Mediterranean Sea

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The Mediterranean is a vast sea positioned between Europe to the north, Africa to the south, and Asia to the east. It covers an area of approximately 2.54 million square kilometers; at its longest it is 3,800 kilometers, and at its widest it is 800 kilometers. To the west it is connected to the Atlantic Ocean through the Strait of Gibraltar, to the east with the Black Sea through the Dardanelles Straits, and to the south, since 1869, when the Suez Canal was opened, to the Red Sea. It is a semi-closed sea with little input from pluvial waters (rainfall and rivers) and a high rate of evaporation; without the constant influx of Atlantic water it would have dried up a long time ago. Mediterranean currents are not strong, but are rather deep. During the summer months its waters are calm; around the equinoxes and during the winter months storms are common and can be strong. The effect of tides is minimal, and winds are fairly regular. Its major climatic characteristic is a high seasonal variability, with generally mild and wet winters and hot and dry summers. Until the advent of the steamship, long-distance navigation across the Mediterranean was mostly seasonal, whereas coastal navigation occurred throughout the year. The staples of its agricultural trade have not changed for millennia: grains, wine, citrus fruits, salt, and especially olive oil (which was used as foodstuff and in the soap and woolen industries).


Since antiquity the Mediterranean region has been at the center of the political, economic, and cultural development of Europe. The existence of a peculiar "Mediterranean" civilization has been the object of a long and still unresolved debate initiated by the 1949 publication of Fernand Braudel's monumental The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II. Except during the Roman Empire (first century b.c.e. to fourth century c.e.) the Mediterranean has always been politically and religiously fragmented. These divisions, within a limited geographical space, shaped a world in which issues of trade and politics have always been very closely interconnected. During the medieval and early modern period religious and ethnic minorities—Jews and Armenians, in particular—played an important role, acting as intermediaries between different cultures and facilitating trade.

By the fifteenth century Spain and the Republic of Venice were the major commercial powers in the area. Spain controlled the western part of the Mediterranean, whilst Venice enjoyed a near-monopoly in procuring spices, sugar, silk, and other luxury Asian products for the European markets. During the sixteenth century European geographical expansion started to shift the center of the European economy away from the Mediterranean, favoring countries with an Atlantic coastline. The circumnavigation of Africa (1498) provided an alternative route to Asia, and disruptions in the land caravan trades that supplied the eastern Mediterranean emporia slowly changed the structures of global trade to the detriment of the Mediterranean. The influx of gold and silver from the Americas also transformed the financial structure of long-distance Mediterranean trade. A long crisis ensued, which led to a growing presence of non-Mediterranean ships in Mediterranean waters for the first time. English and Dutch naval technology (developed for oceanic trades) proved superior to local ones, especially after fire-power changed the nature of warfare. The Ottoman Empire widened its political and commercial influence in the southeastern Mediterranean, though almost exclusively Europeans handled its foreign trade. To counterbalance Venetian influence, the Ottoman rulers granted capitulations to the French (1569) and English (1581). Its very valuable internal trade was largely in the hands of minorities within the empire: Jews, Armenians, and Greeks in particular.

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the Barbary States of northern Africa—tributaries of the Ottoman Empire—actively pursued a corsair war against Christian shipping. Christians retaliated, especially through the activities of the Knights of Malta and Saint Stephen (based in Leghorn). Corsair war disrupted trade and increased protection costs. Conflicts between Christians and Muslims also revived the Mediterranean slave trade.

During the seventeenth century Smyrne (Izmir) became the main Mediterranean entrepôt of the Ottoman Empire. Through a policy of low tariffs and no transit dues, the Grand Duchy of Tuscany succeeded in attracting Jewish traders and foreign merchants in Leghorn (1593). The whole basin, however, was enveloped in a general economic crisis, consequence of the shift of the previous century. Grain shortages facilitated the penetration of Dutch shipping, carrying Baltic grain especially to Italian markets. By the end of the seventeenth century English, Dutch, and French (in this order) dominated Mediterranean trade.


The eighteenth century saw Britain's maritime power growing in the Mediterranean, notwithstanding French opposition. The decline of all the traditional political and commercial powers of the area (Venice, the Ottoman Empire, and Spain) created an economic and political vacuum in the area, drawing in other European powers. The English obtained Gibraltar in the War of Spanish Succession (1701–1714). With the conquest of Hungary and Croatia, the center of the Austrian Empire moved to the southeast, and a free port was established in Trieste (1719) to take advantage of the terminal decline of Venice. The Russians invested in the rise of the Black Sea port of Odessa, thereby integrating Mediterranean trade with Russian internal trade. Military operations were always strictly connected with the protection of national trade interests. The French and English navies fought hard to keep the sea lanes opened for their merchant ships, and blockaded ports to cut off enemy trade.

Anglo-French confrontation—militarily and commercially—continued in the nineteenth century, heavily disrupting regular traffic. Greek Ottoman subjects took advantage of this, widening the scope of their ship owning interests and building the basis of their current domination in tramp shipping. But the true winners were the English who came to dominate the Mediterranean trade, especially after the opening of the Suez Canal (1869), which provided a direct sea route to the Indian Ocean. This lowered significantly the cost of raw materials coming into Europe to feed its ever-growing industrialization.

In the meantime, Western European states proceeded to colonize the southern shores of the Mediterranean, matching their commercial domination with a political one: France occupied parts of North Africa, and England large parts of the Middle East. After World War II (1939–1945) the Mediterranean regained its strategic importance, due to the newly discovered crude oil and natural gas deposits of North Africa and the Middle East. Trade and politics were once again closely intertwined in the decolonizing process. In 1956 Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal, rejecting foreign control.

The founding of the European Economic Community (1957), which later became the European Union (1993), transformed trade patterns in the Mediterranean. Membership in the European Union (EU) proved to be very advantageous, and its preferential commercial tariffs widened the gap between industrialized Europe and non-industrialized Africa and the Middle East. As a result, commercial relations between European and other Mediterranean countries declined, especially with northern and eastern European countries planning to join the EU. To address these problems, in 1995 a Euro-Mediterranean partnership was created between the fif-teen EU member states at that time (the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Luxembourg, Austria, Ireland, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Greece, Great Britain) and twelve nonmember states, all bordering the Mediterranean (Turkey, Israel, Cyprus, Malta, Syria, Lebanon, Palestinian Authority, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco). Its goal is to work towards the creation of a free-trade agreement between its signatories.

The Mediterranean today is, after the English Channel, the most trafficked sea route on the planet. Intra-Mediterranean sea borne trade represents only 20 percent of the total, as most of the traffic is transit trade. Hydrocarbons traffic is particularly heavy due to the sea's proximity to the world's largest oil and natural gas fields. Such heavy traffic is dangerous, and polluting goods is cause for constant concern for the coastal states, especially the ones which enjoy a large income from tourism.

SEE ALSO Ali, Muhammad; Arms, Armaments; Blockades in War; Bonaparte, Napoleon; Bullion (Specie); Caravan Trade; Climate; Coffee; Cotton; Egypt; Empire, British; Empire, Dutch; Empire, French; Empire, Ottoman; Empire, Portuguese; Empire, Spanish; Ethnic Groups, Armenians; Ethnic Groups, Jews; Fairs; France; Genoa; Gold and Silver; Greece; Guilds; Imperialism; Italy; Marseilles; Mercantilism; Millets and Capitulations; Morocco; Nantes; Pasha, Ismaʿil; Petroleum; Philip II; Piracy; Portugal; Privateering; Protection Costs; Shipbuilding; Shipping Lanes; Ship Types; Slavery and the African Slave Trade; Smuggling; Spain; Spices and the Spice Trade; Suez Canal; Sugar, Molasses, and Rum; Textiles; United States; Venice; Wars; Wheat and Other Cereal Grains; Wine.


Abulafia, David, ed. The Mediterranean in History. London: Thames and Hudson, 2003.

Braudel, Fernand. The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II. 2 volumes. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

Carpentier, Jean, and Lebrun, François. Histoire de la Méditerranée (History of the Mediterranean). Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1998.

Pierros Filippos, Meunier Jacob, Abrams Stan. Bridges and Barriers: The European Union Mediterranean Policy, 1961–1998. Aldershot: Ashgate, 1999.

Rapp, Richard T. "The Unmaking of the Mediterranean Trade Hegemony: International Trade Rivalry and the Commercial Revolution." Journal of Economic History 35, no. 3 (September 1975): 499–525.

Wainwright, John, and Thornes, John B. Environmental Issues in the Mediterranean: Processes and Perspectives from the Past and Present. London and New York: Routledge, 2004.

Maria Fusaro

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Mediterraneanantipodean, Crimean, Judaean, Korean •Albion •Gambian, Zambian •lesbian •Arabian, Bessarabian, Fabian, gabion, Sabian, Swabian •amphibian, Libyan, Namibian •Sorbian •Danubian, Nubian •Colombian • Serbian • Nietzschean •Chadian, Trinidadian •Andean, Kandyan •guardian •Acadian, Akkadian, Arcadian, Barbadian, Canadian, circadian, Grenadian, Hadean, Orcadian, Palladian, radian, steradian •Archimedean, comedian, epicedian, median, tragedian •ascidian, Derridean, Dravidian, enchiridion, Euclidean, Floridian, Gideon, Lydian, meridian, Numidian, obsidian, Pisidian, quotidian, viridian •Amerindian, Indian •accordion, Edwardian •Cambodian, collodion, custodian, melodeon, nickelodeon, Odeon •Freudian • Bermudian • Burundian •Burgundian •Falstaffian, Halafian •Christadelphian, Delphian, Philadelphian •nymphean • ruffian • Brobdingnagian •Carolingian • Swedenborgian •logion, Muskogean •Jungian •magian, Pelagian •collegian •callipygian, Cantabrigian, Phrygian, Stygian •Merovingian • 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Tertullian •Liverpudlian •Bahamian, Bamian, Damian, Mesopotamian, Samian •anthemion, Bohemian •Endymion, prosimian, Simeon, simian •isthmian • antinomian •Permian, vermian •Oceanian •Albanian, Azanian, Iranian, Jordanian, Lithuanian, Mauritanian, Mediterranean, Panamanian, Pennsylvanian, Pomeranian, Romanian, Ruritanian, Sassanian, subterranean, Tasmanian, Transylvanian, Tripolitanian, Turanian, Ukrainian, Vulcanian •Armenian, Athenian, Fenian, Magdalenian, Mycenaean (US Mycenean), Slovenian, Tyrrhenian •Argentinian, Arminian, Augustinian, Carthaginian, Darwinian, dominion, Guinean, Justinian, Ninian, Palestinian, Sardinian, Virginian •epilimnion, hypolimnion •Bosnian •Bornean, Californian, Capricornian •Aberdonian, Amazonian, Apollonian, Babylonian, Baconian, Bostonian, Caledonian, Catalonian, Chalcedonian, Ciceronian, Devonian, draconian, Estonian, Etonian, gorgonian, Ionian, Johnsonian, Laconian, Macedonian, Miltonian, Newtonian, Oregonian, Oxonian, Patagonian, Plutonian, Tennysonian, Tobagonian, Washingtonian •Cameroonian, communion, Mancunian, Neptunian, Réunion, union •Hibernian, Saturnian •Campion, champion, Grampian, rampion, tampion •thespian • Mississippian • Olympian •Crispian •Scorpian, scorpion •cornucopian, dystopian, Ethiopian, Salopian, subtopian, Utopian •Guadeloupian •Carian, carrion, clarion, Marian •Calabrian, Cantabrian •Cambrian • Bactrian •Lancastrian, Zoroastrian •Alexandrian • Maharashtrian •equestrian, pedestrian •agrarian, antiquarian, apiarian, Aquarian, Arian, Aryan, authoritarian, barbarian, Bavarian, Bulgarian, Caesarean (US Cesarean), centenarian, communitarian, contrarian, Darien, disciplinarian, egalitarian, equalitarian, establishmentarian, fruitarian, Gibraltarian, grammarian, Hanoverian, humanitarian, Hungarian, latitudinarian, libertarian, librarian, majoritarian, millenarian, necessarian, necessitarian, nonagenarian, octogenarian, ovarian, Parian, parliamentarian, planarian, predestinarian, prelapsarian, proletarian, quadragenarian, quinquagenarian, quodlibetarian, Rastafarian, riparian, rosarian, Rotarian, sabbatarian, Sagittarian, sanitarian, Sauveterrian, sectarian, seminarian, septuagenarian, sexagenarian, topiarian, totalitarian, Trinitarian, ubiquitarian, Unitarian, utilitarian, valetudinarian, vegetarian, veterinarian, vulgarian •Adrian, Hadrian •Assyrian, Illyrian, Syrian, Tyrian •morion • Austrian •Dorian, Ecuadorean, historian, Hyperborean, Nestorian, oratorian, praetorian (US pretorian), salutatorian, Salvadorean, Singaporean, stentorian, Taurean, valedictorian, Victorian •Ugrian • Zarathustrian •Cumbrian, Northumbrian, Umbrian •Algerian, Cancerian, Chaucerian, Cimmerian, criterion, Hesperian, Hitlerian, Hyperion, Iberian, Liberian, Nigerian, Presbyterian, Shakespearean, Siberian, Spenserian, Sumerian, valerian, Wagnerian, Zairean •Arthurian, Ben-Gurion, centurion, durian, holothurian, Khachaturian, Ligurian, Missourian, Silurian, tellurian •Circassian, Parnassian •halcyon • Capsian • Hessian •Albigensian, Waldensian •Dacian • Keatsian •Cilician, Galician, Lycian, Mysian, Odyssean •Leibnizian • Piscean • Ossian •Gaussian • Joycean • Andalusian •Mercian • Appalachian • Decian •Ordovician, Priscian •Lucian •himation, Montserratian •Atlantean, Dantean, Kantian •bastion, Erastian, Sebastian •Mozartian • Brechtian • Thyestean •Fortean • Faustian • protean •Djiboutian •fustian, Procrustean •Gilbertian, Goethean, nemertean •pantheon •Hogarthian, Parthian •Lethean, Promethean •Pythian • Corinthian • Scythian •Lothian, Midlothian •Latvian • Yugoslavian •avian, Batavian, Flavian, Moldavian, Moravian, Octavian, Scandinavian, Shavian •Bolivian, Maldivian, oblivion, Vivian •Chekhovian, Harrovian, Jovian, Pavlovian •alluvion, antediluvian, diluvian, Peruvian •Servian • Malawian • Zimbabwean •Abkhazian • Dickensian •Caucasian, Malaysian, Rabelaisian •Keynesian •Belizean, Cartesian, Indonesian, Milesian, Salesian, Silesian •Elysian, Frisian, Parisian, Tunisian •Holmesian •Carthusian, Malthusian, Venusian

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The Mediterranean Sea has held huge economic importance for millennia. This virtually landlocked sea, bordered by three continents, has been a vital bridge for economic and cultural commerce over centuries. In the ancient period it gave rise to the world's first great civilizations, most notably the Phoenicians and the Minoans. In later periods it fostered major global developments such as the rise and dissemination of Christianity and Islam. While following the Middle Ages the Mediterranean went into decline, largely as the result of the so-called Age of Discovery and Europe's new orientation toward the Americas, it remained critical to the imperial regimes of the Venetians, Ottomans, and Habsburgs. In the early twenty-first century, following the initiation in the 1990s of the Barcelona Process, it has regained importance as a critical cultural and economic intersection between Europe, Africa, and Asia.

States along the Mediterranean's shores in the early twenty-first century include Spain, France, Monaco, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia and Montenegro, Albania, Greece, Turkey, Syria, Israel, Palestine, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. Two further states—Cyprus and Malta—are islands within it. Most of these polities were shaped by the nineteenth-century transition from Ottoman regional dominance to the establishment of separate nation states in the area. Traditionally, the Mediterranean Sea has had a unifying, rather than a dividing effect, and has served far more as a conduit for communication and cultural diffusion than as a boundary between different geographic regions. This unity notwithstanding, the region has over the course of millennia been a site of intense international and regional competition and warfare. The events of the "long nineteenth century" are a case in point.

At the time of the French Revolution the Mediterranean was divided up largely between the Ottoman Empire, the Russian Empire, and the Venetian Republic; by the end of World War II none of these empires existed. The most dramatic changes of fortune during the period were dealt to the Ottomans and to the Venetian Republic; struggles within the Mediterranean were the direct cause of the latter's decline, and a key component of the Ottoman Empire's ultimate demise.

During the French Revolutionary period and on into the nineteenth century, the Russians, French, and British were the primary contenders for control in the region. Following the Treaty of Kuchuk Kainardji (1774), the Russians were granted large latitude in Mediterranean seagoing trade within Ottoman waters and gained control of the Dardanelles, a narrow strait that links the sea in the northeast to the Black Sea. The treaty also gave Russia a protectorate of sorts over Greek Orthodox subjects of the Ottoman Empire and as such contributed greatly to the growth of Greek dominance in Mediterranean trade.

The Ionian Islands, off the northwest coast of today's Greece, were the site of conflict between Venice, France, and Britain. Corfu, the largest of the island chain, was under Venetian control until Napoleon wrested it from Venice, effectively bringing about the end of the Venetian overseas empire. Some years later the islands came under a British protectorate, before being joined with Greece in 1864. The rapid growth of Napoleonic power in Europe made the Mediterranean a strategically vital site in the efforts of British, Habsburg, and Russian powers to stem the growth of France. The Congress of Vienna (1814–1815), the basis for modern-day concepts of the balance of power, laid a plan for maintaining equilibrium between the Great Powers; equitable division of the Mediterranean was one of its core components. Over the course of the century, Britain and France took control of most of formerly Ottoman North Africa, most notably with France taking Algeria in 1830 and Great Britain taking Egypt in 1882.

Internal conflicts as well as international ones also led to significant changes in the region. Under Mehmet Ali (1769–1849), Egypt was modernized over the course of the first half of the nineteenth century, and the port city of Alexandria emerged as the Mediterranean city par excellence. In 1848 revolutions within the Habsburg Empire, France, and particularly the Italian States further destabilized the region.

With the exponential growth of trade and industry in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, the nineteenth century saw the rise of a number of important port cities, known for their markedly high levels of liberal cosmopolitanism, cultural diversity, and multilinguality. Such cities as Izmir on the Asia Minor coast, Alexandria in Egypt, Salonika in Greek Macedonia, Trieste on the Adriatic in northeastern Italy, and Marseilles and Toulon on the French coast are prime examples. At the same time, vast engineering projects reclaimed some of the Mediterranean's earlier centrality to global seagoing trade. The Suez Canal, which opened in 1869, linked the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, and thus to the Arabian Sea, while the Corinth Canal (1893) linked the Aegean and Ionian Seas within the Mediterranean. With this renewed economic importance, struggle for control of the region intensified further.

See alsoAfrica; France; Italy; Ottoman Empire.


Abulafia, Daniel, ed. The Mediterranean in History. London, 2003.

Bradford, Ernle Dusgate Selby. Mediterranean: Portrait of a Sea. London, 1971.

Braudel, Fernand. The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II. Vol. 2. Translated from the French by Siân Reynolds. Berkeley, Calif., 1995.

Kurth, James, and James Petras, eds. Mediterranean Paradoxes: Politics and Social Structure in Southern Europe. Providence, R.I., 1993.

Swain, James E. The Struggle for the Control of the Mediterranean Prior to 1848: A Study in Anglo-French Relations. Boston, 1933.

K. Fleming

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Mediterranean Sea

For centuries, the Mediterranean Sea has been the focal point of western civilization. It is an area rich in history and has played critical roles in the development of shipping and trade, as a resource for feeding growing populations, and as an aid to the spread and mingling of races and cultures.

The Mediterranean began to form about 250 million years ago when the Eurasian and African continental plates began moving toward each other, pinching off the Tethys Sea, an extensive shallow sea that separated Europe and much of Asia from Africa and India. It now has only two outlets, the Straits of Gibraltar and the Bosporus, a narrow strait between the Mediterranean and Black Seas. While the central basin of the Mediterranean reaches depths of several thousand yards, there is a sill under the Straits of Gibraltar that is only 1,970 feet (600 m) below the surface. Through this passageway flows surface water from the Atlantic Ocean.

Since the Mediterranean is situated in one of the world's arid belts, the inputs from precipitation and rivers is far less than the water lost through evaporation. If the straight at Gibraltar were to close due to further plate movements, the Mediterranean would dry up. In fact, data from the Deep Sea Drilling Project, seismic surveys, and fossil analysis have found evidence of salt deposits, ancient river valleys, and fresh water animals, all suggesting that this has occurred at least once. Since the African and Eurasian plates are moving together, this will probably happen again.

Humans can do nothing about this impending geological disaster. There are, however, events that people can influence. Domestic sewage, industrial discharge , agricultural runoff , and oil spills are seriously threatening the Mediterranean, fouling its once clear waters, altering its chemical cycling, and killing its organisms. Along its northern coastline are some of the most heavily industrialized nations in the world, whose industries are destroying nearshore nursery habitats, damaging fisheries. Dams on inflowing rivers reduce the sediment inputs, making coastal erosion a major problem. Shipping, once the hallmark of Mediterranean civilization, releases every manner of waste into the Sea, including oil. Annually, 6 million barrels of oil end up in the Mediterranean. The limited water circulation patterns of the Mediterranean compound this problem as pollutants accumulate.

Today seafood contamination and eye, skin, and intestinal diseases are frequently experienced by coastal residents. Marine mammal and sea turtle populations are threatened by habitat loss and nondegradable pollutants dumped into the waters. Sea grass (Posidonia oceanica ), which provides food and habitat for some 400 species of algae and thousands of species of fish and invertebrates, is disappearing. Nutrient enrichment of the Mediterranean results in large plankton blooms which, combined with destructive fishing practices, contribute to the demise of the sea grass beds.

These problems have been recognized, and efforts are being made to reverse the declining health of the Mediterranean. Early efforts included the 1910 construction of one of the first institutions for study of the seas, the Musée Oceanographique by Prince Albert I of Monaco. Since then, the conflicts between the political and religious ideologies of the 18 nations surrounding the Mediterranean have been major hurdles in completing cleanup plans. In 1976, the Mediterranean Action Plan was signed by 13 of the nations. A major component of this agreement was the Blue Plan, a study of future effects of increasing coastal populations. Other efforts include the Genoa Declaration in 1985 and the Nicosia Charter in 1990. The latter commits resources of the community, the World Bank , the European Investment Bank, and the United Nations Environment Programme to achieve a Mediterranean environment compatible with sustainable development by 2025. Hopefully, these efforts can reverse the decline of this natural wonder.

See also Algal bloom; Biofouling; Commercial fishing; Environmental degradation; Ocean dumping; Water pollution

[William G. Ambrose and Paul E. Renaud ]



Heezen, B. C., and C. D. Hollister. Faces of the Deep. London: Oxford University Press, 1971.

Thurman, H. V. Essentials of Oceanography. Columbus: Merrill, 1983.


Batisse, M. "Probing the Future of the Mediterranean Basin." Environment 32 (1990): 415.

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Mediterranean Sea [Lat.,=in the midst of lands], the world's largest inland sea, c.965,000 sq mi (2,499,350 sq km), surrounded by Europe, Asia, and Africa.


The Mediterranean is c.2,400 mi (3,900 km) long with a maximum width of c.1,000 mi (1,600 km); its greatest depth is c.14,450 ft (4,400 m), off Cape Matapan, Greece. It connects with the Atlantic Ocean through the Strait of Gibraltar; with the Black Sea through the Dardanelles, the Sea of Marmara, and the Bosporus; and with the Red Sea through the Suez Canal. Its chief divisions are the Tyrrhenian, Adriatic, Ionian, and Aegean seas; its chief islands are Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica, Crete, Cyprus, Malta, Rhodes, the Dodecanese, the Cyclades, the Sporades, the Balearic Islands, and the Ionian Islands. Shallows (Adventure Bank) between Sicily and Cape Bon, Tunisia, divide the Mediterranean into two main basins.

The sea is of higher salinity than the Atlantic and has little variation in tides. The largest rivers that flow into it are the Po, Rhône, Ebro, and Nile. The shores are chiefly mountainous. Earthquakes and volcanic disturbances are frequent. The region around the sea has a warm, dry climate characterized by abundant sunshine. Strong local winds, such as the hot, dry sirocco from the south and the cold, dry mistral and bora from the north, blow across the sea. Fish (about 400 species), sponges, and corals are plentiful. In addition, oil and natural gas have been found in several sections of the sea. The overuse of the sea's natural and marine resources continues to be a problem.


Some of the most ancient civilizations (see Aegean civilization) flourished around the Mediterranean. It was opened as a highway for commerce by merchants trading from Phoenicia. Carthage, Greece, Sicily, and Rome were rivals for dominance of its shores and trade; under the Roman Empire it became virtually a Roman lake and was called Mare Nostrum [our sea]. Later, the Byzantine Empire and the Arabs dominated the Mediterranean. Between the 11th and 14th cent., Italian city trading states such as Genoa, Venice, and Barcelona dominated the region; they struggled with the Ottomans for naval supremacy, particularly in the E Mediterranean. Products of Asia passed to Europe over Mediterranean trade routes until the establishment of a route around the Cape of Good Hope (late 15th cent.).

With the opening of the Suez Canal (1869) the Mediterranean resumed its importance as a link on the route to the East. The development of the northern regions of Africa and of oil fields in the Middle East has increased its trade. Its importance as a trade link and as a route for attacks on Europe resulted in European rivalry for control of its coasts and islands and led to campaigns in the region during both world wars. Since World War II the Mediterranean region has been of strategic importance to both the United States and, until its dissolution, the Soviet Union. In 1995 countries bordering the Mediterranean signed a pact agreeing to protect it by eliminating toxic waste disposal there over a 10-year period.


See E. D. Bradford, Mediterranean, Portrait of a Sea (1971); J. E. Swain, The Struggle for the Control of the Mediterranean Prior to 1848 (1973); M. Miloradov, ed., Pollution of the Mediterranean Sea (1987); M. Grant, The Ancient Mediterranean (1988); D. Abulafia, The Mediterranean in History (2003); D. Abulafia, The Great Sea (2011).

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Mediterranean Sea

From ancient times the Mediterranean Sea served as a great highway, linking the lands around its shores. It played an important role in the Roman Empire, in the rise of Italy's maritime* cities, and in the expansion of the Islamic world across northern Africa to Spain. In the centuries before the Renaissance, Venice and Genoa regarded the Mediterranean as their own special province to use and to fight over.

Economic Role of the Mediterranean. The economic importance of the Mediterranean Sea in the late Middle Ages was reflected in the prosperity of the northern Italian cities that controlled the sea. Venice served as the hub of European commerce throughout the 1400s. The most profitable part of its trade was in spices obtained from ports in Egypt and along the eastern Mediterranean coast. Venice also imported Egyptian cotton, Greek wine, North African grain, and other goods from around the Mediterranean in exchange for cash or cloth, usually from Germany.

Venice's maritime and commercial rival, Genoa, dealt in spices as well. However, Genoa was better known for its trade in silks, which came from China by way of ports on the Black Sea. Genoa also controlled the trade in alum, a mineral salt from the eastern Mediterranean that was used in the manufacture of cloth. The city exported alum to England and Flanders* in exchange for wool. From the mid-1400s Genoa's trade in the eastern Mediterranean was threatened by the rising power of the Ottoman Turks*. As a result, Genoa focused its commercial activity on the western part of the sea.

Ottoman Rise. The Ottoman Turks emerged as a major force in the Mediterranean during the 1400s. In 1453 they conquered the Byzantine* capital of Constantinople (present-day Istanbul). With control over Constantinople's harbor and shipbuilding industry, the Turks had the means to become a major naval power. Against them stood Christian Europe. Their main rivals in the eastern Mediterranean Sea were the Venetians, who had established a string of coastal and island forts to contain the Ottoman threat. The Turks broke this chain in 1480, landing an invasion force in Italy. Although they abandoned the invasion on the death of their leader, Mehmed II, they maintained the pressure on the Venetian bases in the eastern Mediterranean.

By the mid-1500s the Turkish fleet greatly outnumbered that of Venice and its allies. However, the Ottomans knew that the key to maritime domination was the possession of bases in key locations. They captured Egypt in 1517, the Greek island of Rhodes in 1522, and the North African port of Tripoli in 1551, extending their control of Mediterranean lands from Dalmatia to Morocco.

In 1570 an Ottoman attack on Cyprus, an island controlled by Venice, led to a naval alliance between Spain, Genoa, Venice, and the papacy*. The following year, the Christian fleet soundly defeated the Turks at the Battle of Lepanto. Although the Turks built a new fleet and occupied Cyprus, they no longer presented a major threat to Europeans. However, for the next century the Mediterranean saw constant piracy, raiding, and naval skirmishes between Europeans and Turks.

By the end of the 1500s, Europe's economy had shifted away from the Mediterranean to the manufacturing and banking centers of England and central and northern Europe. However, for the two centuries of the Renaissance the Mediterranean Sea had served as the major route between the Western and Eastern worlds, the place where Christians and Muslims met in trade and in war.

(See alsoConstantinople, Fall of; Economy and Trade; Ottoman Empire. )

* maritime

relating to the sea or shipping

* Flanders

region along the coasts of present-day Belgium, France, and the Netherlands

* Ottoman Turks

Turkish followers of Islam who founded the Ottoman Empire in the 1300s; the empire eventually included large areas of eastern Europe, the Middle East, and northern Africa

* Byzantine

referring to the Eastern Christian Empire based in Constantinople (a.d. 476–1453)

* papacy

office and authority of the pope

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sea between europe, africa, and asia.

The Mediterranean Sea is about 2,400 miles long, covers an area of about 965,000 square miles, and is ringed by a winding coastline of peninsulas and mountains. The sea opens to the Atlantic Ocean through the Strait of Gibraltar, to the Black Sea through the Dardanelles, and to the Red Sea through the Suez Canal.

Since antiquity, the Mediterranean has been an important waterway for trade and has fostered great civilizations on its shores. The sea's strategic significance declined after the sixteenth century as trade routes shifted to the Atlantic but increased again with the 1869 opening of the Suez Canal and its subsequent use for oil shipping. The 1995 Declaration of Barcelona marked the beginning of political and economic collaboration between the European Union and countries on all shores of the Mediterranean.

The pollution of the sea remains a cause of concern for governments in the region, as reflected in the signing of two protocols for the protection of the Mediterranean Sea against pollution in 1980 and 1982. Land-based sources of pollution account for 80 percent of the total pollution. Participant countries in the convention for the protection of the Mediterranean Sea have made periodic commitments to reducing pollution, with mixed results.


Braudel, Fernand. The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, translated by Siân Reynolds. New York: Harper and Row, 1972.

Cerutti, Furio, and Ragionieri, Rodolfo, eds. Identities and Conflicts: The Mediterranean. New York: Palgrave, 2001.

McNeill, J. R. The Mountains of the Mediterranean World: An Environmental History. New York and Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

elizabeth thompson
updated by vanesa casanova-fernandez

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Mediterranean Sea Largest inland sea in the world, lying between Europe and Africa, and extending from the Strait of Gibraltar in the w to the coast of sw Asia in the e. The Mediterranean was once a trade route for Phoenicians and Greeks, later controlled by Rome and Byzantium. In the Middle Ages Venice and Genoa were the dominant maritime powers until the rise of the Ottoman Turks. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 made the Mediterranean one of the world's busiest shipping routes and the development of the Middle Eastern oilfields further increased its importance. The Mediterranean is connected to the Black Sea via the Dardanelles, the Sea of Marmara and the Bosporus, and to the Red Sea by the Suez Canal. It includes the Tyrrhenian, Adriatic, Ionian, and Aegean seas. It receives the waters of several major rivers, including the Nile, Rhône, Ebro, Tiber, and Po. There are c.400 species of fish in the Mediterranean, and tuna, sardines and anchovies are among those caught commercially. In recent years, pollution has become a major issue. Area: 2,509,972km (969,100sq mi).

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Med·i·ter·ra·ne·an / ˌmedətəˈrānēən/ • adj. of or characteristic of the Mediterranean Sea, the countries bordering it, or their inhabitants: a leisurely Mediterranean cruise our temperatures are Mediterranean. ∎  (of a person's complexion) relatively dark, as is common in some Mediterranean countries. • n. 1. the Mediterranean Sea or the countries bordering it. 2. a native of a country bordering on the Mediterranean.

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Mediterranean water A water mass, formed in the arid eastern Mediterranean, flows westward, sinking in the Algero-Ligurian and Alboran basins to a depth of approximately 500 m due to its high salinity (36.5–39.1 parts per thousand). This dense water flows into the Atlantic Ocean through the relatively shallow Straits of Gibraltar at a depth below 150 m, while above it lighter, Atlantic water flows eastward into the Mediterranean Sea. The Mediterranean water in the Atlantic then sinks to about 1000 m, where it forms a clearly identifiable water mass.