“Everything has been said about the Mediterranean”

Introductory remarks to the Transregional Academy “De-Framing the Mediterranean from the 21st Century”, 19–29 September 2016, Institute for Mediterranean Studies, Rethymno (Crete).

by Leyla Dakhli

As an introduction to the Transregional Academy “De-framing the Mediterranean from the 21st Century”, my objective is to open the discussions and  create a space of exchanges and creativity. This title doesn’t seem to be very engaging in this perspective. If “everything has been said”, why are we here?

Leyla Dakhli at the Summer Academy in Rethymno 2016

Leyla Dakhli at the Summer Academy in Rethymno 2016

Because the considerable amount of studies, discourses, and projections have to be considered, from the start, as part of the problem we will be facing together here. Because thinking of the Mediterranean “from the 21st Century” is thinking with this amount of writings. Looking back to this literature is for me a way to share with you a common culture, as a basis for further developments.

I don’t want to recall here everything that was written about the Mediterranean as a space of study or of projection: From the Roman Empire to the pirate Barbarossa, from Alexandria to Tangiers, from Albert Camus to Ibn Khadun. I also want to say from the beginning that my own knowledge and interest for the Mediterranean comes from a very specific place, as I’m a historian of the Middle East and North Africa, born in Tunisia, trained in France.

This common knowledge allows me to start from a series of clichés, sometimes contradictory, that characterized and still characterize the Mediterranean. I’m listing them without any hierarchy, and forgetting most of them. Please excuse me for this dilettante way of introducing the subject. But I don’t want to be closing it… the show will go on in the coming days.

1/ “Mare-nostrum”: a small common sea. Starting from the masterpiece of Fernand Braudel [1], the Mediterranean has been perceived as a common space, following some kind of Roman inheritage, followed by a Christian one.

The rupture with this idea has to be understood at two levels: the first one is the European vision that is behind the study of Braudel (and others), that dates the fragmentation of the Mediterranean space with the Arab-Islamic conquest. This major rupture is often taken for granted in major studies. In this perspective, the Mediterranean comes back, so to say, with the Ottoman Empire, but in a fragmented way, building then on the divide between orient and occident: then the sea is not “ours” anymore, nostrum.

The other reason has much to do with the scientific context: the studies of Braudel, but even more the famous and long-lasting Henri Pirenne’s thesis[2], where he states in the 1930’s that the Germans were not responsible for the fall of the Mediterranean Christian Empire: “Ostrogoth, Wisigoths, Vandales, Burgondes gouvernent à la romaine. Tout ce qui vit et fonctionne est romain.” It was rather the Islamic caliphates that were responsible for what he calls “la rupture (par l’islam) de l’équilibre européen”, or, as he says, “la rupture de la tradition antique a eu pour instrument l’avance rapide et imprévue de l’islam”. These studies were mainly based on structural and quantitative history. Pirenne’s thesis was of course contested, for example by Maurice Lombard[3], but with the same instruments and the same analysis building on the opposition of two civilizations (or barbarities) that ruined the old supposed Roman harmony.

This has been long contested, nuanced, and also replaced after the linguistic and the postcolonial turn by a tendency to focus on the narratives that handle the region as some kind of vague cultural community, or as a very radical form of decolonisation of history, giving the “invisibles” and the dominated a new place, following Fanon, Saïd, etc. In this trend, the ambition of the 1950’s studies is not permitted anymore: taking the region as a whole is frightening, and we are somehow condemned to the partition of the space around our expertise(s).

We are specialized in areas most of the time defined by a language or some languages that cannot speak to each other. This is one of the ambitions of this program to try and suggest other ways of regarding this space, searching in-between the borders, in-between the languages and trying to find ways to work collectively. New paradigms brought by global historians can help us build new tools for the study of the present Mediterranean.

2/ Following this Eurocentric and post-Roman Empire vision, the Mediterranean was long considered the center of something that was linked to relations of power and domination. And the study of it was also centered, sometimes polycentered (Rome, then Constantinopolis, then Venice… ), considered to be a succession of maritime empires looking at the powers that cross the water to settle in other parts of the area (colonial empires for example); or merchant empires that gathered their richness from maritime activities. In this perspective, the Mediterranean space is a succession of settlements and trade counters and this succession is defined as a multi-centered “cosmopolitan” world (see for example the studies on the lingua franca, or on port-cities).

As opposed (but complementary) to this perspective, one can look at the classical Arab definition of the “bahr al-rum” (named after “al-bahr al-abyad al-mutawassit”). Three big medieval muslim intellectuals writing in Arabic must be recorded: Al-Mas’udi, a Baghdadi Adab writer who delivered a description of the Mediterranean in the 10th century, going traditionally through the “marvels”, ‘ajâ’ib, like the Alexandria Pharo. It’s mainly a scriptural and literary vision, nourished by the books of the ancients, being Arab writers and travelers or ancient Greek authors. Al-Idrisi, a Sicily-born geographer, made a complete picture of the area in “Kitab Rujâr” (book of Roger), an almost empirical study and description of the region, with the help of a team of enquirers. He tended to describe the whole region paying attention to the Christian and Muslim areas, where the real center is the sea itself, insisting on common activities around the sea, like fishing, and on the links between the different parts of it and the syncretisms (like sites of pilgrimages common to different religions). He is also giving “natural borders” to this space: the Alpine mountains on the north. Third, and it’s not a surprise to see his name appear here, there was Ibn Khaldun. And it’s not a surprise neither to see history – and more generally time – coming with the name of Ibn Khaldun. Whereas the al-Idrisi description is very much geographic, Ibn Khaldun adds the dimension of time, and the succession of powers and declines, attributing the decline of the Islamic power in the Mediterranean to the lack of attention to their maritime fleet (after the defeat of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212 and the death of the calif al-Nâsir two years after). The interesting point is that he states that the domination on the sea was acquired by the Arabs (originally Bedouins coming from the desert who learned navigation from strangers and the people of the Mediterranean itself). He compares the fight of the Arabs against the Christians on the sea to the fight of Cartago against Rome.

In the eyes of these authors, the history of the Mediterranean is a history of conquest and defeat, linked to the power of the Caliphate. It is seen from Baghdad or Damascus as a territory of conquest, where one has to dominate the sea itself. The center is not there, the play is in the water.

3/ It’s a long-term homogeneous civilization: I won’t come back to the reflections on the decline of the Mediterranean, long attributed to the Islamic conquest and the ruptures and wars that occurred after. It’s the case for example in the seminal work of Henri Pirenne. What comes with this perspective is the idea that the Mediterranean is a place of divide, being it North-South or West-East, as has been done for colonial studies by Ann-Laura Stoler and Frederic Cooper[4]; one has to preconize a comprehensive analysis of the divide itself, being it the colonial divide or the “civilization divide” (Muslims/Jews/ Christians).

Another proposal was made by Horden and Purcell in The Corrupting Sea[5] taking the region as a whole, but also as a succession of very unstable  micro-regions,  that make the “Mediterranean civilization” one of uncertainty. What is common is that it is always moving and changing, and at risk; not only the olive tree and the vine. Like Gadi al-Ghazi states it a propos the “Corrupting sea”, “diversity rules”[6]:

«Horden and Purcell characterize the Mediterranean in terms of the combination of three elements: the exceptional fragmentation and variation of its landscapes (‘microregions’), the instability and unpredictability of its climate, which requires strategies for coping with persistent risk, and a remarkable tradition of interdependence and communication made possible not only by the sea but also by the particular configuration of its landscapes. Combining the three, they come up with a definition of the Mediterranean in terms of the unpredictable, the variable, and, above all, the local. This may seem paradoxical, but as the book unfolds the approach not only makes sense but gradually reveals its fruitfulness. The authors reject both an ‘interactionist approach’, privileging exchange and commerce and focused on the sea, and an ‘ecologizing’ one, which questions the exceedingly mobile image of Mediterranean people by relegating them to local communities tilling the land in pursuit of subsistence with their backs to the sea. Instead, they ask us to think both at once — to see the combination of interdependent local microecologies and an exceptionally high degree of ‘connectivity’ as distinctively Mediterranean.»[7]

This can be understood as one proposal for us to think about the region. As a post-national and post-Empire statement, it is obviously very rich and interesting, and takes us one step beyond the traditional opposition between civilizations and cultural ensembles. But the studies contained in the volume are very often focusing on micro-regions and on the ecological connectivity.  The local scale, even connected, may not be sufficient to answer the questions that are raised today in the Mediterranean region. More than that, an approach centered on the ecology may go back or lead again, to a certain extend, to a culturalist view.

Quantitative research that was the basis of the Braudelian approach is little and linguistic and narrative approaches have also proved to be unsatisfying, transforming the Mediterranean space into some kind of nostalgic and weak space of reference more than a real place where people live and die.

Other tools have to be extracted from the new trends in the social sciences and the humanities: the global perspective, but also new approaches to ecology and environmental history and studies, the development of “Border Studies” and Transnational Studies. Most of these topics and trends have been identified and intensely deployed in other parts of the world, like the Carribean, the southern border of the United States, the Indian Ocean, whereas the actual and contemporary Mediterranean seems to be too old-fashioned, too impressive, too dissuasive, maybe too sad.

Being a researcher on this region is a strong commitment. Day after day, everything is said and repeated about the flow of refugees, the monotheisms and their discontent, the sea and its dangers: everybody seems to have an idea about the Mediterranean Sea, and everybody is an “expert”.

We have tried to gather here young experts in the field in order to exchange and organize, and to create a common space. The proposal is open. It is settled on the observation of the field and can be summarized around key concepts, or, should I rather say, needs?

The idea behind this summer academy is not to bring a new model to think about the Mediterranean, but to revisit this region together with specialists coming from different disciplines, backgrounds and regions, who agree to be contemporary thinkers of their time. I mean, to state today that this region, confronted to major changes and most of the time despair, has to be understood and analyzed with new tools. First, there is an obvious need to start from the people, particularly as social scientists and belonging to the humanities. Second, we need to go back to the concrete space and escape from the narratives or try to understand them from the places where they are elaborated and built. We have to pay attention to spatiality and concrete locations: the space of the water, of the “desert”, or let’s say, the sand to sound more neutral. What are the frontiers of the Mediterranean itself? In Arabic, the first narrations of the Mediterranean space stem from Iran and Iraq. Is the Mesopotamian region the Eastern frontier of the Mediterranean? And what is the Northern one? Is the water itself just a dangerous whole or a living space? What are the routes crossing the space and organizing it? Third, we need to pay attention to the complexity without being afraid of it, without sacralizing it either (in the form of “cosmopolitanism”, hybridity or metissage, for example). We have to try to capture the presence of the Mediterranean “fact” inside the borders of Europe, Africa, and Asia. As something that is part of it, legally and illegally, like the bodies of the death migrants, the “illegal ones” that work and love and die far away from the place they were born. Fourth, we have to have in mind the political situation and the constant growing populist forces that target especially this region as the source of all problems and push to build more and more walls. This should bring us to be even more careful with gender and race issues. Fifth, we have to be modest and learn from others, change and vary perspectives, languages, models, and make our science look like the space itself: plural and multilingual.


[1] Fernand Braudel, La Méditerranée et le monde méditerranéen à l’époque de Philippe II, Paris, Armand Colin, 1949.

[2] Henri Pirenne, Mahomet et Charlemagne, Paris, Alcan et Bruxelles, Nouvelle Société d’éditions, 1937.

[3] Maurice Lombard, L’Islam dans sa première grandeur, Paris, Flammarion, 1971.

[4] Ann-Laura Stoler and Frederic Cooper, Tensions of Empire, Colonial Cultures in a Bourgeois World, University of California Press, 1997.

[5] Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell, The Corrupting Sea. A Study on Mediterranean History, Wiley-Backwell, 2000.

[6] Gadi al-Ghazi, «Diversity Rules: Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell’s The Corrupting Sea», in Mediterranean Historical Review, Vol. 20, No. 2, December 2005, pp. 227–245

[7] Ibid., p. 230.


Leyla Dakhli is a full-time researcher in the French Center for National Research (CNRS), presently settled in the Marc Bloch Center in Berlin. She is a historian, and her work focuses particularly on the study of Arab intellectualsand cultural history of the South Mediterranean region. She has a special focus on social history of intellectuals – and specifically on Women intellectuals ; and on the question of languages in the MENA region, considered as a way to understand the entangled history of the region. She convened the Transregional Academy on “De-Framing the Mediterranean from the 21st Century”, 19–29 September 2016, Institute for Mediterranean Studies, Rethymno (Crete).

Schreibe einen Kommentar

Deine E-Mail-Adresse wird nicht veröffentlicht. Erforderliche Felder sind mit * markiert.