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Seeing the Sea
The best witness to the Mediterranean's age-old past is the sea itself. This has to be said and said again; and the sea has to be seen and seen again. Simply looking at the Mediterranean cannot of course explain everything about a complicated past created by human agents, with varying doses of calculation, caprice and misadventure. But this is a sea that patiently recreates for us scenes from the past, breathing new life into them, locating them under a sky and in a landscape that we can see with our own eyes, a landscape and sky like those of long ago. A moment's concentration or daydreaming, and that past comes back to life.
An ancient scar on the terrestrial globe
But if that is true, if the Mediterranean seems so alive, so eternally young in our eyes, "always ready and willing," what point is there in recalling this sea's great age? What does it matter, the traveller may think, what can it possibly matter, that the Mediterranean, an insignificant breach in the earth's crust, narrow enough to be crossed at contemptuous speed in an aeroplane (an hour from Marseille to Algiers, fifteen minutes from Palermo to Tunis, and the rest to match) is an ancient feature of the geology of the globe? Should we care that the Inland Sea is immeasurably older than the oldest of the human histories it has cradled? Yes, we should: the sea can be only be fully understood if we view it in the long perspective of its geological history. To this it owes its shape, its architecture, the basic realities of its life, whether we are thinking of yesterday, today or tomorrow. So let us look at the record.
In the Paleozoic era, millions and millions of years ago, removed from us by a chronological distance that defies the imagination, a broad band of sea known to geologists as Tethys ran from the West Indies to the Pacific. Following the lines of latitude, it bisected what would much later become the landmass of the Ancient World. The present-day Mediterranean is the residual mass of water from Tethys, and it dates back almost to the earliest days of the planet.
The many violent foldings of the Tertiary era took place at the expense of this very ancient Mediterranean, much larger than the present one. All the mountains, from the Baetic Cordillera to the Rif, the Atlas, the Alps and the Apennines, the Balkans, the Taurus and the Caucasus, were heaved up out of the ancient sea. They reduced its area, raising from the great sea bed not only sedimentary rocks-sands, clays, sandstones, thick layers of limestone-but also deeply buried primitive rocks. The mountains surrounding, strangling, barricading and compartmentalizing the long Mediterranean coastline are the flesh and bones of the ancestral Tethys. Everywhere the sea water has left traces of its slow labour. The sedimentary limestones outside Cairo, "so fine-grained and of such milky whiteness that they allow the sculptor's chisel to give the sensation of volume by working to a depth of only a few millimetres"; the great slabs of coraline limestone from which the megalithic temples in Malta were built; the stone of Segovia which is easier to work when wet; the limestone of the Latomies (the huge quarries of Syracuse); the Istrian stones of Venice and many other rock formations in Greece, Italy and Sicily-all these came from the sea bed.
Volcanoes and earthquakes
At the end of this process, since the series of Mediterranean trenches was never filled in, the sea was left as a deep basin, its hollows as if scooped out by some desperate hand, its depths in places equal or superior to the heights of the tallest Mediterranean mountains. Near Cape Matapan runs a sea-trench 4600 metres deep, easily enough to drown the tallest peak in Greece: Mount Olympus, 2985 metres high. Whether under the water or on land, the relief of the whole area is unstable. Networks of long fault lines are visible everywhere, some reaching as far as the Red Sea. The narrow passage of the Pillars of Hercules between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic Ocean is the result of at least a twofold fault.
All this suggests a tortured geology, a process of orogenesis not yet stable even today. It accounts for the frequent and often catastrophic earthquakes, for the hot springs which the Etruscans had already discovered in Tuscany, and for the broad volcanic zones, with their strings of volcanoes, extinct, active or potentially active. Mount Etna was the fabled home of the Cyclops, blacksmiths and makers of thunderbolts, wielding their mighty bullhide bellows; here, much later, the philosopher Empedocles is supposed to have cast himself into the crater, from which a lone sandal was recovered. "How often we have seen boiling Etna spill forth balls of fire and molten rock!" remarked Virgil. Vesuvius really did destroy Pompeii and Herculaneum in ad 79. And in the years before 1943 its plume of smoke could be seen hanging over Naples. Every night, in the Lipari archipelago, between Sicily and Italy, Stromboli still lights up the sea with its incandescent lava displays. Earthquakes and eruptions have continually punctuated the past and still threaten the present in Mediterranean countries. One of the most ancient of mural paintings (and I mean mural, not cave painting) in a temple in Anatolia dating from 6200 b.c., represents a volcanic eruption, probably of the nearby Hasan Dag.
We shall have occasion to return to the "Plutonian" convulsions of the earth's crust apropos of Minoan Crete, notably the cataclysmic explosion of the nearby island of Thera (known today as Santorini) in about 1470-1450 b.c. Half the island was hurled into the air, creating a massive tidal wave and an apocalyptic rain of ash. Today the strange island of Santorini is a semi-crater, partially submerged under the sea. According to the archaeologist, Claude Schaeffer, earthquakes and seismic shocks also contributed to the swift and unexpected destruction of all the Hittite cities in Asia Minor in the early twelfth century b.c. In this instance, nature rather than human intervention may have been responsible for a cataclysm that still puzzles historians.
The ever-present mountains
Mountains are all around in the Mediterranean. They come right down to the sea, taking up more than their share of space, piling up one behind another, forming the inescapable frame and backdrop of every landscape. They hinder transport, turn coast roads into corniches and leave little room for serene landscapes of cities, cornfields, vineyards or olive-groves, since altitude always gets the better of human activity. The people of the Mediterranean have been confined not only by the sea-a potential means of escape, but for countless ages so dangerous that it was used little if at all-but also by the mountains. Up in the high country, with few exceptions, only the most primitive ways of life could take hold and somehow survive. The Mediterranean plains, for lack of space, are mostly confined to a few coastal strips, a few pockets of arable land. Above them run steep and stony paths, hard on the feet of men and the hooves of beasts alike.
Worse still, the plains, especially those of any size, were often invaded by floodwaters and had to be reclaimed from inhospitable marshland. The fortunes of the Etruscans depended in part on their skill at draining the semi-flooded flatlands. The larger the plain, of course, the harder and more backbreaking the task of drainage, and the later the date at which it was undertaken. The great stretches of the Po valley, watered by the wild rivers of the Alps and Apennines, were a no man's land for almost the entire prehistoric period. Humans hardly settled there at all until the pile-based dwellings of the terramare, in about 1500 b.c.
On the whole, human settlement took more readily to the hillsides, as being more immediately habitable than the plains. Lowland sites, which called for land improvement, could be occupied only by hierarchical societies, those able to create a habitable environment by collective effort. These were the opposite of the high-perched hill settlements, poor but free, with which they had contacts born of necessity, but always tinged with apprehension. The lowlanders felt and wished themselves to be superior: they had plenty to eat and their diet was varied; but their wealth, their cities, their open roads and their fertile crops were a constant temptation to attackers. Telemachus had nothing but contempt for the acorn-eating mountain-dwellers of the Peloponnese. It was logical that Campania and Apulia should dread the peasants of the Abruzzi, shepherds who at the first sign of winter swarmed down with their flocks to the milder climate of the plains. Given the choice, the Campanians would rather face the Roman barbarians than the barbarians from the local mountains. The service Rome rendered southern Italy in the third century b.c. was to bring the wild and threatening massif of the Abruzzi to heel.
Dramatic descents from the mountains took place in every period and in every region of the sea. Mountain people-eaters of acorns and chestnuts, hunters of wild beasts, traders in furs, hides or young livestock, always ready to strike camp and move on-formed a perpetual contrast to lowlanders who remained bound to the soil, some as masters, some as slaves, but all part of a society based on working the land, a society with armies, cities, and seagoing ships. Traces of this dialogue remain even today, between the ice and snow of the austere mountain tops and the lowlands where civilizations and orange-trees have always blossomed.
Life was simply not the same in the hills as in the plains. The plains aimed for progress, the hills for survival. Even the crops, growing at levels only a short walk apart, did not observe the same calendar. Wheat, sown as high up the mountainside as possible, took two months longer to ripen there than at sea level. Climatic disasters meant different things to crops at different altitudes. Late rains in April or May were a blessing in the mountains but a disaster lower down, where the wheat was almost ripe and might rust or rot on the stalk. This was as true of Minoan Crete as of Syria in the seventeenth century a.d. or Algeria in our own time.
The Sahara and the Atlantic
The one exception, where the mountains do not come right down to the sea, is the very long and unusually flat seaboard starting at the edge of the Sahara and running hundreds of kilometres, from the Tunisian sahel or coastal hills and the round island of Jerba (home of the Lotus-Eaters) to the Nile delta, which empties its fresh, muddy waters far out into the sea. The flat coastline runs even further round, as far as the mountains of Lebanon, which lent the cities of the Phoenicians, on their crowded islands and terraces overlooking the sea, their thoroughly Mediterranean character. Viewed from the air, when landscapes appear in brutal simplicity, the sea and the Sahara come into stark contrast: two great immensities, one blue, the other white shading away into yellow, ochre and orange.
In fact, the desert has had a powerful impact on the physical and human life of the sea. In human terms, every summer saw the desert nomads, a devastating multitude of men, women, children and animals, descend on the coast, pitching camp with their black tents woven from goat or camel hair. As neighbours, they could be troublesome, at times marauding. Like the mountain people, high above the fragile strips of civilization, the nomads were another perpetual menace. Every successful civilization on the Mediterranean coast was obliged to define its stance towards the mountain-dweller and the nomad, whether exploiting them, fighting them off, reaching some compromise with one or other, sometimes even keeping both of them at bay.
In spite of its great size, the desert never completely contained the peoples who inhabited it, but usually propelled them at regular intervals towards the coast, or on to the sahels. Only small numbers of people took the caravan routes which criss-crossed the deserts like so many slow sea-passages across the stony and sandy wastes of Africa and Asia-oceans incomparably greater than the Mediterranean. But in the long run, these caravan routes created a fantastic network of connections reaching out to sub-Saharan Africa and the primitive gold-panning of the Senegal and Niger rivers, or the great civilizations bordering the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean, the sites of the earliest experiments in ceramics, metal-working, jewellery, perfumes, miraculous medicines, spices and strange foods.
Physically, too, the desert has always invaded the Mediterranean. Every summer, the hot dry air above the Sahara envelops the entire sea basin, extending far beyond its northern shores. This is what creates those dazzling skies of startling clarity to be seen over the Mediterranean, and a starry night sky found nowhere else in such perfection. The dominant north-easterlies, from April to September, the Aetesian winds as the Greeks called them, bring no relief, no real moisture to the Saharan furnace. There, the summer sky is clouded only for a few short days when the khamson blows, or the sirocco, the wind Horace called the plumbeus Auster, heavy as lead. These southerly winds carrying grains of sand sometimes dropped from the sky that "rain of blood" which made sages wonder and simple mortals tremble.
Six months of drought, without a drop of rain, is a long time to wait, whether for plants, animals or humans. The forests, the indigenous vegetation of the Mediterranean mountains, could only survive if the inhabitants left them alone and did not build too many roads through them, burn too many clearings for crops, send flocks to graze in them, or fell too many trees for fuel or shipbuilding. Ravaged forests declined fast: maquis and scrub, with their rocky outcrops and fragrant plants and bushes, are the decadent forms of these mighty forests, which were always admired in the ancient Mediterranean as a rare treasure. Carthage, disadvantaged by its African site, sent to Sardinia for timber to build ships. Mesopotamia and Egypt were even worse placed.
The desert retreats only when the ocean advances. From October onwards, rarely earlier and often later, Atlantic depressions, heavy with moisture, begin to roll in from the west. As soon as a depression crosses the Straits of Gibraltar, or makes its way from the Bay of Biscay to the Gulf of Lions, it heads east, attracting from every compass point winds that propel it further eastwards. The sea grows dark, its waters take on the slate-grey tones of the Baltic, or are whipped up by gales into a mass of spray. And the storms begin. Rain starts to fall, sometimes snow: streams which have been dry for months become torrents, cities disappear behind a curtain of driving rain and low cloud, giving the dramatic skyline of El Greco's paintings of Toledo. This is the season marked by the imbribus atris of the ancients, "dark rains" cutting off the light of the sun. Floods are frequent and sudden, rushing down through the plains of Roussillon, or the Mitidja of Algeria, striking Tuscany or Spain, or the countryside round Salonika. Sometimes this torrential rainfall invades the desert, swamping the streets of Mecca, and turning the tracks through the northern Sahara into torrents of mud and water. At Sefra, south of Oran, Isabelle Eberhardt, a Russian exile fascinated by the desert, was killed in 1904 when a flash flood swept down the wadi...
From the Hardcover edition.