Books : reviews

John Julius Norwich.
The Middle Sea: a history of the Mediterranean.
Chatto & Windus. 2006

The Mediterranean has nurtured three of the most dazzling civilizations of antiquity – Eqypt, Greece and Rome. It has witnessed the birth or growth of three of our greatest religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It links three of the world’s six continents – Europe, Asia and Africa. To the peoples living around its periphery, it has served at various times as a cradle and a grave, a bond and a barrier, a blessing and a battlefield. It has inspired writers from Homer and Virgil to Norman Douglas and Patrick Leigh Fermor. Geographically, it is unlike any other sea in the world; in historical importance also, it stands alone.

Few writers know the Mediterranean better than John Julius Norwich. He has visited every country around its shores; he has written histories of Norman Sicily, of Venice and of Byzantium. Now at last he tells the story of the Middle Sea itself – a story that begins with the Phoenicians and the Pharaohs and ends with the Treaty of Versailles after the First World War. He takes us through the Arab conquests of Syria and North Africa; the Holy Roman Empire and the Crusades; Ferdinand and Isabella and the Spanish Inquisition; the great sieges of Rhodes and Malta by the Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent; the pirates of the Barbary Coast and the Battle of Lepanto; Nelson and Napoleon; the Greek War of Independence and the Italian Risorgimento. The story ends with the tragic Gallipoli campaign and the war in the desert which brought fame to the enigmatic T.E. Lawrence.

Today we sometimes see the Mediterranean principally as a playground: waters once stained with blood are polluted with cruise ships and suntan oil. Is this progress? Who knows? But the Middle Sea must never be taken for granted; and no reader of this book will ever do so again.