Mediterranean - Region facts
The Mediterranean Sea is a part of the Atlantic Ocean almost completely enclosed by land, on the north by Europe, on the south by Africa, and on the east by Asia. It covers an approximate area of 2.5 million km˛ (965 000 mi˛). It is also called the Eurafrican Mediterranean Sea or the European Mediterranean Sea in oceanography to distinguish it from other mediterranean seas in the world.
It was a superhighway of transport in ancient times, allowing for trade and cultural exchange between emergent peoples of the region — Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and the Middle-East (Arab/Persian/Semitic) cultures. The history of the Mediterranean is important in understanding the origin and development of Western Civilization.
The term Mediterranean derives from the Latin mediterraneus, 'inland' (medius, 'middle' + terra, 'land, earth'), in Greek "mesogeios".
The Mediterranean Sea has been known by a number of alternative names throughout human history. It was, for example, commonly called Mare Nostrum (Latin, Our Sea) by the Romans. In the Bible, it is referred to as the Great Sea or the Western Sea. In modern Hebrew, it is called "ha-Yam ha-Tichon" (הים התיכון), "the middle sea", a literal adaptation of the German equivalent Mittelmeer. In Turkish, it is Akdeniz, "the white sea". In Arabic, it is Al-Bakhr Al-Abiad Al-Muttawasit, "the middle white sea".
Currently, "The Med" is a common English language contraction for the Mediterranean Sea and its surrounding regions when employed in informal speech.
The Mediterranean Sea is connected to the Atlantic Ocean by the Strait of Gibraltar on the west and to the Sea of Marmara and Black Sea, by the Dardanelles and the Bosporus respectively, on the east. The Sea of Marmara is often considered a part of the Mediterranean Sea, whereas the Black Sea is generally not. The man-made Suez Canal in the south-east connects the Mediterranean Sea with the Red Sea.
Tides are very limited in the Mediterranean as a result of the narrow connection with the ocean.
The Mediterranean climate is generally one of wet winters and hot, dry summers. Special crops of the region are olives, grapes, oranges, tangerines, and cork. The region has a long history of civilization.
Large islands in the Mediterranean include:
Cyprus, Crete, Euboea and Rhodes in the eastern Mediterranean, Sardinia, Corsica, Sicily, and Malta in the central Mediterranean, Ibiza, Majorca and Minorca (the Balearic Islands) in the western Mediterranean.
Modern states bordering the Mediterranean Sea are:
Europe (from west to east): Spain, France, Monaco, Italy, the island state of Malta, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Montenegro, Albania, Greece, Turkey, and the island state of Cyprus, Asia (from north to south): Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, the Gaza Strip and Egypt, Africa (from east to west): Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco
The geology of the Mediterranean is complex, involving the break-up and then collision of the African and Eurasian plates, and the Messinian Salinity Crisis in the late Miocene when the Mediterranean dried up.
The Mediterranean Sea has an average depth of 1,500 m and the deepest recorded point is 5267 meters (about 3.27 miles) in the Calypso Deep in the Ionian Sea. The coastline extends for 46,000 km. A shallow submarine ridge (the Strait of Sicily) between the island of Sicily and the coast of Tunisia divides the sea in two main subregions (which in turn are divided into subdivisions), the Western Mediterranean and the Eastern Mediterranean. The Western Mediterranean covers an area of about 0.85 million km˛ and the Eastern Mediterranean about 1.65 million km˛.
In the last few centuries, humankind has done much to alter Mediterranean geology. Structures have been built all along the coastlines, exacerbating and rerouting erosional patterns. Many pollution-producing boats travel the sea that unbalance the natural chemical ratios of the region. Beaches have been mismanaged, and the overuse of the sea's natural and marine resources continues to be a problem. This misuse speeds along and/or confounds natural processes. The actual geography has also been altered by the building of dams and canals.
The Mediterranean was once thought to be the remnant of the Tethys Ocean. It is now known to be a structurally younger ocean basin known as Neotethys. Neotethys formed during the Late Triassic and Early Jurassic rifting of the African and Eurasian plates.
There have been theories that the Mediterranean reflooded after Man reached the area, causing the Biblical Flood legend. However, the Strait of Gibraltar is too deep to have dried out in the Ice Age, and the Flood legend may recall the Black Sea re-flooding.
As a result of the drying of the sea during the Messinian Salinity Crisis, the marine biota of the Mediterranean are derived primarily from the Atlantic Ocean. The North Atlantic is considerably colder and more nutrient-rich than the Mediterranean, and the marine life of the Mediterranean has had to adapt to its differing conditions in the five million years since the basin was reflooded.
The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 created the first salt-water passage between the Mediterranean and Red seas. The Red Sea is higher than the Eastern Mediterranean, so the canal serves as a salt-water river that pours Red Sea water into the Mediterranean. The Bitter Lakes, which are hypersaline natural lakes that form part of the canal, blocked the migration of Red Sea species into the Mediterranean for many decades, but as the salinity of the lakes gradually equalized with that of the Red Sea, the barrier to migration was removed, and plants and animals from the Red Sea have begun to colonize the eastern Mediterranean. The Red Sea is generally saltier and more nutrient-poor than the Atlantic, so the Red Sea species have advantages over Atlantic species in the salty and nutrient-poor Eastern Mediterranean. The construction of the Aswan High Dam across the Nile River in the 1960s reduced the inflow of freshwater and nutrient-rich silt from the Nile into the eastern Mediterranean, which has made conditions there even more like the Red Sea. This species exchange is known as the Lessepsian Migration, after Ferdinand de Lesseps, the engineer who oversaw the canal's construction.
The history of the Mediterranean region is the history of the interaction of the cultures and peoples of the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea —the central superhighway of transport, trade and cultural exchange between diverse peoples. Its history is important to understanding the origin and development of the Egyptian, Greek, Latin, Arab and Persian cultures —and hence is important to understanding the development of Western Civilization as we understand it today.
Two of the first human civilizations began in the Mediterranean area. The Nile River valley was unified under the Pharaohs in the fourth millennium BC. Soon after, civilization developed in Mesopotamia and quickly spread through the fertile crescent to the east coast of the sea and throughout the Levant, which happens to make the Mediterranean countries of Syria, Lebanon, and Israel part of the Cradle of Humanity. These areas shared similar climates and geographies, but it was more difficult to spread technologies and crops to other portions of the Mediterranean basin.
In time, large empires developed in Asia Minor, such as the Hittites. The main expansion was delayed until ships sturdy enough the cross the sea were developed. Cyprus and the other islands developed, and the Minoan civilization flourished on the island of Crete. While the river valley civilizations always had larger populations, the trading societies on the coast of the sea soon became the most prosperous, and rose to power.
The two most notable of these were the Greek city states and the Phoenicians. The Greeks expanded throughout the Black Sea and south through the Red Sea. The Phoenicians spread through the western Mediterranean including North Africa and Spain. The Phoenician heartland in the Levant was still dominated by powers rooted east in Mesopotamia or Persia, and the Phoenicians often provided the naval forces of the Persian Empire.
To the north of Greece, in Macedon, Greek technological and organizational skill was forged with a long history of cavalry warfare. Under Alexander the Great, this force turned east, and in a series of three decisive battles, routed the Persian forces and took their empire. The Phoenician lands were taken, as was Egypt. For the first time, the major centres of the Mediterranean were in one hand. Alexander's empire quickly disintegrated, and the Middle East, Egypt, and Greece were soon again independent. Alexander's conquests spread Greek knowledge and ideas throughout the region.
These eastern powers soon began to be overshadowed by those further west. In North Africa the former Phoenician colony of Carthage rose to dominate its surroundings with an empire that contained many of the former Phoenician holdings. However, it was a city on the Italian peninsula, Rome, that would eventually dominate the entire Mediterranean basin. Spreading first through Italy, Rome defeated Carthage in the Punic Wars, becoming the leading force in the region. The Romans soon spread east taking Greece, and the Greek heritage played an important role in the Roman Empire. By this point the coastal trading cultures were thoroughly dominant over the inland river valleys that had once been the heart of the great powers. Egyptian power moved from the Nile cities to the coastal ones, especially Alexandria. Mesopotamia became a fringe border region between the Roman Empire and the Persians.
For several centuries the Mediterranean was a "Roman Lake," surrounded on all sides by the empire. One portion of the empire was Judea, and in time, a religion founded in that region, Christianity, spread throughout the empire and eventually became its official faith. The empire began to crumble, however, and collapsed in the fifth century. Temporarily the east was again dominant as the Byzantine Empire formed from the eastern half of the Roman one. The western part of the empire, Gaul, Iberia, and the Maghreb were invaded by nomadic horse peoples from the Eurasian steppe. These conquerors soon became settled, and adopted many of the local customs, forming many small and warring kingdoms.
Another power was rising in the east, that of Islam, whilst Byzantine and Persia were both weakened by centuries of stalemate warfare. In a rapid conquest the Islam faith motivated armies swept through much of the Middle East; reducing Byzantine lands by half and completely engulfing the Persians. In Anatolia the expansion was blocked by the still capable Byzantines. The Byzantine governors and indigenous kingdoms of North Africa could not mount such a resistance, and the Muslim conquerors swept through the region, and at the far west crossed the sea taking Spain before being halted in southern France by the Franks.
Much of North Africa became a peripheral area to the main Muslim centres in the Middle East, but Spain and Morocco soon broke from this distant control and founded one of the most advanced societies in the world at this time.
Europe was reviving, however, as more organized and centralized states began to form in the later Middle Ages. Motivated by religion and dreams of conquest, the kings of Europe launched a number of Crusades to try to roll back Muslim power and retake the holy land. The Crusades were unsuccessful in this goal, but they were far more effective in weakening the already tottering Byzantine Empire that began to lose increasing amounts of territory to the Ottoman Turks. They also rearranged the balance of power in the Muslim world as Egypt once again emerged as a major power in the eastern Mediterranean.
Europe continued to increase in power as the Renaissance began in Northern Italy. The Islamic states had never been major naval powers, and trade from the east to Europe was soon in the hands of Italian traders, especially the Venetians, who profited immensely from it.
Ottoman power continued to grow, and in 1453, the Byzantine Empire was extinguished with the fall of Constantinople. The Ottomans already controlled Greece and much of the Balkans, and soon also began to spread through North Africa. North Africa had grown wealthy from the trade across the Sahara Desert, but the Portuguese, who along with other Christian powers, had been engaged in a long campaign to evict the Muslims from Iberia, had found a method to circumvent this trade by trading directly with West Africa. This was enabled by a new type of ships, the caravel, that made trade in the rough Atlantic waters profitable for the first time. The reduction in the Saharan trade weakened North Africa, and made them an easy target for the Ottomans.
The growing naval prowess of the European powers confronted further rapid Ottoman expansion in the region when the Battle of Lepanto checked the power to the Ottoman navy. However, as Braudel argued forcefully, this only slowed the Ottoman expansion instead of ending it. The prized island of Cyprus became Ottoman in 1571. The last resistance in Tunisia ended in 1574 and almost a generation long siege in Crete pushed Venetians out of this strategic island in 1669. A balance of power was then established between Spain and Ottoman Empire until 18th century, each dominating their respective half of Mediterranean, reducing Italian navies as naval powers became increasingly more irrelevant.
The development of oceanic shipping began to affect the entire Mediterranean, however. While once, all trade from the east had passed through the region, the circumnavigation of Africa allowed gold, spices, and dyes to be imported directly to the Atlantic ports of western Europe. The Americas were also a source of extreme wealth to the western powers, of which, some of the Mediterranean states were largely cut off from. The base of European power thus shifted northward and once wealthy Italy became a peripheral area dominated by foreigners. The Ottoman Empire also began a slow decline that saw its North African possessions gain de facto independence and its European holdings gradually reduced by the increasing power of Austria and Russia.
By the nineteenth century the Northern European states were vastly more powerful, and began to colonize North Africa. France spread its power south by taking Algeria in 1830. Britain gained control of Egypt in 1882. The Ottoman Empire finally collapsed in the First World War and its holdings were carved up among France and Britain, but the Turkish regions quickly regained their independence becoming the independent state of Turkey.