The Great Sea

The Mediterranean and the Jews   Through the Eyes of David Abulafia

The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean  
By David Abulafia

Oxford University Press, 2011  ISBN 978-0199315994

Reviewed by Bension Varon1

A few months ago, I came across a fabulous book in a book fair and promptly bought it. It is called The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean and was published by Oxford University Press in 2011. It is a true colossus both physically and in coverage: nearly 800 pages long and two inches thick. Its index alone runs 55 pages. It covers, in 38 chapters, the Mediterranean Sea’s human history from the year 22000 BC to 2010 AD.2 The book has numerous connections to Jews—Sephardic (or Spanish) Jews of my background. Its author, David Abulafia (1949-), is a British-born and Cambridge-educated Sephardi who wears his Sephardic heritage on his sleeve, so to speak. The Abulafias (the name has an Arabic/Moorish prefix) left their mark on various regions and cities of Spain before the Expulsion (1492). David’s ancestors seem to have gone to the biblical city of Safed in Palestine at the time of the Expulsion. They reached England centuries later via a grandfather who traveled to Morocco, got married there, and had a son who later settled in England. David Abulafia is currently a professor of Mediterranean history at Cambridge, with a particular interest in maritime history.

Professor Abulafia dedicated his book to the memory of his ancestors who “travelled back and forth across the Mediterranean over the centuries: from Castile to Safed and Tiberias in the Holy Land, with intervals in Smyrna, and then from Tiberias westward again...” He wrote his dedication in his ancestors’ Judeo-Spanish (or Ladino) as “a la memoria de mis antecessores.” Furthermore, he took the title of the book from the Hebrew name for the Mediterranean (yam gadol), which, he wrote, appears in a blessing (berachah) to be recited on setting eyes on it. “Blessed are you, Lord our God, king of the Universe, who made the Great Sea.” (xxi)

It is difficult to review a book of the magnitude and sweep (geographic, temporal) of Abulafia’s The Great Sea. (It is not frivolous to suggest that the task could occupy two reviewers.) I shall attempt, therefore, merely to ‘introduce’ the book here with the help of liberal recourse to excerpts from it. I shall also adopt a limited focus, namely, the Jewish people who, together with the Muslim, Christian and other peoples, shaped this great sea’s history.

For analytical purposes, Abulafia views the Mediterranean as a succession of five seas, as follows:

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

The rationale for the choice of periods and their demarcation years is not as clear as one would have liked, but this does not matter a great deal, since the periods are chronological and flow one into the next.


Abulafia refers to the First Mediterranean Sea, starting around 22000, as “the one that descended into chaos after 1200 BC, that is, around the time Troy is said to have fallen.” Understandably, his discussion of this distant era takes up less than 10 percent of the book, draws a great deal on ancient Greek authors and historians such as Homer, Herodotus and Thucydides, and has very little on Jews (“Hebrews”), who were not a major presence in the region yet.

A challenge faced by historians generally is what and how much to cover. Abulafia addressed this question starting with his treatment of the First Mediterranean. He focused on the last two thousand years (3000-1000 BC) of this 21000-year long period principally for two reasons: the paucity of data the farther back one went, and the limited interest in it. Abulafia reminds the reader that the name Mediterranean refers to the space between (medi) two landmasses (terras)—lands inhabited by peoples in a process of motion back and forth. Abulafia cares a great deal about this process whose beginning he places around 3000 BC. Until then, he argues, the peoples of the Mediterranean lived in “isolation and insulation”—the title he gives the first chapter of his book. He discusses the activities and contributions of the inhabitants of the Cyclades (an archipelago in the Aegean Sea), the great Minoan civilization and the Mycenean traders of Crete, the Trojans and the Hittites of Asia Minor, and the Jews, or Hebrews. They do not make an appearance, together with the the Egyptian ruler Rameses II, until around 1250 BC.

Abulafia’s First Mediterranean ended in “a deep recession” in Aegean lands because of events in and around Troy. The Second Mediterranean (1000 BC-AD 600) was a prosperous and dynamic era in comparison, thanks originally to the initiatives of the Phoenicians whom Abulafia called the “Canaanite merchants” or “purple traders.” They originated in Lebanon’s Canaanite littoral, prospering in cities like Tyre and Sidon, and thanks to trading in purple dye, hence their label.3 The Phoenicians were great seamen and colonizers. They founded colonies in Utica and Carthage (in today’s Tunisia), and they sailed west, through the strait of Gibraltar, building the commercial port of Cadiz on the Atlantic shore of Spain. Their commercial success drew the enmity of the Greeks and, later, the Romans, who were nevertheless grateful for the Phoenicians’ invention of a first alphabet consisting of a simple linear script.


As part of his in-depth survey of the Second Mediterranean Sea, in a chapter entitled “The Heirs of Odysseus,” Abulafia discusses what happened in the Aegean Sea region in the aftermath of the Trojan War, and the successful reign of the Etruscans in the center of today’s Italy. The Etruscans, called Tyrrhenians by the Greeks, were a multi-talented people of still-undetermined origin who spoke a still-mysterious language. They gave their name to the Tyrrhenian Sea lying between the western coast of Italy and the islands of Corsica and Sardinia in the west and Sicily in the south.

Abulafia turns next to what he calls Thalassocracies—the independent mostly sea-power cities such as Athens, Sparta, and Mytilene in the Aegean region, and Syracuse in Sicily, which fought each other and the Persians. But Abulafia focuses more on the fall of Carthage (to the Romans) in the western Mediterranean, and on the most important development in the east: the founding by Alexander the Great, in 331 BC, of the city in northern Egypt named after him. Alexandria reached its apogee under the reign of the Ptolemeic rulers I and II; credited with the creation of the famed Alexandria library. They turned Alexandria into a vibrant city, “the lighthouse of the Mediterranean,” which attracted a mixed population of Greeks, Syrians, Egyptians, and Jews:

Many of the Jews arrived as loyal soldiers, enamored of Alexander the Great; ‘Alexander’ remained ever after a favorite name among Jews. They, of course, possessed their own distinctive cult, and the Ptolemies had no wish to interfere with it; a significant area of eastern Alexandria, known as Delta, became the focus of Jewish activity, and the first large Jewish settlement on the shores of the Mediterranean came into being. The ancient Israelites had mainly been a landlocked rural people, hemmed in by the Philistines and other peoples who lived along the coast. For this reason, they have not featured prominently in the history of the Mediterranean up to this point. But with the founding of Alexandria, Jewish beliefs and culture began to spread across the Mediterranean. [The Alexandrian Jewish philosopher] Philo emphasized the role of Moses as lawgiver, and stressed the ethical value of the divine commandments handed down by Moses. The combination of a powerful ethical message with a structural system of law, as well as the intellectual appeal of monotheism, brought Judaism increasing numbers of converts and sympathizers over the next few centuries. Later, Jewish tradition would characterize this era as one of opposition, often violent, between Hellenism and Judaism, culminating in the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucid rulers of Syria and Palestine in the second century BC ... The revolt certainly gave expression to anti-Hellenistic sentiments, but these sentiments reveal how Hellenized most Jews had become – criticized for attending games and learning Greek philosophy. Greek, rather than Aramaic (the patois of the Jews in Palestine), was so widely spoken among the Alexandrian Jews that ... a Greek version of the Bible was prepared. Moreover, in the first two centuries of Alexandria, Greeks and Jews lived side by side in harmony. (153)

The Second Mediterranean Sea of Abulafia lasted through the fall of Carthage at the end of the Third Punic War in 146 BC; the subjugation of Egypt and Palestine by Rome; and the transformation of the Mediterranean Sea into a Roman mare nostrum. Until then, Rome had been mostly a land power. Now all the shores of the Mediterranean and of its islands were under Roman rule or within the Roman sphere of influence. Two other transformations were taking place almost simultaneously: the invasion of the northern Mediterranean lands by the Germanic tribes known as the Vandals, and the adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman emperors. How did the Mediterranean Jews fare during this period, especially compared to the new Christians? Abulafia provides some answers in a chapter entitled “Old and New Faiths, AD 1-450.”

... [Both] Jews and Christians were seen as ‘atheists’ in the sense that they straightforwardly denied the very existence of the pagan gods. They refused to sacrifice to the deified emperor. Yet the Romans, as they gained power in the eastern Mediterranean, were careful to make an exception of the Jews; the Jews were willing to sacrifice to their God in honor of the emperor, and were understood to have an eccentric way, therefore, of guaranteeing their loyalty. All other subjects were expected to make the required sacrifice to the deified emperor, and the refusal of Christians to do so placed them outside the law and exposed them to the risk of violent death in the amphitheater.” (213)

Although the Jews were generally guaranteed the right to practice their religion, Roman policy was not consistent. As punishment for a fraud perpetrated in Rome by four crooks who claimed to be collecting for the Temple, Emperor Tiberius had already shunted 4,000 Roman Jews to Sardinia, a traditional land of exile. [Yet] There is no evidence that the Jewish communities of the diaspora were united in opposition to the powers-that-be; when there was trouble on the streets of Alexandria, it was the result of a long-established dislike between Jews and Greeks, not of government policy, which the Greeks thought favorable to the Jews. However, pressure on the Jews of Palestine resulted in both the forced and voluntary diffusion of the Jews across the Mediterranean. (214-216)

Abulafia writes that the destruction of the Israelite Temple by Titus in 70 AD and of Jerusalem itself by Hadrian in 131 AD may have generated both the word and the phenomenon known as diaspora.4 The revolt that followed in Palestine in 132-136 may have caused as many as 600,000 Jews to lose their lives. Countless Jews were dispersed westward as slaves or fugitives.

Under Roman dominance, toward the end, the Second Mediterranean had presented a picture of unity, economic and political. This did not last under Byzantine dominance, which followed it. The culprit was Persian armed hostility in areas like Syria and Egypt. Trans-Mediterranean trade networks suffered but remained strong nevertheless, thanks to the activities of Syrian and Jewish merchants. This would change with the introduction of Islam by Mohamed (Muhammad) in the seventh century—the beginning of Abulafia’s Third Mediterranean Sea (600-1350 AD).


As Abulafia notes, Islam was not born in the Mediterranean but it interacted from the earliest days with the rival monotheistic religions of the Mediterranean, Judaism and Christianity. It also interacted with paganism, but in a negative way, since the Muslims refused to tolerate religions other than Judaism, Christianity and, in Persia, Zoroastrianism. Islam was able to win converts among Christians of Syria because many adherents of eastern Christian sects recognized the familiarity of aspects of Islam resulting in their steady assimilation into the new religion. The Muslims accepted Jesus, or Isa, as the greater prophet after Muhammad, and accepted the Virgin Birth, too, while also insisting that Isa was only human. Other features of Islam recalled Jewish practices, notably the ban on eating pork, regular prayer, and the lack of a priestly caste in charge of religious rites. “The Muslim view was that the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament were corrupted texts out of which the foretelling of the arrival of the greatest prophet had been edited; on the other hand, it was recognized that Jews and Christians, ‘the Peoples of the Book,’ worshipped the same god as the Muslims.” (244)

Soon, Arab power replaced Byzantine power in the Great Sea. Powerful Arab armies destroyed the rebuilt, now-Byzantine Carthage; they crossed into Spain, and new networks of trade and communication emerged. Abulafia points that slaves became the main commodity traded between western Europe and the Islamized world, generally though the Mediterranean. There also developed overland routes carrying slaves from eastern Europe to Spain, by way of “castration clinics in the monasteries of Flanders. There emerged a class of slave raiders and slave traders, among them Jews. They included a group of adventurous, multilingual Jewish merchants known as Radhanites. The slaves were mostly east-central Europeans or Slav captives from warfare between Germanic and Slav peoples. The term ‘sclavus’ and slave are derived from the Slavonic origin of many of these slaves. The trade flowed mostly from north to south. “By 961, there were 13,750 Slav slaves living in Muslim Cordoba, most of them acquired by Jewish merchants in Provence and north of it.” (248)

As Abulafia observes, the enlargement of Muslim domination to include Morocco, Spain and eventually Sicily meant that the southern half of the Mediterranean became a Muslim-ruled lake, offering splendid opportunities for trade.

Jewish merchants emerge most prominently from the records. ...The reason so much is known about the Jewish traders is that hundreds of their letters and business documents have survived in the collection known as the Cairo Genizah ... a storeroom accessible only by ladder into which they threw [literally] and stuffed their discarded papers and manuscripts. They wished to avoid anything that carried the name of God; by extension, they did not destroy anything written in Hebrew characters. (258-259)

The existence of the Cairo Genizah was known outside Egypt as far back as the 17th century, but it took until the end of the 19th century (1897 specifically) for its wealth to come to light and for its contents to be transferred to Cambridge University. This occurred thanks largely to the work of a Chasidic scholar named Solomon Schechter. In a review of two books on the subject I wrote in 2011, I noted that the Genizah’s discovery had elements and characters from an Indiana Jones movie.5 Indeed, the discovery saga included: a German-Jewish Bedouin sheikh, a Ukrainian Karaite leader and historian, a shadowy German nobleman, two independent Presbyterian Scotswomen, and Schechter himself, who effectuated the transfer to Cambridge—not a simple feat which required diplomacy, persuasion, charm, the effective use of financial reward, and, above all, patience, attributes which he had in abundance. Since then, the Genizah’s contents have been undergoing intense study, although, according to one estimate, only 15 percent of the contents have been properly studied to date.

The Genizah documents that have survived number more than 300,000 pages or fragments, many of them palimpsests (recycled bits of manuscripts). The physical space dates from the 11th century AD. However, some of the documents uncovered are still older, as old as the 9th century. Not all Genizah documents originated in Cairo; many were brought from Palestine, Persia, Tunisia, Algeria, and as far away as Morocco. The documents are in nearly twenty languages other than Hebrew. The contents are not limited to ripped Torah scrolls and rotted Talmud pages, although these were the initial and primary objects of attention. They included old business receipts and commercial correspondence, love letters, court documents, poems, letters from Jewish travellers, sermons, and discussions on mathematics, medicine, astrology, and more. Together, they constituted a treasure trove of knowledge on medieval Jewish life and other subjects, trade in particular, for Prof. Abulafia especially, since about two-thirds of the Genizah documents are at Cambridge, where he teaches. Abulafia, therefore, devoted the better part of a chapter of The Great Sea to the Genizah and “the Genizah Jews,” who were, on the whole, prosperous between 900 and 1050 AD.

In the rest of his discussion of the Third Mediterranean (600-1350 AD), Abulafia chronicles the rise of central and northern trade centers such as Amalfi, Venice, Genoa, and various ports in Spain and Sicily, none of them with notable Jewish traders. He writes, “Venice and Genoa discouraged Jewish settlement – according to a Spanish Jewish traveller, there were only two Jews in Genoa around 1160, who had migrated from Ceuta in Morocco.” (296) Abulafia had little to say about the Crusades, largely because only the Third Crusade, launched in 1189, relied heavily on sea routes and power.


The Third Mediterranean ended or closed (serrata) for all—Jews, Christians and Arabs—with the cataclysmic event, or bubonic plague, known as the Black Death.

The Black Death has sometimes been seen as a natural check on the excessive rapid expansion of the economy of Europe and the Mediterranean lands in the high Middle Ages: population grew so fast that intolerable pressure was placed on the land, forcing up grain prices, and forcing out the production of up-market foodstuffs such as eggs and chickens. Marginal lands that produced poor yields were brought into cultivation; every stalk of grain counted. Famines occurred more and more often, especially in highly urbanized areas such as Tuscany, though the shortages were far worse in northern Europe, especially the great famine of 1315 onwards, which had little effect south of the Alps. Yet a more optimistic picture can also be painted, [namely, that] by 1340, population had peaked, at least in western Europe and Byzantium

... Whether or not the economy was emerging from a crisis around 1340, the Black Death knocked Europe and the Islamic world off balance. The death of up to half of the population of the lands around the Mediterranean was bound to have dramatic effects on the social, economic, religious and political life of the peoples of the Mediterranean. It was a psychological shock as much as an economic one. . . . [The great population loss] had dramatic effects on economic relationships. Demand for foodstuffs contracted greatly, even though in the immediate aftermath of the plague many went hungry as fields in Sicily and elsewhere were left uncultivated, since the labour force was dead or dispersed. The population of the great trading cities collapsed, for the disease spread easily down the alleyways and canals of Genoa, Venice and other trading towns. [At the same time] there were subtle but important changes in the way that the old trade networks operated, and the first signs emerged that a rival trading zone was emerging beyond the Straits of Gibraltar. Out of the recovery the Fourth Mediterranean was born at the end of the fourteenth century. (266-369)

Jews figure prominently in Abulafia’s survey of the Fourth Mediterranean running from 1350 to 1830. It begins with their systematic persecution in the aftermath of the Black Death and their not-unrelated limited role in Europe’s recovery from it. At the root of it all was the ugly fact that “the spread of the Black Death was blamed on the Jews,” which resulted in violent attacks on them, first in the Jewish quarters of Barcelona but soon after across Spain. These were exacerbated by virulent preachings against Jews by Dominican friars of note. They contributed not just to the slaughter of thousands but also to a first wave of conversions and emigration. A contributing factor or event was the public disputation between Jews and Christians organized by King Ferdinand I of Aragon and Pope Benedict XIII in Tortosa (a historic city in Catalonia) in 1413-14. As Abulafia put it, “this was not a debate between equals but an opportunity to bully many Jewish leaders into conversion.” In Abulafia’s view, the conversions of 1391 and 1413-14 seemed to suggest that “under pressure, most Jews would convert.” (305) Hence, in 1492, the expulsion of the Jews by royal decree unless they converted to Christianity.

Its horror notwithstanding, the Black Death gave way to the emergence of new trading centers such as Ragusa (today’s Dubrovnik) on the Adriatic Sea and particularly Valencia, a major port city on the Mediterranean. Abulafia points to one “oddity” in the success of Valencia: “the lack of practicing Jews.” (404) Valencia was, rather, the most Islamic city of the Kingdom. “Maybe a third of the population of the Valencian kingdom was Muslim in the fifteenth century, diminishing as Christian settlements advanced and as Muslim families converted to the dominant faith.” (408) Abulafia also observes that one effect of the plague in Spain was the emergence eventually of a new middle class, whose members sometimes looked upon the Jews as business rivals.

The book The Great Sea, despite its volume, does not deal in any detail with the Jews’ expulsion from Spain—its reason, enforcement, and outcome—nor does it addin any measure to what has been written about it. This, despite the fact that the bulk of the exiles were spread all over the Mediterranean. Abulafia structured his book along what happened to “the Great Sea,” not to the Jews. Nevertheless, he could not refrain from commenting on where the likes of his ancestors chose to seek refuge and what led them there.

Many of the exiles saw the expulsion from Spain as a sign that the tribulations of Israel were not about to increase but that they would soon end, with the redemption of the Jews under the leadership of the Messiah. In this spirit, some headed for the land of their distant ancestors, settling in Safed in the hills of Galilee, where they were also eager to set up weaving workshops and other enterprises. At the same time, they immersed themselves in kabbalistic text and produced liturgical poetry which was widely diffused across the Mediterranean and beyond. (407)

The Great Sea devotes considerable space to the Muslim population of Spain—a key partner of the convivencia, the Golden Age of Iberia, when believers in Christianity, Judaism and Islam lived in peace and harmony. Like the Jews, Spain’s Muslims either converted en masse or were expelled, although this did not happen until 1609, more than a century after the Jews’ expulsion. Abulafia focuses on the Muslims who converted, became known as moriscos, and had what he calls “a tragic history.” (In fact, he devotes more space to moriscos than to conversos, which this writer welcomes, given the near, if imperfect, parallelism between the fates of Spain’s two key minorities, and the limited attention that moriscos have received from Jewish writers and historians.)

Moriscos received favorable treatment from the Catholic rulers in the beginning, although some were hauled before the Inquisition. This was owed to their greater assimilation and their significant contribution to the silk and sugar industries and irrigation works. But this did not last. It was assumed that all moriscos were potential traitors, political and religious enemies of Christendom, and allies of or spies for the Barbary States of North Africa and the Turks in the Eastern Mediterranean. Some Spanish decision makers advocated destroying them rather than expelling them; they flirted with the idea of sinking the ships that carried them away. A complicating factor was that the indigenous inhabitants of North Africa were less welcoming than the exiles hoped.

Many moriscos seemed to be impossibly Hispanicized in language, dress and customs. As Abulafia put it, “If they wanted to find comrades who would understand their ways, they sometimes decided that they were better understood by Sephardic Jews, who shared their nostalgia for the old Spain of the three religions, maintained a distance of their own from the native Jewish communities, and continued to speak a form of Castilian. Thus an emotional kinship in exile was formed between Sephardic Jews and Andalusi Muslims in North Africa.” (476)

In the same section of his book—a chapter appropriately called “Diasporas in Despair, 1560-1700”—Abulafia also dwells on another group of converts: Jewish converts to Islam following the conversion of the false Messiah Shabbetai Zvi, a native of Smyrna (today’s Izmir) in Turkey, in 1666.6 Abulafia excels in describing the socio-economic, religious and political conditions which gave rise to the emergence of the false Messiah but not the reasons for giving him the attention he gets in the book. Zvi did try to get adherents in his part of the Mediterranean but his convert-followers were localized mostly in eastern Turkey and northern Greece, especially Salonika.

Abulafia closes his chapter on Diasporas and Despair with reference to the use of a common tongue, the so-called lingua franca or Frankish speech. He points out that languages that enabled peoples from the different shores of the Mediterranean to communicate go back to very ancient times when Punic, Greek and eventually Low Latin were widely used. “Among the Sephardic Jews, Judeo-Spanish was spoken widely enough, from the Levant to Morocco, to enable easy communication between merchants, pilgrims and other travellers, and came to be adopted even by the Greek-speaking Romaniote Jews.” Among Abulafia’s interesting observations is his reference to the need for sailors and merchants to communicate, which was matched by the wish of slave-owners to be able to give orders to their captives; the bagni, or slave quarters, were also “places where the Turks or Europeans, as the case may be, barked commands in the strange mixture of tongues, the core of which was, however, generally a combination of Italian and Spanish.” He adds that “It would be a mistake to think of lingua franca as a language with formal rules and an agreed vocabulary; indeed, it was its fluidity and changeability that expressed most clearly the shifting identities of peoples of the early modern Mediterranean.” (486-87)


In Abulafia’s elegant prose, the history of the Fourth Mediterranean Sea ended and the Fifth Mediterranean Sea came into being with the conceptualization of the Suez Canal he traced to around 1830. For Abulafia, the completion of the canal in 1869 belied “the English poet of Empire Rudyard Kipling’s much quoted lines, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” Abulafia starts, in fact, with a chapter called “Ever the Twain Shall Meet, 1830-1900!” He argues that what followed demonstrates this, calling the Mediterranean “the nuptial bed for a marriage between the East and West.” He demonstrates, with examples, the East’s fascination with the West and the reverse, embodied in the artistic movement called Orientalism.

Abulafia then states that an important feature of the Fifth Mediterranean was the discovery of the First Mediterranean and the rediscovery of the Second. He was referring to the growth of interest in the Greek and Roman worlds of antiquity, as well as in ancient Egypt, spurred by excavations in Pompei, Crete, Troy, and elsewhere.

Jews do not receive much attention in the rest of the Fifth Mediterranean until the discussion turns to the rise and fall of Salonika in northern Greece as a “Jewish city” demographically and more. Abulafia comments about the cultural aspects of this community about which much has been written in recent years.7

Sephardic Judaism has always been more open to surrounding cultures than the other strict forms of Judaism practiced in Ashkenazi eastern Europe, and, as western European influences became increasingly powerful within the Ottoman world, the Jewish elites became westernized in manners and speech. There was ambivalence about Sephardic identity. Ideally, it would combine western sophistication with a touch of eastern exoticism, a view shared by Disraeli in Britain. ...From 1873, channeled through the new schools of the Alliance Israélite Universelle, French began to make massive inroads among the Salonika Jews, edging out Ladino, which some saw as the language of the lower classes (in Alexandria too French was becoming de mode, even de rigueur, among the Jewish elite). By 1912 the AIU possessed over 4,000 pupils, more than half the children in the city’s Jewish schools. The Salonikans and Alexandrians were unworried about the French cultural imperialism to which they were succumbing; not just Jews but all prosperous city-dwellers across the Ottoman Empire saw French as the badge of distinction. (570)

Abulafia takes the reader up to the year 2010, nearly today. I shall not dwell on the book’s final chapters, as they cover a history more familiar to me and my generation. They are not, for this reason, the most elucidating part of the book, although future generations are likely to think otherwise and benefit from it. His observations on what happened to the Jewish Mediterranean after the creation of Israel and, particularly after the 1967 war, are nevertheless of interest. “In North Africa, the creation of Israel resulted in anti-Jewish riots, leading to a steady exodus of hundred of thousands of Jews from Morocco, Algiers, Tunisia and Libya, though the wealthiest and most westernized families often shunned the Middle East for France and Italy. Thus there was a south-north flow of Jews as well as a west-east flow. By 1967 the only major center of Jewish population in the Mediterranean apart from Israel was southern France, as a result of migration from North Africa. Otherwise, 1,900 years of Mediterranean diaspora had suddenly been reversed.” ( 617)

Abulafia concludes his book highlighting a variety of themes, among them the Mediterranean Sea’s diversity, as opposed to unity. “At the human level, this ethnic, linguistic, religious and political diversity was constantly subject to external influences from across the sea, and therefore in a constant state of flux. . . . The edges of the Mediterranean Sea have provided meeting-points for peoples of the most varied backgrounds who have exploited its resources and learned, in some cases, to make a living from transferring its products from better-endowed to ill-endowed regions.” (641)

An associated theme of Abulafia is the role that access to supplies of vital foodstuffs and other primary materials played in the growth of major cities. Hence the need to keep the sea safe, to control it—another theme. Abulafia emphasizes in this context the role of traders, Jewish traders, among them Sephardic traders.

To speak of Jews is to speak of traders who had an unusual ability to cross the boundaries between cultures, whether in the early days of Islam, during the period of ascendancy of the Genizah Jews from Cairo, with their trans- and ultra- Mediterranean connections, or in the period of Catalan commercial expansion, when they could exploit their family and business ties to their co-religionists and penetrate deep into the Sahara in search of gold, ostrich feathers and other African products that were beyond the reach of their Christian compatriots still stuck within their trading compounds (646).

The ascendancy of Sephardic merchants in the early modern Mediterranean is astonishing in any number of ways: their ability to acquire and shed different identities, as ‘Portuguese’ able to enter Iberia and as Jews resident in Livorno and Ancona -- an ability to cross cultural, religious and political boundaries reminiscent of their forebears in the Cairo Genizah six centuries earlier. These multiple identities are an extreme case of a wider Mediterranean phenomenon: there were places where cultures met and mixed, but here were individuals within whom identities met and mixed, often uneasily. (647)

The last sentence (my italics) describes not only where I come from but me personally!


What I presented above is an awkward, selective review of a great book. It covers what David Abulafia said about Jews in his 21,000-year-long human history of the Mediterranean Sea. It can be argued that the review is flawed, that it takes “the Jewish story” out of context ... that, had Abulafia focused primarily on the Mediterranean’s Jews, rather than on the Great Sea, his story of the Mediterranean Jews would be, could be different. Not so! Jews are mentioned in less than one hundred pages (12 percent) of the 800-page book. The rest can be viewed as pure context.

It is unnecessary for me to praise Abulafia’s The Great Sea, to add my voice to that of those who have done so already on the book’s jacket, including the Financial Times, The Economist, and the Sunday Times of the United Kingdom, and academics from no lesser institutions than UCLA, Princeton, and Yale University. The words used to characterize the book include magnificent, marvelous, monumental, extraordinary rich, superbly panoramic, gripping, worldly, bloody, radiating in scholarship, and playful. What the comments have in common substantively is their praise of detail.

One thing that impressed me greatly is Abulafia’s invitation to the reader not to romanticize the Mediterranean—the near-refrain of ‘don’t romanticize the sea, its history, people, great cities (Alexandria, Carthage, Salonika)’, and another is the unique Sephardic background he and this reviewer share. I see this as reflecting Abulafia’s objectivity and his overcoming a challenge, too, for romanticizing the Mediterranean—undeniably the world’s tourism center—is so tempting, almost unavoidable. Abulafia’s plea not to romanticize the Mediterranean can be translated into a whispered “do romanticize it.”

1 Bension Varon is a retired economist with wide interests as a writer, including history, genealogy and biography. His extensive publications include Cultures in Counterpoint: Memoirs of a Sephardic Turkish-American (2009) and Fighting Fascism and Surviving Buchewald: The Life and Memoir of Hans Bargas (2015).

2 I am using the same Christian labels for dates (BC and AD) used in the book, instead of the modern substitutes, BCE and CE.

3 The dye was extracted from the murex shellfish found in Canaanite shores, and was in great demand.

4 Diaspora, a word of Greek origin, connotes scattering, dispersion.

6 For background information on Zevi, see my Sabbatai Tzevi Revisited: Two Books about the False Messiah: The Dönme: Jewish Converts, Muslim Revolutionaries, and Secular Turks,” by Marc David Baer, 2010; and “The Burden of Silence: Sabbatai Sevi and the Evolution of the Ottoman-Turkish Dönmes,” by Cengiz Sisman, 2015. Sephardic Horizons, Vol. 6, Issues 3-4, Summer-Fall 2016.

7 See Mark Mazower, Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews, 1430-1950 (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), and Devin E. Naar, Jewish Salonika: Between the Ottoman Empire and Modern Greece, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2016.

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