It is 2,300 miles from Gibraltar to Beirut, no great distance by some standards. Travel that far from Boston and one barely makes it over the Continental Divide. But travel from one end of the Mediterranean to the other and one crosses more barriers—linguistic, racial, cultural, historic—than just about anywhere else in the world. What other place is home to so many grand civilizations, to three globe-spanning religions, to more old wars and new conflicts than we’d care to recall? To me it is an ongoing surprise that we are able to lump the birthplaces of Western civilization together under one label and call it all, simply, “the Mediterranean.”
Is it perhaps because the region, for all its human diversity, is so astonishingly uniform in other ways? The Mediterranean was long defined as the land in which the cultivation of the olive was possible—another way of saying that here nature has imposed itself evenly. The Mediterranean rim is as rocky and infertile along the shores of Morocco as it is on the Amalfi Coast. Winters are as wet in Marbella as they are in Mykonos, summers just as searing. However they are prepared, wheat and wine and olive oil remain the staples of life produced across the region. Even shelter—the whitewashed stone-built cube of the peasant—has been dictated by an environment that is consistent throughout and often surprisingly harsh.
But nature still doesn’t explain that decidedly un-harsh thing, the Mediterranean spirit. For that one has to look to Mediterraneans themselves.
As much as we like to think of it as our own modern creation, globalization is a Mediterranean invention. It is as old as Mediterranean trade itself and was developed by Phoenicians, Greeks, Catalans and other navigators of the middle sea—the original mercantile peoples. Sailing into one another’s ports, buying, selling and trading for centuries, these merchants built the systems of commercial maritime exchange that made these cities great. It’s not hard to think of the region as an early prototype of the Internet—a network of maritime links feeding into the common life of the sea. When the Mediterranean was called Mare Nostrum—“Our Sea”—the world really was connected.
And what connected it was not just trade but ideas as well. Along with the exotic goods set down on wharves came exotic concepts—foreign philosophies, new religions, peculiar foods, unknown music, strange hairstyles. The result was that the port dwellers grew outward-looking.
So it is today that the peoples of the Mediterranean sometimes have more in common with one another than they do with their own hinterlands. No one could say that Paris even vaguely resembles Cairo. Yet walk through the streets of Alexandria and it is oddly reminiscent of Marseille, the port city I live near. There is a shared character across this sea, a common way of looking at the world. But if the Mediterranean is a liquid medium of human exchange, that is not the whole story. An equally distinguishing attribute of the Mediterranean makeup is uniquely personal and insular—the ability of every Mediterranean to connect intimately with his or her surroundings. It is an internalized art that comes from a long history of fierce local attachment. Mediterraneans answer to the strong flavors of the landscapes they grow up in, to tradition, ritual and family ties, to cyclical rhythms of work and the seasons. And from these strong attachments grow a life of the senses that gives each existence meaning and substance.
Which predominates, Mediterranean connectivity or individualism? More often than not, they seem to work in tandem. Together they can produce cultural triumphs as complex as Leonardo’s Virgin and Child with St. Anne or as simple as a meal of risotto and chilled rosé. And when they work against each other, they can be destructive. The prospects of economic meltdown in southern Europe or civil conflict in Syria are no less part of that discord than the ancient wars of Rome and Carthage.
But the fact remains, the Mediterranean spirit is everywhere and continues to drive change. Much has been transformed since upper-class Victorians made the area a high point of any Grand Tour of Europe. Yet we follow in their footsteps even today, and for the same reasons: This is a place that not only speaks of a rich cultural legacy but also celebrates the sheer enjoyment of physical pleasure. And if one fails to find that spirit in the quaint fishing port we all still dream of, one will certainly find it elsewhere. It is alive and well wherever the olive tree grows.