The Mediterranean region in question
The Mediterranean is etymologically the “sea in the middle of the land“. [i] The Romans called it Mare Magnum (‘Great Sea’) or Mare Internum (‘Internal Sea’) and, starting with the Roman Empire, Mare Nostrum (‘Our Sea’). The term Mare Mediterrāneum appears later in the work of Gaius Julius Solinus in the 3rd century, [ii] but the earliest extant witness to it is in the 6th century, in Isidore of Seville. [iii]
The original meaning of the name seems to have been the sea in the middle of the earth rather than the sea enclosed by land—as stated by Isidore of Seville (circa 560-636), Spanish archbishop and Doctor of the Church, in Originum sive Etymologiarum (The Origins or Etymologies): [iv]
‘’The Mediterranean Sea (De mediterraneo mari) The Great Sea is the one that ﬂows from the Ocean out of the west, turns to the south, and ﬁnally stretches to the north. It is called ‘great’ because the other seas are smaller in comparison with it. This is also called the Mediterranean because it ﬂows through the ‘middle of the land’ (media terrae) all the way to the East, separating Europe, Africa, and Asia.’’
It is a semi-enclosed sea, which communicates with the Atlantic Ocean via the Strait of Gibraltar and, since the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, with the Red Sea. It also establishes communication with the Black Sea through the Strait of Bosporus. However, its geographical position makes it in contact with Eurasia and Africa, it is at the same time a complex space of meetings, curiosities, confrontations, and all kinds of differences that are religious, cultural, ideological, material, without forgetting economic.
The region generates flows between centers and peripheries, and this modifies the Mediterranean spaces and landscapes. Its two shores are united by intense flows but there are differences that oppose them, and in spite of these difficulties, the shores are constantly and diligently trying to “get closer”. [v]
The Mediterranean is an original and unique ecoregion because of its geographical and historical specificities, its cultural heritage, and the common feeling of belonging of its populations to the “Mediterranean world“.
With its 46,000 km of coastline, the Mediterranean is the largest semi-enclosed sea in the world. It extends over 24 countries and territories in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. As a natural and strategic region, it plays a fundamental role in the development of the territories surrounding it.
The Mediterranean stretches from the Strait of Gibraltar to the Suez Canal. This basin contains some of the most fertile, beautiful, and, consequently, coveted lands on the planet. Its historical, and cultural heritage is rich, varied, and internationally renowned. It was around the Mediterranean that man invented animal husbandry and agriculture: The Neolithic revolution on which the incredible development of human societies is based.
The Mediterranean space is defined by the almost closed inland sea (to the East by the Isthmus of Suez, to the West by the Strait of Gibraltar) bordered by European, African, and Asian territories. According to a strict definition, this space corresponds to the sea itself and the shores subject to the climate of the same name.
Most of these coastal areas are partitioned (the Pyrenees between France and Spain, the Alps between Italy and France, the Balkans, the Atlas, and the Taurus Mountains in the south of Turkey), coastal plains are rare, and islands numerous (Cyprus, Sardinia, Sicily, Malta). The land relations being difficult, the sea gives its unity to the Mediterranean area and integrates the countries that border it. It is one of the major North-South interfaces of the planet. Inequalities are important, at all scales, and they generate exchanges between the facades. [vi]
Renowned for the splendor of its nature, it enjoys a mild and temperate climate and is one of the most populated and developed regions in the world. The 500 million people who live there influence the ecological balance of the region.
The Mediterranean Sea is home to more than 10,000 species, including 4 to 18%, depending on the taxon, of the species known to date (a quarter of which are unique to the region), even though this sea represents only 1% of the world’s waters.
The Mediterranean region refers to the Mediterranean geo-cultural area and the set of countries that border the Mediterranean Sea: the islands of Cyprus, Crete and Rhodes, Corsica, Sardinia, Sicily, Malta, and the Balearic Islands; the following countries: France, Monaco, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania, Greece and Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Spain, to which we can add Gibraltar and Palestine (West Bank, Gaza Strip). [vii]
Cradle of great civilizations
A rich and contrasted historical and religious heritage The Mediterranean world is anciently populated (Mycenaeans, 12 000 BC). It was the Greeks and then the Romans who gave the Mediterranean basin its first unity: The Greeks through the massive colonization of the shores, the Romans through their military conquests. The development of plains, mountains, and forests, the development of cities, and trade are the first common features of Mediterranean civilization. The Mediterranean world is the cradle of monotheism: Islam, Judaism, and Christianity which is divided between Catholics and Orthodox. [viii]
On the long history of the Mediterranean region, Gülsün Sağlamer writes: [ix]
‘’The Mediterranean Basin has been the cradle of world civilization since the first settlements in Jericho in 9000 BC. Known in English and the romance languages as the sea “between the lands”, the Mediterranean goes and has gone by many names: Our Sea, for the Romans, the White Sea (Akdeniz) for the Turks, the Great Sea (Yam Gadol) for the Jews, the Middle Sea (Mittelmeer) for the Germans and more doubtfully the Great Green for the ancient Egyptians.1 Our Sea played a major role in the communication of the peoples around it and prevented clashes between people with different interests from different parts of the Basin. No other such basin exists in the world. The world map shows what a unique location the Mediterranean Sea has in the world — it is big enough to house all of us but at the same time, with its unique shape, with its islands, bays and straits, it creates the means to connect the people around it. It looks as if it is a closed sea, but it offers the main transportation routes between east and west. The Mediterranean Sea is a symbol of creativity, of the search for the meaning of life and for wisdom, and of the love of people and nature. This sea has always been an environment that has bred outstanding people who have made remarkable contributions to the development of history in philosophy, art, music, literature, science and technology. Magnificent civilizations have scattered all around the Basin, from east to west, from north to south, from Mesopotamia to Egypt, from Anatolia, Troy to Macedonia, from the Greek city states to Phoenician civilization, from Carthage to Rome, from Baghdad to Al-Andalus, from Byzantium to the Ottoman Empire and from Alexandria to Bologna, and have formed a sound base for world civilizations. One cannot imagine a history of the world without the Egyptian, Hellenistic, Roman and Ottoman civilizations.’’
The Mediterranean region, the cradle of great civilizations and of the three monotheistic religions, [x] is the witness of several realities: the socio-economic interdependence between developed and developing countries, the major weight of religious pretexts and ethnicity in conflicts, the play of alliances and the geostrategic dynamics of natural resources. The Mediterranean also shows great margins for progress and growth: the “Arab Spring” in the South and the sovereign debt crisis in the North are illustrations of this.
Marked by demographic, cultural, and economic heterogeneity, the Mediterranean basin remains the bearer of both a common ideal and the fear of the other. The strong moments of the Mediterranean community, with variable contours according to the ages (Greek, Roman, Berber, Arab or Ottoman Empires for example), have left traces in science, urbanization, and the art of living.
Faced with the gap between the different shores and the absence of a geopolitical dynamic exclusive to the region, new initiatives have been launched, such as the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM). [xi] This more than half-hearted evolution should not lead to unbridled skepticism. Economic convergence and the renewed vitality of civil societies could give substance to a Mediterranean community of peoples.
The Mediterranean is no longer at the center of the world. Like the three continents that border it (Europe, Africa, and Asia), it is affected by the geographical shift of the world’s geopolitical and geo-economic center of gravity towards South and East Asia. This strategic marginalization could mean the dawn of a peaceful era, with the tensions linked to the concentration of global issues gradually moving away to the East. Nevertheless, the Mediterranean basin concentrates in its limited space all the issues and challenges of globalization and is confronted with all the risks that result from it.
A fragile common space, the Mediterranean Sea is also one of the world’s main trade routes, [xii] with veritable energy and economic umbilical cord between the East and the West, and societal balances that are very precarious. Preserving this living space, made particularly fragile by its small size, while allowing everyone to make a living from it, is the dilemma faced by the twenty-three or so states bordering it.
It is a region that is a more permeable area than any other border space, due to its physical organization, the Mediterranean rim is particularly sensitive to the contaminating effects of crises. It is also a zone of friction between rich and poor, between an Africa in the full demographic boom, an Arab world under tension, and a Europe torn between openness and protectionism. Also, the chronic instability in the Eastern Mediterranean, the political and social fever of North African societies, and the risk of South/North migration are all reasons for vigilance, as is the indispensable preservation of the common environment: The Mediterranean Sea takes a hundred years to regenerate.
There are many declared or potential crisis areas. For nearly thirty years, the Mediterranean basin has been experiencing a crisis cycle that has progressively affected, directly or indirectly, a majority of its neighbors. The wars in the Balkans and their painful end, the civil war that ravaged Algeria in the last decade of the twentieth century, the proxy wars underway in the Levant, and the aftermath of the “Arab springs”, particularly in Libya and Syria, have been both metastases of more distant and deeper crises and laboratories for the balance of power in which the new balance of global and regional powers is played out. [xiii]
According to Dimitris K. Xenakis and Dimitris N. Chryssochoou : [xiv]
‘’Throughout history, the Mediterranean has been as much a laboratory for the cross-fertilisation of diverse cultures as it has been a place of open and protracted conflicts. Being a heterogeneous synthesis of various religious and ethnic groups — along the lines of a ‘heter-archy’ — as well as of unequal economic development, a plurality of political regimes, divergent perceptions of security (threats), and uneven demographic growth, Mediterranean complexity occupies a prominent position between order and disorder.’’
One of the challenges for the riparian countries, Europe and France is to re-appropriate the management of these crises, by refusing to be dispossessed and used by external interests. The creation of a local multilateralism, probably sub-regional as the eastern and western basins of the Mediterranean are so different, is probably an avenue to explore. The regional interest militates for a return to stability through dialogue and cooperation. From this point of view, the best asset of Europe and France is to be able to talk with everyone without taboos and to act as a credible and legitimate intermediary in the region. This is all the more important at a time when Donald Trump’s the United States was turning up the heat on Iran, threatening to ignite a conflict that could easily impact the security of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Red Sea.
Geography and demography
The geographical specificities (climate, soils, fragmented relief, border between the tropical and temperate zones) and historical specificities of the Mediterranean region make it one of the most original biogeographical regions in the world from the point of view of biological diversity, but also one of the threatened. [xv]
The Mediterranean is the only sea in the world to have given its name to a regional climatic unit. There is no such thing as a Caribbean climate or an Indian Ocean climate. I would like to emphasize this singularity because it is an absolutely structuring factor, a unifying factor with the exception of mountainous regions. The Mediterranean climate is characterized by the fact that the maximum temperatures correspond to the minimum rainfall. This means that summers are dry, winters and autumns rainy with very concentrated precipitation. The duration of sunshine per year varies from 2,400 to 3,500 hours against, for example, 1,630 in Paris and 1970 in the French national average. Water is therefore an important issue, an issue at risk.
Mediterranean agriculture is schematically characterized by two types of agricultural practices: dry and irrigated. Thus, the Spanish make a clear distinction between “secano“, and “regadío“. In addition to its cultural aspects, we can also mention the agricultural competition between the regions of the “north” and those of the “south”, the latter having an advantage of a few weeks over those of the north. That is to say that their productions arrive at maturity a few weeks earlier, with all the questions that this raises and that the specialists know well.
The summer drought is accentuated by a strong irregularity of precipitation and aridity in the south, which are likely to increase with global warming. This is a major constraint for vegetation, agriculture, and societies, which explains the fundamental importance of water for the entire region and the magnitude of the efforts devoted by successive generations to its storage, transport, and use. The Mediterranean countries comprise 7% of the world population but only 3% of the world’s water resources and more than half of the world’s “water-poor” population, i.e. with less than 1,000 m3 of renewable natural water resources per capita per year. [xvi]
One speaks readily of the sea. This is to forget that this space is rather like an extremely articulated body of water. 4000 kilometers separate Gibraltar from Beirut; the North-South distance does not exceed 800 km (Genoa in Italy/Bizerte in Tunisia). Between these extreme points, a system of peninsulas, capes, major islands, and minor islands, which generates 46,000 kilometers of coastline. Thus the Mediterranean riparians, when they sail, are never more than 350 kilometers from a coast. This is the reason why, since the beginning of time, man has been able to navigate on this body of water, in a more or less risky form of coastal navigation, since there is always the possibility of finding harbors.
Another singularity: The Mediterranean is an almost closed sea. In the East, at the Bosphorus Strait, the width between the two shores is about one kilometer; in the West, on the Gibraltar side, it varies, depending on the place, between 13 and 39 kilometers. The Suez Canal, which connects this area to the Red Sea, it is 60 meters wide, with a draft of 16 meters over 16 km long. What can we deduce from this? That this sea renews itself very slowly. However, the Mediterranean climate being hot and dry, the rainfall and the river contribution, especially from the Black Sea, are not enough to offset evaporation. In other words, the level of this sea would fall if there was no Atlantic contribution. The Atlantic contribution is 70,000 cubic meters per second, which means that it takes 90 years to renew all the water in the basin. This singularity explains why this sea is particularly sensitive to pollution problems.
Currently, there are a little more than 500 million inhabitants in this region of the world, the figure may vary depending on the limits given to this space. By 2025, according to Plan Bleu estimates, [xvii] the population will be 523 million, with an inverted north-south distribution. In 1950, 60% of the inhabitants lived on the northern shores of the Mediterranean, and 40% in the south. In 2025, due to the shifts in population growth, we should see a demographic reversal, with the southern shores hosting 60% of the population against 40% in the north. But let’s put a stop to fantasies of migratory invasion: the demographic transition has taken place in all the countries of the southern and eastern Mediterranean, as far as Iran. The only exception is Gaza, where there is a high fertility rate inspired by patriotism. [xviii]
The Mediterranean is facing the phenomenon of people residing on the coast. In the North as well as in the South, populations are crowding into overcrowded metropolises. In the North, 75 million people live in cities; in the South, 85 million.
You can follow Professor Mohamed Chtatou on Twitter: @Ayurinu
[i] The term the 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.
[ii] Gaius Iulius Solinus is the author of a work entitled Collectanea Rerum Mirabilium (around 300 CE), a comprehensive yet compact collection of knowledge about geography and wonders in the world, which survives in two versions. The first is presented, in a dedicatory letter addressed to a certain Adventus, as a liber ad compendium praeparatus (“book prepared as a brief survey”) dealing with “geographical features in their proper order, and adding some information on exotic trees, the looks and rites of distant peoples, and other memorable things.” The second version, with another dedicatory letter, claims to be a revision by Solinus himself, which justifies the new title Polyhistor (“know-it-all”). In both versions Solinus fulfills his program as set out in the dedicatory letter of the first version; among the “memorable things,” he focuses on precious stones. There is no other evidence for the author than the work itself. The first reliable termini ante quem for Solinus’s work are referenced in the works of Ammianus Marcellinus and his contemporary Maurus (or Marius) Servius Honoratus. (https://oxfordre.com/classics/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199381135.001.0001/acrefore-9780199381135-e-3426)
[iii] Isidore of Seville (Latin: Isidorus Hispalensis), born between 560 and 570 in Cartagena and died on April 4, 636, was a clergyman of the sixth century, metropolitan bishop of Hispalis (Seville), one of the main cities of the Visigothic kingdom between 601 and 636. He came from an influential family (his brother, Leander, a friend of Pope Gregory the Great, preceded him in the episcopate of Seville) which contributed greatly to the conversion of the Visigoths, who were mostly Arians, to Trinitarian Christianity. His episcopate was marked by hard struggles against Judaism and forced conversions. He is also known for his literary works in a variety of fields, from Scripture to grammar, theology, cosmology and history; for this he is called by Charles de Montalembert “the last master of the old world”.1 He is particularly famous for his major work Etymologiae, an encyclopedia in twenty books written towards the end of his life, which brought the thought of Aristotle back to the Western world. He is celebrated on April 4.
[iv] Barney, Stephen A., W. J. Lewis, J. A. Beach & Oliver Berghof. The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
[v] Jones, Anthony. « Research agendas for the Mediterranean region: opportunities and challenges », Cahiers de la Méditerranée , 89 | 2014. http://journals.openedition.org/cdlm/7795 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/cdlm.7795
[vi] Hassoun, A. E. R., Guiot, J., Marini, K., & Cramer, W. ‘’The changing Mediterranean Basin through the lens of Mediterranean experts’’, International Journal of Euro-Mediterranean Studies, 13(2), 2021, pp. 117-137.
‘’The different components of the Mediterranean Basin (land, coast, and sea) are undergoing significant changes due to multiple anthropogenic pressures, including climate change, pollution, and other factors. The 1st Mediterranean Assessment Report (MAR1), produced by the Mediterranean Experts on Climate and Environmental Change (Med ECC) and based on available scientific literature, provides a coherent and comprehensive synthesis of the status of the Mediterranean Basin, its main drivers, and their impacts on both ecosystems and human dimensions, with a focus on water, food, energy, ecosystems and ecosystem services, development, health, and human security. The report is the first multidisciplinary, transboundary assessment produced for this region and provides significant input to inform policy at regional, national and local levels. Its ground-breaking nature lies in the scope of the scientific assessment as well as in displaying the regional capacity to coordinate existing fragmented efforts in the region. The report highlights risks and possible response strategies that may help to increase the resilience to the effects of climate and environmental change. The conclusions show that effective policy responses, as well as in support of Sustainable Development Goals, encompass both strengthened mitigation of climate and environmental change and enhanced adaptation to their impacts. Socio-economic factors of poverty, inequalities and gender imbalances presently hamper the achievement of sustainable development and climate resilience in Mediterranean countries.’’
[vii] European Commission. ‘’Wider Europe – Neighbourhood: A New Framework for Relations with our Eastern and Southern Neighbours’’, COM (2003) 104, 2003, p. 10.
[viii] Norwich, John Julius. The Middle Sea: A History of the Mediterranean. New York City: Vintage Books, 2011.
Summary: This lively and dramatic book brings roaring to life the grand sweep of 5,000 years of history in the cradle of civilization. A wonderfully illustrated account of the civilizations that rose and fell on the lands bordering the Mediterranean, The Middle Sea represents the culmination of a great historian’s unparalleled art and scholarship. John Julius Norwich provides brilliant portraits of the Phoenicians, the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Arabs, the French, the Venetians, the Popes, and the pirates of the Gulf. Above all, he deftly traces the intermingling of ancient conflicts and modern sensibilities that shapes life today on the shores of the Middle Sea
[ix] Saglamer, Gulsun. ‘’The Mediterranean Sea: Cradle of Civilization’’, UN org, April 2013, No. 1 Vol. L, Water. https://www.un.org/en/chronicle/article/mediterranean-sea-cradle-civilization
[x] Abulafia, David. The Mediterranean in History Hardcover. Los Angeles, CA: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2003
Summary: Contained in this history of the “Great Sea” are the stories of the birth of Western Civilization, the clash of warring faiths, and the rivalries of empires. David Abulafia leads a team of eight distinguished historians in an exploration of the great facts, themes and epochs of this region’s history: the physical setting; the rivalry between Carthaginians, Greeks, and Etruscans for control of the sea routes; unification under Rome and the subsequent break up into Western Christendom, Byzantium, and Islam; the Crusades; commerce in medieval times; the Ottoman resurgence; the rivalry of European powers from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries; and the globalization of the region in the last century. The book departs from the traditional view of Mediterranean history, which placed emphasis on the overwhelming influences of physical geography on the molding of the region’s civilizations. Instead, this new interpretation regards the physical context as a staging ground for decisive action, and at center stage are human catalysts at all levels of society-whether great kings and emperors, the sailors of medieval Amalfi, or the Sephardic Jews who were expelled from Spain in 1492. The authors do more than simply catalog the societies that developed in the region, but also describe how these
groups interacted with one another across the sea, enjoying commercial and political ties as well as sharing ideas and religious beliefs. This richly illustrated book offers contemporary historical writing at its best and is sure to engage specialists, students, and general readers alike.
Mission: UfM’s mission is to enhance regional cooperation, dialogue, and the implementation of projects and initiatives with tangible impact on our citizens, with an emphasis on young people and women, in order to address the three strategic objectives of the region: stability, human development, and integration.
[xii] Quéguiner, J. ‘’The Mediterranean as a maritime trade route’’, Science Direct, Ocean Management,
Volume 3, Issues 3–4, August 1978, pp. 179-189.
Abstract: Ever since earliest antiquity, the Mediterranean has served as a channel for trade both between the countries bordering upon it and later, with the refinement of navigation techniques, with the other regions of the world. With the opening of the Suez Canal, it became a crossroad for shipping trade between North and South and between East and West. Especially vulnerable because it is semi-enclosed, the Mediterranean is threatened both by the nature of the cargoes being transported and by the density of maritime traffic.
In order to safeguard the Mediterranean, special attention is called for, as are also a series of protective measures.
[xiii] Pfetsch, F.R. ‘’Conflicts in and among Mediterranean Countries (1945–2001)’’, in: Brauch, H.G., Liotta, P.H., Marquina, A., Rogers, P.F. & Selim, M.ES. (eds) Security and Environment in the Mediterranean. Hexagon Series on Human and Environmental Security and Peace, vol 1. Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer, 2003. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-642-55854-2_7
Abstract: The Mediterranean is at the crossroad of three continents: Southern Europe, North Africa (Maghreb), and South-West Asia (Mashreq). During the Greek and Roman period, this region was both culturally and politically united. Later different parts went separate ways: on the Northern shore Italy, France, and Spain had a common history with Europe; in the East Turkey, Greece, Cyprus, and parts of the former Yugoslavia were part of the Ottoman Empire; the Maghreb countries with Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia were former French colonies; Libya had a colonial history with Italy, and Egypt, Malta, Palestine with England. The more recent historical developments produced a diverse political map that contributed to different conflict cleavages.
[xiv] Xenakis, De Dimitris K. & N. Chryssochoou. The Emerging Euro-Mediterranean System. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001, p.28.
This volume provides insights into the principal challenges facing the Euro-Mediterranean partnership since the signing of the Barcelona Declaration in November 1995. It assesses past European policies towards the region, addresses questions of Mediterranean complexity, and accounts for the politics of order-building and regime-formation in the emerging Euro-Mediterranean system.
[xv] Montanari, A. “Flows of goods and people in the Euromediterranean region”, in Conti, S. & Segre, A. (eds.), Mediterranean geographies, Geo-Italy 3. Roma: Società Geografica Italiana, 1998, pp. 159-170.
[xvi] Yom-Tov, Yoram. ‘’ The Mediterranean region – diversity and human influence’’, Cell, Volume 16, Issue 11, November 01, 2001, pp. 657-658. https://www.cell.com/trends/ecology-evolution/fulltext/S0169-5347(01)02312-6#relatedArticles
In 1976, the countries bordering the Mediterranean and the European community adopted the Barcelona Convention to protect the maritime environment and its coastal areas. The need to jointly understand development and environment to build a sustainable future for the Mediterranean is already fully integrated by the signatory countries. The Blue Plan is one of the regional activity centers of the Mediterranean Action Plan (MAP) of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), made available by France since 1977. The work program is validated every two years by the Contracting Parties to the Barcelona Convention.