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The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean Paperback – 6 Mar 2014

4.2 out of 5 stars 38 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Paperback: 816 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin; 01 edition (6 Mar. 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0141977167
  • ISBN-13: 978-0141977164
  • Product Dimensions: 13 x 3.8 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (38 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 44,535 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Product description

Review

The greatest living historian of the Mediterranean (Andrew Roberts)

A towering achievement. No review can really do justice to the scale of Abulafia's achievement: in its epic sweep, eye for detail and lucid style. (Dominic Sandbrook Sunday Times)

Brocaded with studious observation and finely-tuned scholarship, the overall effect is mesmerising. (Ian Thomson Independent)

A memorable study, its scholarship tinged with indulgent humour and an authorial eye for bizarre detail. (Jonathan Keates Sunday Telegraph)

The story is teeming with colourful characters, and Abulafia wears his scholarship lightly, even dashingly. (Simon Sebag Montefiore Financial Times)

From the Inside Flap

For over three thousand years, the Mediterranean Sea has been one of the great centres of world civilisation. From the time of historical Troy until the middle of the nineteenth century, human activity here decisively shaped much of the course of world history. David Abulafia's The Great Sea is the first complete history of the Mediterranean from the erection of the mysterious temples on Malta around 3500 BC to the recent reinvention of the Mediterranean's shores as a tourist destination.

Part of the argument of Abulafia's book is that the great port cities - Alexandria, Trieste and Salonika and many others - prospered in part because of their ability to allow many different peoples, religions and identities to co-exist within sometimes very confined spaces. He also brilliantly populates his history with identifiable individuals whose lives illustrate with great immediacy the wider developments he is describing.

The Great Sea ranges stupendously across time and the whole extraordinary space of the Mediterranean from Gibraltar to Jaffa, Venice to Alexandria. Rather than imposing a false unity on the sea and the teeming human activity it has sustained, the book emphasises diversity - ethnic, linguistic, religious and political. Anyone who reads it will leave it with their understanding of those societies and their histories enormously enriched.

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Customer Reviews

4.2 out of 5 stars
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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
This book, the cover tells me, `is the first complete history of the Mediterranean from the erection of the mysterious temples on Malta around 3500 BC to the recent invention of the Mediterranean's shores as a tourist destination'. I was immediately fascinated: how does a history of a sea read? People interact with the sea in a number of ways, but they don't live on it. What facts become important, which aspects of human civilisation will feature, and why?

David Abulafia is professor of Mediterranean history at Cambridge and in this book he sets out the presence of the people who have lived around the Mediterranean from around 22000 BC to 2010 AD. This is a history of the people who `dipped their toes in the sea, and, best of all, took journeys across it.' The book is divided into five chronological sections:

The First Mediterranean 22000 BC - 1000 BC
The Second Mediterranean 1000 BC - 600 AD
The Third Mediterranean 600 AD - 1350 AD
The Fourth Mediterranean 1350 AD - 1830 AD
The Fifth Mediterranean 1830 AD - 2010 AD

Each section of the book opens and closes a period of the sea's history during which trade, cultural exchanges and empires act as unifiers before the process stops or reverses. Some of those significant events include the collapse of the Roman Empire, the impact of the Black Death and more recently the building of the Suez Canal.

`The history of the Mediterranean has been presented in this book as a series of phases in which the sea was, to a greater or lesser extent, integrated into a single economic and even political area. With the coming of the Fifth Mediterranean the whole character of this process changed.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Poor, not good writing. gave up half way through (unusual for me)
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Format: Hardcover
Abulafi brings the Mediterranean to life in the best tradition of history writing. The subject is vast - and the book is accordingly long - but Abulafi's touch is both elegant and scholarly. All epochs, through nearly three millennia, receive detailed attention: there is no skipping through periods that the writer feels less interesting, since he is clearly fascinated by all.
As history I would put this in the same class as N.A.M. Rodger. Anyone who feels that history merits the very best writing would do well to buy this book, for it absorbs, informs and enchants.
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A friend asked me recently what might persuade me to award five stars (not unheard of, but quite unusual). Here you have it.
And it's got something for everyone. The publishers' description tells no lies, as The Great Sea does all it claims, and with admirable thoroughness. Its scope is best illustrated by the count of over 130 pages of references, and it has undoubtedly prompted me to read some of its sources. They include many other works of history, whether political, religious or natural, and the author also recommends a couple of cookbooks.
It's disappointing to note reviews signalling a partiality in this work. I discovered none, and I fear that those comments speak more of the sensitivities of the reviewers than of the preoccupations of the author. The truth is that any historian must chart a personal course, and make a convincing case for it. This one won my trust comprehensively.
I have some sympathy with the reviewer who found this such a big read that it had to be broken down into many short installments; fortunately, Abulafia has taken the care to make it just so accessible, and I too took my time over it; well over a year, just a little at a time. Abulafia's style of narative requires patience from the reader, more akin to Noel Malcolm's forensic accounting (see Bosnia: A Short History), than to David Stuttard's filmic reenactment (see Parthenon: Power and Politics on the Acropolis), both of which I admire greatly.
I'm tempted not to put it on the shelf, but to keep it at hand to be referred back to frequently.
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Format: Paperback
The amount of praise heaped on David Abulafia's substantial tomb "The Great Sea" by newspaper critics would burden an elephant but on Amazon something akin to fifty per cent of the reviewers have described the book as dry, eclectic and in need of sharp editing. The dissent has been expressed in both abandoning the book and a sigh of relief on completing each mercifully short chapter.

To cease reading is a pity for the book does contain a wealth of information and once the Common Era is reached both literary style and content liven up considerably. That said the author's own particular interest fields soon become apparent. He writes at length over the impact made by the discovery of yet another shard of pottery and the importance to history of the activities of a local adventurer (often Jewish) but seriously great events can be dismissed in less than a page.

To write a human history of the Mediterranean, condensed into one volume, is a daunting undertaking but the final impression is that the author found the task too demanding and shared the anxiety of certain readers to get to the finishing post.

Trottman
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