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The Mediterranean is a miracle. Seeing it on the map for the millionth time, we tend to take it for granted; but if we try to look at it objectively we suddenly realise that here is something utterly unique, a body of water that might have been deliberately designed, like no other on the surface of the globe, as a cradle of cultures. Almost enclosed by its surrounding lands, it is saved from stagnation by the Straits of Gibraltar, those ancient Pillars of Hercules which protect it from the worst of the Atlantic storms and keep its waters fresh and – at least until recent years – unpolluted. It links three of the world's six continents; its climate for much of the year is among the most benevolent to be found anywhere.
Small wonder, then, that the Middle Sea should not only have nurtured three of the most dazzling civilisations of antiquity, and witnessed the birth or blossoming of three of our greatest religions; it also provided the principal means of communication. Roads in ancient times were virtually nonexistent; the only effective method of transport was by water, which had the added advantage of being able to support immense weights immovable by any other means. The art of navigation may have been still in its infancy, but early sailors were greatly assisted by the fact that throughout much of the eastern Mediterranean it was possible to sailfrom port to port without ever losing sight of land; even in the western, a moderately straight course was all that was necessary to ensure an arrival on some probably friendly coast before many days had passed.(1) To be sure, life at sea was never without its dangers. The mistral that screams down the Rhône valley and lashes the Gulf of Lyons to a frenzy, the bora in the Adriatic that can make it almost impossible for the people of Trieste to walk unassisted down the street, the gregale in the Ionian that has ruined many a winter cruise – all these could spell death for the inexperienced or unwary. Even the mild meltemi in the Aegean, usually a blessing to ships under sail, can transform itself within an hour into a raging monster and drive them on to the rocks. True, there are no Atlantic hurricanes or Pacific typhoons, and for most of the time – given a modicum of care – the going is easy enough; still, there was no point in taking unnecessary risks, so the earliest Mediterranean seafarers kept their journeys as short as possible.
When possible, too, they kept to the northern shore. To most of us today, the map of the Mediterranean is so familiar that we can no longer look at it objectively. If, however, we were to see it for the first time, we should be struck by the contrast between the littorals to the north and south. That to the north is full of incident, with the Italian and Balkan peninsulas flanked by three seas – Tyrrhenian, Adriatic and Aegean – and then that extraordinary conformation of the extreme northeast corner, where the Dardanelles lead up to the little inland Sea of Marmara, from the eastern end of which the city of Istanbul commands the entrance to the Bosphorus and ultimately to the Black Sea. The southern coast, by contrast, is comparatively featureless, with few indentations; there one is always conscious, even in the major cities, that the desert is never far away.
One of the many unsolved questions of ancient history is why, after countless millennia of caveman existence, the first glimmerings of civilisation should have made their appearance in widely separated areas at much the same time. Around the Mediterranean that time is, very roughly, about 3000 BC. It is true that Byblos (the modern Jbeil, some fifteen miles north of Beirut), which gave its name to the Bible - the word actually means papyrus - was settled in palaeolithic times and is believed by many to be considerably older still; indeed, it may well be the oldest continuously inhabited site in the world. But the remains of a few one-room huts and a crude idol or two can hardly be considered civilisation, and there as elsewhere nothing much really happens until the coming of the Bronze Age at the beginning of the third millennium BC. Then at last things start to move. There are some extraordinary monolithic tombs in Malta dating from about this time, and others in Sicily and Sardinia, but of the people who built them we know next to nothing. The three great cultures that now emerge have their origins a good deal further east: in Egypt, Palestine and Crete.
Of the traditional Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, only the oldest, the Pyramids of Egypt, survives today; and there is little doubt that they will still be standing five thousand years hence. The most venerable of all, the step pyramid at Saqqara, is said to date from 2686 BC; the grandest and noblest, that of the Pharaoh Khufu – known to Herodotus and so, normally, to us as Cheops – from a century later. Their longevity should cause us no surprise; their shape alone is almost enough to confer immortality. No buildings in the world are less top–heavy. Not even an earthquake could seriously shake them. Gazing up at them, one is dumbfounded by the sheer magnitude of the achievement, and of the underlying ambition: that a man, nearly five thousand years ago, should take it upon himself to build a mountain, and succeed in doing so. Only twenty–five years later, Cheops's son Chefren built another, connected to a monumental hall of alabaster and red granite, along the walls of which were twenty–three seated statues of himself. Finally, he commissioned the Sphinx. It may well be his portrait; it can certainly claim to be the oldest piece of monumental sculpture – it is actually carved from an outcrop of rock – known to man.
Egypt, having started so early, was always slow to change. Cheops and Chefren belonged to the Fourth Dynasty; of the first three we know nothing but the names of some of the rulers. The last dynasty was the Thirty-First, which ended in 335 bc with the conquest of the country by the Persians; three years later they in their turn were thrown out by Alexander the Great. Alexander did not linger - he never did - but marched on to Mesopotamia and the further east. After his death in 323 Egypt passed to his former general, Ptolemy, whose line, more Greek than Egyptian, continued for another three centuries. Thus, from the shadowy beginnings with the First Dynasty until the death of Cleopatra in 30 BC, there extended a period of more than three thousand years; yet the untutored eye, balefully staring at relief carvings on the walls of tombs or at endless columns of hieroglyphics, finds it hard to distinguish the art of one millennium from that of the next.
Nonetheless, a few other great names imprint themselves on the memory: Queen Hatshepsut (1490-69 BC), for example, who, though technically only regent for her stepson and nephew Thutmose III, completed the temple at Karnak - erecting two obelisks there to commemorate the fact - and decorated the awe-inspiring pink granite temple of Deir el-Bahri at Thebes, on the walls of which she is represented as a man; Thutmose himself, who on her death in 1469, in what seems to have been a paroxysm of vindictive spite, ordered every portrait of her to be defaced and every inscription bearing her name chiselled away, but who later extended the bounds of his kingdom to the upper reaches of the Euphrates and proved himself - by his talents as general, lawgiver, builder and patron of the arts - one of the greatest of the pharaohs; Amenhotep IV, better known as Akhnaton (1367-50 BC) - instantly recognisable by his long, narrow, pointed face, stooping body and huge thighs - a religious fanatic who forbade the worship of the Theban sun god Amon, instituting instead that of the solar disc Aton, its rays as depicted ending in tiny hands outstretched to bless (or curse); his son-in-law and second successor the boy king Tutankhamun (1347-39 BC), who reverted to the old religion but would be obscure enough today were it not for Howard Carter's discovery on 5 November 1922 of his tomb, the sarcophagus almost invisible beneath the higgledy-piggledy piles of golden treasure - treasure which is to this day the chief glory of the Cairo Museum; and Rameses II, the Great (1290-24 BC), the megalomaniac who erected statues of himself all over Egypt and Nubia and may well have been the Pharaoh of the Exodus - though scholars are still arguing about this, and will continue to do so for many years to come. Finally we must make special mention of Akhnaton's queen, Nefertiti, whose bust - found in the excavated studio of an ancient craftsman in her husband's capital of Tell-el-Amarna and now in Berlin - suggests that she was one of the most ravishingly beautiful women who ever lived.1 Neither the Greeks nor the Romans, nor even the greatest sculptors of the Italian Renaissance, were ever to portray her equal. If ancient Egypt had produced no other work of art than this, those three millennia would still have been worth while.
Another reason for the strange timelessness of Egypt is its astonishing geography. Seen from the air, it looks exactly like a map of itself: vast expanses of yellow, with a thin blue-green line snaking up from the south, and a narrow border of green along each side before the yellow takes over again. To Egypt, the Nile is like the sun: a necessity to continuing national life in a way that no other river could ever be, as essential as a breathing tube to a deep-sea diver. In such conditions there is little opportunity for change; outside Cairo, Alexandria and one or two of the larger towns, life in most of Egypt carries on very much as it always has. There are few greater travelling pleasures than to board the night sleeper from Cairo to Luxor, and to awake early the next morning to find oneself moving at about ten miles an hour along the riverbank, while just outside the train window, golden in the early sunlight, there passes scene after scene straight out of a Victorian child's geography book.
From earliest times the Egyptians were a single, coherent state; their Phoenician contemporaries seem to have made no attempt ever to create one. Though they were compulsive travellers, their home was Palestine. The Old Testament refers to the people of Tyre and Sidon, of Byblos and Arwad (this last situated further up the coast, roughly opposite the southern shore of Cyprus). All four communities sprang up around 1550 BC, and all four were ports, the Phoenicians being essentially a maritime people. We read in the First Book of Kings how Hiram, King of Tyre, sent King Solomon timber and skilled craftsmen for the building of the Temple in Jerusalem, but for the most part he and his subjects stuck to the narrow coastal strip between the mountains of Lebanon and the sea. They had developed one memorable home industry: gathering the shells of the murex, a form of mollusc which secreted a rich purple dye, worth far more than its weight in gold.(1) But their principal interest lay always in the lands to the west - with whom, however, they traded more as a loose confederation of merchant communities than as anything resembling a nation.
Today we remember the Phoenicians above all as seafarers, a people who sailed to every corner of the Mediterranean and quite often beyond. Herodotus tells us that in about 600 BC, at the behest of Pharaoh Necho, they circumnavigated the continent of Africa. If he was right (or nearly so), this was an achievement which would not be repeated for more than two thousand years. (If, on the other hand, he was wrong, how did he know - or even believe - that it was circumnavigable?) There is little doubt, in any case, that Hiram and Solomon participated in occasional voyages from Ezion-Geber (near the modern Eilat) to the fabled Ophir, which - though nobody seems quite sure - was probably on the Sudanese or Somali coast. At other times Phoenician merchants established trading colonies at Mozia in Sicily, Ibiza in the Balearic Islands and along the shores of North Africa. They then passed through the Straits of Gibraltar to explore the Atlantic ports of both Spain and Morocco; they certainly had an outpost on the promontory of Cadiz, protected by its surrounding marshes. We are told that a certain Himilco even crossed the English Channel, landing on the south coast of Britain (probably Cornwall) in quest of tin. The Phoenicians remained an important economic force in the Mediterranean until the end of the eighth century bc, when they were overshadowed first by the growing might of Assyria, and then by that of the Greeks.
Thanks above all to the luxury goods which they provided, they were also a force for civilisation. From their Levantine home, as well as from Cyprus, Egypt, Anatolia and Mesopotamia, they would bring ivory and rare woods, superb drinking vessels of gold and silver, flasks of glass and alabaster, seals and scarabs of precious and semiprecious stone. But their greatest gift to posterity was unconnected to trade or navigation; it was they, almost certainly, who first evolved an alphabet. Hieroglyphics in the Egyptian manner were all very well, but they were slow to write, frequently ambiguous to read and incapable of expressing subtle shades of meaning. The invention of a system whereby any spoken word could be represented by a small group of letters drawn from a repertoire of a couple of dozen was an immeasurably great step forward, and there is little doubt that this step was first taken by a group of Semitic-speaking people on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean. The earliest clearly readable alphabetic inscription, found at Byblos, probably dates from the eleventh century BC, but primitive versions of the alphabet - consisting entirely of consonants - were in use several centuries before that; if we date the original invention to somewhere between 1700 and 1500 BC we shall not be very far wrong. In due course this alphabet was first adopted, then adapted by the Greeks; it can thus be seen as the rude forefather of our own.
As the pyramids were being built in Egypt, the people of Crete were also beginning to stir. Men there were working in copper and bronze, but more interesting are the early knives made of obsidian - that strange volcanic glass, usually coal-black, which when chipped produces an edge like a razor - because obsidian had to be imported, probably from Anatolia, and imports mean trade. Archaeologists have found objects from still further afield - ivory, rock crystal and semiprecious stones - of only slightly later dates. By 2000 BC Crete seems to have become the commercial crossroads of the eastern Mediterranean - we have it from no less an authority than Odysseus himself (1) that during the spring and summer the winds in the Aegean made it possible to cross from Crete to Egypt in only five days - and the island's two greatest palaces, at Knossos and Phaestos, were rapidly taking shape.
Crete's Windsor Castle is the palace of Knossos, where the first excavations by Sir Arthur Evans began in 1899.
Excerpted from The Middle Sea by John Julius Norwich Excerpted by permission.
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