Mare nostrum (Our Sea) for the Latins, white sea for the Turks, big sea for the Jews, middle sea for the Germans, big green for the Egyptians. The Mediterranean Sea played many roles throughout history, keeping its centrality in geopolitics due to its privileged position, cross point among three continents.
Since the Neolithic, several civilizations rose and fell. Hittites, Minoans, Mycenaeans, Etruscans, periodically replaced by migrant coastal populations like Phoenicians and Greeks. Watersheds and bodies of water always represented a way of communication and cultural and commercial exchange. The Romans had been the most able to exploit the situation for their own benefit. After they took over the area, they gained the best from the other traditions – especially Egyptians and Greeks, who already colonized the south of Italy.
But the encounter among populations can easily turn into a clash, so the Mediterranean had been the scene of epic wars: Greeks and Trojans, Romans and Carthaginians, the Crusades, the Battle of Lepanto, Christians and Muslims. Once the Roman empire was tore apart, Islam started to spread, but the dreaded Saracens weren’t just conquerors. They also founded important cultural centers, from Cyprus to Spain.
Since the XII century, Christians and Muslims settled on their areas of influence, not without fighting, though. Piracy, pillaging, slavery were business as usual, performed by both sides – even if we think that the “others” are always the bad guys.
After Columbus reached the “new world”, the Atlantic ocean undermined the preeminence of the Mediterranean sea – at least according to a Eurocentric vision. Still the area attracted the interest of the major powers: England and Russia constantly tried to infiltrate, strengthening (and then crumbling) alliances with Spain, France or the Ottoman Empire, in order to bring down whoever was expanding too much, according to the doctrine of the balance among powers. The opening of the Suez canal made the penetration into Africa easier, most of the Europeans looked for a piece of glory through colonialism.
World War II rewrote those relationships. The United States and the Soviet Union replaced Spain, France, England and Turkey as superpowers and the issues in Middle East attracted the two blocks during the Cold War, with NATO bases or pro-Russians outposts.
But the Mediterranean Sea is not just history and politics. It’s also high level vacations: French riviera, Italy, Greek islands, Turkey, north Africa, Roman Holiday, dolce vita, ship owners, two pieces swimsuits, all status symbols before massification and the changes that it brought in the industry, with satellite activities – restaurants, accomodation, transports.
From the despised giant cruise ships to the despised NGO ships, pivot of the debate around migrations, borders, drownings, rescues, rights, duties. Although these topics seem to be strictly current, the phenomenon is relatively old. The first certified shipwreck is in 1988, off the coast of Cadiz and costed ten lives, as the Spanish newspaper El Mundo reported.
The Mediterranean had always been a cemetery, it’s easily imaginable with all the travels, wars, discovering ventures that occurred. But the numbers are increasingly alarming. As estimated by the website fortresseurope.blogspot.com, in almost 30 years 30 thousand people died, but a sharp calculation is really tough.
As a modern day 2Pac would have sung, replacing his beloved L.A., “to live and die on the Mediterranean”.