Review: David Abulafia

How Mediterranean Jews steered an influential course through history.


"Human history," observes Professor David Abulafia in the introduction to his brilliantly panoramic, witty, wry and erudite book, "involves the study of the irrational as well as the rational. The roulette wheel spins and the outcome is unpredictable, but human hands spin the wheel."

Professor Abulafia is quietly delighted that The Great Sea: a Human History of the Mediterranean shares first place with Simon Sebag Montefiore's Jerusalem as the Sunday Times recommended non-fiction summer read.

He has tenderly dedicated the book to la memoria de mis antecesores. "My family left Spain in 1492 and their movements in Italy and the Turkish Empire are well-documented. My own branch settled in Safed and in Tiberias. It has given me great pleasure to give some of them bit-parts in the drama. These include Haim Abulafia, the leading Sephardic rabbi in Hebron, who notably challenged Shabbetai Zvi's Messianic credentials; and one of the founders of Tel Aviv, Solomon Abulafia, in whose house in Neve Tzedek, the writer S.Y. Agnon once lived. "In that very place," noted Professor Abulafia, Palestinian Jews spoke Ladino and co-existed happily with Arabs and incoming settlers."

Such cultural interplay, the result of tolerance and capacity to compromise, is compelling and exemplary. "Jews of Spanish descent are part of the wide Mediterranean culture in which Jews and Muslims interacted," he reflected. "Far from being a ghetto-ising world, it was made up of distinct communities which, between 1500 and 1900, often supported one another in times of crisis. The creation of Israel led to an exodus of Jews from places such as Alexandria, sometimes following confiscation or violence. The cultural loss is palpable. In the past, each community learned to respect its neighbour and I suspect that the Jewish presence acted as a brake on the spread of Islamic fundamentalism.

"From the late Roman period, Jews found it easy to cross the boundaries between the Christian and Islamic worlds. For example, when Muslim traders were discouraged by their religious leaders from entering 'unclean' lands such as Christian France and Italy, the Jews could do so instead. Jews rapidly mastered the arts of compromise and adaptability. A Portuguese Marrano merchant learned to integrate as easily into the Spanish Christian community as into Jewish Venice.

"Rabbinically speaking, sea travel was less troublesome," the professor explained. "Whatever the debates on whether a ship could be steered or a passenger stroll on deck on Shabbat, a ship was an eruv in motion, on which a traveller prepared his own food."

This gripping book is populated by such diverse characters as the resourceful 16th century figure Beatrice Mendes de Luna, Alexander the Great, Ramon Llull and Coco Chanel - testifying to the breadth of Professor Abulafia's achievement in putting human beings and the influence of their choices on the world at the centre of his work. "Alexander's dream of founding Alexandria changed history," said Professor Abulafia, "but mundane decisions of where to trade and how to make a living taken by individual merchants become equally significant in the perception and understanding of the evolving seascape." Like the Great Sea itself, this book continuously stirs the mind and enchants the imagination.

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