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Local and regional sea routes of the Mediterranean were the lifeblood of its islands and coastal settlements from at least the third millennium BCE through to the beginning of the twentieth century CE. Long-distance trade across the length and breadth of its basin has effected considerable and ongoing cross-cultural interaction.
The Mediterranean Sea is a deep geological depression that physically divides three continents, yet since the invention of seacraft it has actually served to foster and sustain a whole range of transcontinental economic and cultural exchanges. Indeed, the Mediterranean and its hinterlands are deemed by historians to form a historical unit. Trade in particular has given the entire region a coherence that allows us to speak of a Mediterranean “world.”
The role of trade has been fundamental. The Mediterranean world was dominated by port cities (e.g., Barcelona, Alexandria, Tyre) or cities with ancillary ports (e.g., Florence-Livorno). Fifth-century BCE Athens and imperial Rome were especially reliant on cereals imported from the Black Sea and North Africa, respectively, and when regular grain sources were threatened, the Mediterranean always provided swift access to alternative sources.
The Mediterranean has offered a relatively favorable environment for mariners. Compared to the Atlantic Ocean, for example, the Mediterranean enjoys a much milder climate year round, with lighter winds and less turbulent swells. Prior to the advent of mechanized shipping, seaborne traffic was conducted normally from March through to October, when conditions were milder, and when clear skies and stars facilitated navigation. Winds and currents determined the general pattern of long-distance trade routes throughout the Mediterranean, in which the main current runs counterclockwise around the entire sea basin. The Atlantic, which replenishes 71 percent of annual water loss in the Mediterranean, propels the main current through the Strait of Gibraltar, which moves along the North African coast to the Nile Delta, from where it is forced northwards along the Syria–Palestine littoral. The current continues along the southern European coastline (including the Adriatic) back to Gibraltar. The prevailing winds through the sailing seasons come from between northwest and northeast, which means that sailing ships had to negotiate winds and currents that often ran in opposite directions. Traffic along the northern Mediterranean overcame potential difficulties by sailing between the string of islands from Cyprus in the east to the Balearic Islands in the west. Long-distance trade until the end of the Middle Ages more or less conformed to trunk routes that negotiated the sensitivities of the main currents and winds.
Long-haul traffic appeared to favor the northern littoral. The North African coastline lacks natural harbors and is made treacherous by reefs and sandbanks, but it was utilized heavily by some of the world’s most formidable seaborne powers, (e.g., Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Arabs, Algerian corsairs). In contrast, the northern shoreline is blessed with deep waters and with ample options for safe anchorage. Ships of all sizes could find a dense infrastructure of dockyards, deepwater anchorage, and other port facilities from Gibraltar through to the Levant (the lands along the Mediterranean’s eastern shore).
Prehistory and Antiquity
Historians tend to focus on long-distance commercial ventures when dealing with trading patterns, but it was the more localized activities that set the rhythms of Mediterranean economic life. The stir and bustle of even the largest ports, such as early modern Istanbul and Naples, were mainly attributable to the daily comings and goings of localized traffic. Such small-scale trade was mainly characterized by cabotage, the free movement and peddling of small cargo, often along ill-defined and changing routes. Always a cheaper and more efficient option to land transport, cabotage was always responsible for the bulk of total cargo transfers. The vigor and unity of the Mediterranean world probably owed more to the sum effect of such unquantifiable and unpredictable local trade patterns than to large-scale traffic.
Regional-level trade can be traced back to the Neolithic era (perhaps as early as 7000 BCE, from when we can date the first signs of seafaring). Archaeologists have also uncovered remnants of trading harbors that point to the existence of sea-lanes connecting mainland Greece and Crete with Anatolia (modern Turkey). Seaborne exchanges between Egypt and Mesopotamia, via port cities on the Levantine coast, date back to the fourth millennium BCE. Metals and luxury items appeared to be the most valuable trading commodities: Egypt and Mesopotamia exchanged gold and silver respectively. By the Bronze Age (c. 2500 BCE), a sizable seaborne network had emerged. Crete and Cyprus were incorporated into a trading network with Egypt and the Levant. Minoan Crete and Mycenaean Greece had, by the second millennium BCE, created seaborne trading empires held together by trading colonies in distant parts of the Mediterranean. Mycenaean settlements have been uncovered in Sicily, Sardinia, and mainland Italy.
Bronze Age trading networks collapsed somewhat mysteriously, as did most eastern Mediterranean states and cities, around 1200 BCE. The revival was led by the Phoenicians, who, from about 1000 BCE, built a trading empire that stretched across the length of the Mediterranean. The Phoenicians effectively created the first Mediterranean trading system. Their main interest was securing raw metals from as far away as Rio Tinto in Spain, which they exchanged for craft goods and luxury items manufactured in the Levant. The Phoenicians dominated the sea through a network of settlements and emporia, and trade would serve as the conduit for the dissemination of Phoenician culture, particularly across North Africa and southern Spain. From about the eighth century BCE, belated competition came from the Greeks, who, following the Phoenician model, established city-states and emporia mainly across the northern Mediterranean coastline, and getting as far west as Provence and Catalonia. Greek culture was effectively established along the Black Sea and Anatolian littoral, western Sicily, and along the southwestern Italian littoral.
From the middle of the third century BCE, the center of political gravity in the Mediterranean shifted gradually from the Levant to central Italy. At the beginning of the first millennium ce, Roman legions had already conquered the entire Mediterranean world, making it their own sea (mare nostrum). The empire did not function as a coherent economic system, but Roman dominion made changes that were beneficial across the board: piracy was contained, merchants operated under one legal system, and the Romans established a fully monetarized economy. Marine archaeologists suggest that the relatively large number of discovered shipwrecks that date from 100 BCE to 300 CE point to trading activity on a scale that would not be seen again until the late Middle Ages. Ships of between 250 and 400 tons were commonplace, with many servicing the city of Rome’s voracious appetite for grain. Much of that grain supply was organized and paid for by the state, otherwise Rome’s domestic and interstate trade was the preserve of private interests. Tellingly, the empire’s wealthiest and most vibrant cities and territories were located on, or near, the Mediterranean coastline.
For late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, the evidence for Mediterranean trade is patchy and inconclusive. Despite the rapid accumulation of new archaeological data, scholars remain divided over the degree to which the Mediterranean world experienced a prolonged economic depression. Certainly, large-scale trade continued through to the mid-sixth century and did not recover until the tenth. However, it also appears that neither the fragmentation of the Roman Empire, the Arab conquests, the revival of piracy, or plague greatly disrupted the rhythms of localized trading activity, from which the Mediterranean world had long derived its essential vitality. It remained a world of cities, especially Italy and the eastern Mediterranean, for which maritime activity remained as critical as ever. Christian and Muslim pilgrimage to Jerusalem and Mecca was now an additional feature of seaborne traffic. Despite intermittent conflict between Muslim and Christian powers, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim merchants could nearly always be found plying their trade in most Mediterranean port cities. Along the Red Sea and Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean would also remain a vital channel for communications across the Islamic world system.
The Rise of City-States
The eleventh century witnessed the ascendancy of the Italian city-states, especially Venice and Genoa, which led the gradual revival of large-scale seaborne trade. Capitalizing on the turmoil inflicted upon the Muslim and Byzantine worlds by the Crusades (1096–1291), Venice and Genoa secured trading privileges and colonies that provided a platform for Mediterranean trade hegemony. Their highly maneuverable long galleys and heavy cargo-carrying vessels gave them another advantage. More importantly, the Genoese and Venetian states played a significant role in organizing maritime activities, regulating practices, and orchestrating responses to challenges. In the fourteenth century, for example, they oversaw the introduction of a range of cheaper, yet more efficient, galleys and cargo-carrying round ships that counteracted a cost crisis and effectively stimulated greater maritime activity. Moreover, the Italians developed ever more sophisticated means for financing and sustaining ongoing commercial operations; by the fifteenth century large-scale commercial operations were supported by companies and banking institutions (e.g., the Medici family). Until the end of the fifteenth century, Venice and Genoa dominated the movement of material goods, pilgrims, and slaves across the Mediterranean, and formed a vital part of the trade chain that linked Europe with East Asia (via the Silk Roads) and Indian Ocean trading networks.
Domination by the Great Powers
From the sixteenth century, the Mediterranean became a subsidiary of much larger trading zones, especially the Atlantic. The Ottoman Empire and a succession of Christian powers, beginning with Spain, followed by France, Holland, and England, vied for domination, yet none of these powers relied heavily on the Mediterranean for their prosperity. The Mediterranean world had lost its primacy, and historians have been inclined to ignore its history thereafter. The sea, however, continued to nourish the towns and cities of that world, even if life for Mediterranean communities appeared more precarious than ever. Indeed through most of the early modern period, the Mediterranean seemed to belong to no one. Large-scale Christian and Muslim privateering flourished, as did the slave trade, yet such unsavory operations had always formed part of the Mediterranean redistribution system. The period witnessed the rise of a new kind of port city, such as Livorno and Smyrna, which was relatively free of restrictive traditional trading practices and political authority, which welcomed foreigners, regardless of faith, and which laundered pirate plunder.
By the nineteenth century, the Mediterranean was the subject of rivalries between the great powers, especially following the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. By the 1880s, British, French, United States, and German commercial and financial interests were investing heavily in the Mediterranean, especially in Egypt and the Ottoman Empire. The burgeoning trade saw the expansion of bustling multilingual entrepots such as Smyrna, Salonika, Alexandria, Haifa, Suez, and Beirut. Northern Europeans were also traveling more frequently throughout the Mediterranean, especially after the Maghreb had been cleared of corsairs by the 1830s, and by the end of the century bourgeois travelers were visiting the archaeological sites of Egypt, Greece, and Rome in large numbers.
Steam Shipping and Tourism in the Modern Era
Perhaps the most important development in terms of the broader history of Mediterranean trade was the introduction of steam shipping, which had displaced traditional sailing craft by the end of the nineteenth century. Since then, land and air transport have diminished the importance of Mediterranean seaborne exchanges, though mechanized shipping remains important for provisioning island communities and transporting tourists. Oil tankers and luxury cruise liners have become a more familiar feature of the open seas. As a source of wealth, the sea assumed renewed importance through the late twentieth century. In 1973, 60 million visitors enjoyed their summer vacations along the Mediterranean coastline. Numbers increased dramatically with the establishment of cheap package holidays and the rapid expansion of coastal tourist facilities from the 1980s, and nowadays, coastal tourism is a vital source of income for the Greek, Turkish and Spanish national economies. For the foreseeable future, Mediterranean-trading patterns will be dominated by the traffic in leisure-seeking people.
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