Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Middle Sea

The Middle Sea: A History of the Mediterranean, by John Julius Norwich
$25.17 at Amazon.com ISBN: 0385510233
The Mediterranean Sea has hosted many of the greatest cultures since human civilization began. This is one of the more challenging books I've posted on this thing, but it's chapters are short and the writing is very smooth so it's really not too hard: just sort of long (688 pages). It begins with the earliest human settlements and ends with World War I. If it had gone through World War II it probably would've been twice as long.
What a fascinating body of water! It's served as the cradle of Western civilization because it's much calmer than the ocean, and doesn't have tides so it could be navigated by the earliest sailing ships. Alexander the Great left its shores to defeat the Persians, and eventually to reach India, the first known European to do so. A few centuries later the Romans would name the Mediterranean Mare Nostrum, or "Our Sea". They'd be the only empire in history to encircle it entirely. With them they brought outstanding roads still in use today, concrete engineering, along with our calendar and alphabet. Pretty impressive!
By this time, one of the sea's most famous empires was already ancient: the Egyptians. Protected by the sea on one side and the desert on the other, its great Pharaohs built monuments which have since become part of the collective human consciousness. There's a whole series of other greats here, too: the Byzantine Empire, bedrock of the medieval era; the great but short-lived empire of Charlemagne; the Crusades followed by the first blossoming of the Renaissance. Only with Columbus' crossing of the Atlantic did the Mediterranean begin to lose prestige.
This is a great book with all the things one likes to read about: sex, intrigue, plague, and most of all: brutal, bloody war. Never boring for one second, while all the major areas of western history are covered at a leisurely pace. Norwich is one of the great authors of our time, don't miss out on what's destined to become a timeless classic!

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