian neighbour nearby, the great city of Carthage. The urban map of the Mediterranean was in large measure created by the ancient Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans. 

It is important to understand the history of the Mediterranean as a series of phases of integration and disintegration, sometimes sharply divided by severe economic contraction and by political disjuncture. Viewed from this perspective, the Mediterranean is at the moment disjointed, fragmented, fractured. This is actually a deviation from its character over most of the past centuries, indeed millennia. The challenge is to bring the facing shores together again so that they interact creatively in the political, economic and cultural arenas and so that an integrated Mediterranean can once again come into being. 

Taken as a whole, the Mediterranean has had great economic potential throughout its history. During periods of integration, the sum of the parts is and always has been impressive: the historical example of the massive and regular grain traffic supplying ancient Rome with grain from Tunisia and Egypt comes to mind, although no one before or after the Romans has managed to achieve political control over the entire sea, which was truly mare nostrum, “our sea”. Under Roman rule, piracy was suppressed and there was easy movement between the shores of the Mediterranean, making Rome itself into a composite community of people of the most varied origins. The process of political integration resulted in the breaking down of ethnic, religious and social barriers, especially in major cities such as Alexandria, Rome and Carthage. But its individual corners have always lacked some vital commodity. This has had the straightforward but beneficial effect of stimulating trade across the sea from prehistoric times onwards. Merchants from ancient Phoenicia, Greece and Etruria, from medieval Genoa, Venice and Barcelona, from early modern Izmir, Dubrovnik and Livorno, are the heroes of Mediterranean history, men (for they were almost always men and not women) who made their profits from satisfying and stimulating demand for foodstuffs, raw materials and luxury goods all around the Mediterranean.

The human presence on the shores and in the islands of the Mediterranean has altered the environment; just as wastes have been created, new land has been brought under cultivation (a recent example is the Pontine Marshes in Italy). Environmental degradation already occurred in antiquity, and ecological historians have debated how far the Mediterranean was capable of adjusting to the impact of humans by a process of what might be called self-correction. Gains in one area may have compensated for losses in another: the granaries of Tunisia declined precipitately in the Middle Ages, but other sources of supply (such as Morocco) came into their own. In the modern Mediterranean, advanced technology makes it possible to dream of sophisticated agriculture using sea water or dry soils to produce basic crops — one thinks here of the achievements of agronomists in Israel. And yet the simple fundamental point stands: the Mediterranean has always been, and will have to remain, a zone in which shortages of some essential goods are compensated by exchange with regions better endowed with those goods.

The challenge now is to make that system work once again, for it has largely broken down. The countries on the northern shores of the Mediterranean look to Brussels (or maybe Berlin and Frankfurt) for a solution to their economic problems. They have turned their backs on the Mediterranean, and on their true vocation which lies there as much as, or more than, in Europe. Economic interdependence can, in the right conditions, have the capacity to reduce tensions — and, in the wrong conditions, to inflame them: an argument has been developing around the energy supplies to be found beneath the seabed off the Cypriot coast, the focus of competition between Turkey, Cyprus, Syria, Lebanon and Israel. 

There is another feature of the Mediterranean in past times that has to be emphasised, since it is less obvious in the 21st century.  The desire to obtain goods encouraged merchants to cross political and religious boundaries, particularly those between Christendom and Islam, but also boundaries within those religious spheres: between Sunni and Shia, between Catholic and Greek Orthodox. The Mediterranean has been a principal meeting-point for the three Abrahamic religions and interaction has been regular and even at times intense, even in the age of the Crusades. Religious cross-currents have included the spread of the Jewish diaspora into the Hellenistic and Roman worlds (notably Alexandria); the underground Christian movement and its transforming role in the later Roman Empire; the arrival of Islam and the conversion of the peoples of north Africa and parts of southern Europe to a dynamic new faith, while all the time the three religions (and, at earlier points, paganism) taught one another elements of theology, moral codes, even snatches of liturgical music. Singly and en masse, pilgrims moved back and forth across the surface of the Mediterranean. Aboard a medieval ship you might find Christian pilgrims bound for Jerusalem and Muslim ones bound for Mecca, who, despite mutual suspicion, knew that they were engaged in the same sort of spiritual enterprise.    

All this points to the importance of the theme of migration within and into the Mediterranean region: colonists from Greek and Phoenician cities heading westwards to Sicily (ninth century BC onwards); Germanic peoples settling in Spain, Italy and North Africa (third century AD onwards); Arabs from Yemen and Arabia, Berbers from the Maghrib, Copts from Egypt, settling in Muslim Spain (eighth century AD onwards); Crusaders, Venetians, Catalans . . . Yet in the 19th century and particularly the 20th we begin to see the reverse process on a massive scale, as Mediterranean peoples sought livelihoods in the New World or in northern Europe (with interesting cultural results such as the spread of pizza). One cannot, of course, ignore the effects of colonisation and then decolonisation, as large numbers of European settlers took up residence in 19th-century Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and so on, only to depart in the second half of the 20th century, along with indigenous inhabitants, many of whom then settled on the northern shores of the Mediterranean, in and around Marseilles and Nice. 

More recently, the Mediterranean has become the theatre in which many migrants from sub-Saharan Africa have tried, often at the risk of their lives, to enter the wealthy lands of the European Union, and this wave of migration has been compounded by migration out of North Africa, particularly Libya, during the current upheavals, as well as migration into the Aegean and beyond from the hinterland of western Asia. Although the main target of these migrants is often European lands north of the Mediterranean, the settlement of a great many of them in Italy, Spain and other Mediterranean states has had a powerful impact on social relations within those countries. 

And then of course there is another type of migration, temporary but transformative: people from northern Europe and elsewhere converging on the Mediterranean in search of summer sun, a mass phenomenon of the late 20th century that has transformed the local industries, the labour market, the physical appearance, even the social and cultural norms, of towns and villages along virtually the entire Mediterranean coastline of Spain, France and Italy, and increasingly in Turkey, Tunisia and other Mediterranean lands. 

What we see is a heavy interdependence between the tourist industry and the economies of northern Europe, injecting a further element of fragility into the economy of most Mediterranean countries, particularly at times of political upheaval, when popular destinations are suddenly rendered inaccessible, as happened to the coast of Yugoslavia during the break-up of that country.   

The conflict in former Yugoslavia reminds us that the Mediterranean world has seen both the reasonably peaceful coexistence of peoples and religions, and the violent collapse of that coexistence.  Port cities in particular acted as hosts to mixed populations of Christians, Jews and Muslims, of all sorts of origins.  

The extreme case of a cosmopolitan eastern Mediterranean city is Alexandria, ever since its foundation by Alexander the Great in the fourth century BC. Early in the 20th century, Europeans accounted for only 15 per cent of the population, even if it was they who exercised most of the economic power; in 1927 there were about 49,000 Greeks in the city and 24,000 Italians. Overlapping with various nationalities there were 25,000 Jews. The majority of influential Muslim families, including the royal family, hailed from Turkey, Albania, Syria or Lebanon. They, as much as the settlers of European descent, wished to identify strongly with European, particularly French, culture.  

In an age of rising nationalism, expulsion, flight from danger, foced assimilation, even mass extermination (in the case of the Sephardic Jews of Salonika) transformed one city after another in the old Ottoman realms, and the port cities of the eastern Mediterranean largely ceased to be places of coexistence. The disappearance of these rather special societies has been followed by the creation of new types of mixed society in the European Mediterranean, as Marseilles and other cities have attempted, not always successfully, to absorb not just the colonisers who had returned from North Africa and the Levant, but immigrants drawn from the indigenous population of the old colonies. One would like to think that this will create a new model for social harmony but the auguries, especially in southern France, are not good.

In the era of colonialism, starting with the French conquest of Algeria in 1830, a new rapport was created across the Mediterranean, a hegemonic one that insisted on the more “civilised” character of the northerners as opposed to the inhabitants of its southern shores. Paradoxically, this also resulted in very close economic, political and cultural ties between north and south, even if the main beneficiaries were not in general the peoples of North Africa and the Levant, significant numbers of whom did, however, learn to speak French. The emancipation of the colonised from the colonisers in the second half of the 20th century has had several important effects, most notably the fracturing of the Mediterranean into northern and southern zones that to a large extent operate apart from one another.  

To say this is not to defend the actions of the colonisers which were, notably in Algeria, often brutal and counter-productive.  However, decolonisation coincided with the attempts of the Soviet Union to establish a foothold within the Mediterranean, and newly independent countries such as Egypt were lured into economic disaster as clients of Moscow. Relations between Algeria and Libya and the European states have been especially difficult, and under Gaddaffi Libya in particular tried to eradicate traces of its colonial past, even banning public signs that were not written in Arabic.  Places once celebrated for the meeting of cultures, religions and peoples became monochrome cities inhabited solely by the majority population of the interior.     

The Jews, in particular, disappeared from all those lands in the Mediterranean where they had formed an integral part of a larger society, migrating to one embattled corner (Israel), or sometimes to southern France, bringing to an end a 2,000-year history of diaspora around the shores of the Mediterranean. Seen from this perspective, the creation of Israel was another episode in the fragmentation of the Mediterranean, as different ethnic and religious groups carved out their own territories, and peoples were shunted around, beginning with Greeks, Turks and Armenians in the population exchanges of the 1920s. In Israel, the ascendancy of a political class mainly drawn from central and eastern Europe accentuated the sense that the country’s destiny must lie in becoming more European and less “Levantine”. Without disparaging Israel’s achievements one can, and should, feel strong twinges of regret at the ending of the Jewish role in the life of a dozen great Mediterranean cities.  

Meanwhile the lands on the northern flank of the Mediterranean saw their destiny as a European one, turning their backs on the sea to participate in a European Union whose strongest economies lie away from the Mediterranean. Weaknesses in the economy of every single EU territory within the Mediterranean (with the minute exception of Gibraltar, which still experiences roughly 5 per cent growth) have only increased the sense of a fractured Mediterranean; if there is a tiger economy in the Mediterranean it is clearly Turkey, a state that is still trying to decide on its role in the wider region. Its impressive rates of economic growth provide a stark and startling contrast to the situation in Greece, and (a recent article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung pointed out) a better performance than Romania or Bulgaria, as well as a comparable performance to the Baltic States. Even so, it is important to emphasise that trade not with the Mediterranean but with Germany is an important ingredient of Turkish economic success. The other successful economy in the Mediterranean is Israel, which has a particularly impressive record for the creation of start-up hi-tech companies. However, its integration into the wider economic networks of the eastern Mediterranean is seriously hampered by its political isolation, and has been accentuated by the severe decline in its relations with Turkey.  

The big question is how the relationship between the northern and southern shores of the Mediterranean can be reconstituted. It is interesting to observe how much investment, not just from France but from China and Arab countries, was being pumped into Tunisia on the eve of the Arab Spring, making it quite probably the strongest economy in the African continent; but such successes may now seem precarious. By building a massive new port at Tanger-Med, the government of Morocco is seeking to draw benefit from traffic through the Straits of Gibraltar and openly to challenge Algeciras across the water. Morocco actually asked to join the EU in 1987, and, despite the expected rejection, a number of agreements tie the EU to Morocco. But increasing wealth among the Moroccan middle classes still has to be matched by a massive improvement in the condition of the urban and rural majority. Probably, though, the country to watch is Libya, where the elections have apparently shown that there is strong support for a liberal, non-Islamist government, and where prodigious energy resources promise to bring the country the sort of prosperity enjoyed by the Gulf states.

Attempts have been made to bind together the countries of the Mediterranean in a diffuse league of states that would be able to address common problems, irrespective of political differences. The first major initiative was the so-called Barcelona process of 1995, in which both the Mediterranean countries and the members of the EU were involved; but plans for the creation of a free trade area in the Mediterranean by 2010 have remained simply plans. 

The idea of a “Mediterranean Union” is more of an ideal than a practical possibility, even though there are urgent questions that need to be addressed together by all Mediterranean nations, notably the issue of migration and the promotion of trade between the EU and non-EU countries within the Mediterranean, not to mention the sharp political confrontations that exist in Israel and the Palestinian territories. Particularly important is the protection of the maritime environment, which has experienced massive and catastrophic change as a result of over-fishing (treating the sea as an unlimited food source), and the dumping of effluents (treating the sea as a vast rubbish tip). One of the world’s seas that is worst affected is the Mediterranean, as a mainly closed space, though the situation in another almost enclosed sea, the Baltic, is even worse, to the extent that much of the Baltic can be described as dead water.  Lack of oxygen in the water is only one consequence of the human presence.  The vast quantities of plastic, often in the form of minute globules, that choke the sea and the animals that live within it are a further major problem, and once again the Mediterranean is a particular area of concern.  

The adverse effects of pollution and of rising temperatures are compounded by over-fishing: fish caught for human consumption have become smaller and fewer, and modern methods of trawling and dredging have wreaked calamity not just for the fish that reach our tables but for other inhabitants of the sea varying in size from crustaceans to dolphins and whales. It goes without saying that the ecological problem is one that can only be solved by intensive collaboration on a scale that is totally lacking just now. We can debate whether the idea behind the Mediterranean Union was as much to keep Turkey out of the EU as to promote co-operation across the Mediterranean. What we can say is that the degree of commercial, cultural and even political integration achieved by the ancient Romans has never been repeated, and the Mediterranean of the 21st century is fragmented and fragile.

The results of the latest Greek election raise once again the spectre of Greece’s exclusion from the euro, and some predict that France under the Hollande regime will be added to the list of seriously ailing EU states. Resolving the relationship with the non-EU countries around the Mediterranean will become an even less significant priority for the members of the Union. Prospects for the creation of tight bonds linking all the Mediterranean countries in common enterprises fade. The 21st-century Mediterranean remains, therefore, broken and in need of repair.    

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