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History of the Mediterranean region
The history of the Mediterranean region is the history of the interaction of the cultures and peoples of the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea — the central superhighway of transport, trade and cultural exchange between diverse peoples. Its history is important to understanding the origin and development of the West African (see shipbuilding), Egyptian, Greek, Latin, and Arab/Persian cultures and hence is important to our modern understanding of the development of Western Civilization. See also History of Suez Canal.
Two of the first civilizations began in the Mediterranean area. The Nile River valley was unified under the Pharaohs in the fourth millennium BC. Soon after, civilization developed in Mesopotamia and quickly spread through the fertile crescent to the east coast of the sea and throughout the Levant. These areas shared similar climates and geographies, but it was more difficult to spread technologies and crops to other portions of the Mediterranean basin.
In time, large empires developed in Asia Minor, such as the Hittites. Though West Africans were the most successful of all shipbuilders of prehistory, the main expansion among Mediterranean peoples was delayed until they too learned how to build ships sturdy enough to cross the sea. Cyprus and the other islands developed, and the Minoan civilization flourished on the island of Crete. While the river valley civilizations always had larger populations, the trading societies on the coast of the sea soon became the most prosperous, and rose to power.
See also History of Suez Canal.
The two most notable of these were the Greek city states and the Phonecians. The Greeks expanded throughout the Black Sea and south through the Red Sea. The Phoenicians spread through the western Mediterranean including North Africa and Spain. The Phoenician heartland in the Levant was still dominated by powers rooted east in Mesopotamia or Persia, and the Phoenicians often provided the naval forces of the Persian Empire. Greek prosperity had long been linked to the sea; to the North, in Macedonia technological and organizational skill was forged with a long history of cavalry warfare. Under Alexander the Great, this force turned east, and in a series of three decisive battles, routed the Persian forces and took their empire. The Phoenician lands were taken, as was Egypt. For the first time, the major centres of the Mediterranean were in one hand. Alexander's empire quickly disintegrated, and the Middle East, Egypt, and Greece were soon again independent. Alexander's conquests spread Greek knowledge and ideas throughout the region.
These eastern powers soon began to be overshadowed by those further west. In North Africa the former Phoenician colony of Carthage rose to dominate its surroundings with an empire that contained many of the former Phoenician holdings. However, it was a city on the Italian peninsula, Rome, that would eventually dominate the entire Mediterranean basin. Spreading first through Italy, Rome defeated Carthage in the Punic Wars, becoming the leading force in the region. The Romans soon spread east taking Greece, and the Greek heritage played an important role in the Roman Empire. By this point the coastal trading cultures were thoroughly dominant over the inland river valleys that had once been the heart of the great powers. Egyptian power moved from the Nile cities to the coastal ones, especially Alexandria. Mesopotamia became a fringe border region between the Roman Empire and the Persians.
For several centuries the Mediterranean was a "Roman Lake," surrounded on all sides by the empire. One portion of the empire was Judea, and in time, a religion founded in that region, Christianity, spread throughout the empire and eventually became its official faith. The empire began to crumble, however, and collapsed in the fifth century. Temporarily the west was again dominant as the Byzantine Empire formed from the eastern half of the Roman one. The western part of the empire, Gaul, Iberia, and the Maghreb were invaded by nomadic horse peoples from the Eurasian steppe. These conquerors soon became settled, and adopted many of the local customs, forming many small and warring kingdoms.
Another power was rising in the east, that of Islam. In a rapid conquest, the faith motivated armies and swept through much of the Middle East. In Anatolia the expansion was blocked by the still powerful Byzantines. The Byzantine governors and indigenous kingdoms of North Africa had no states that could mount such a resistance, and the Muslim conquerors swept through the region, and at the far west crossed the sea taking Spain before being halted in southern France.
Much of North Africa became a peripheral area to the main Muslim centres in the Middle East, but Spain and Morocco soon broke from this distant control and founded one of the most advanced societies in the world at this time.
Europe was reviving, however, as more organized and centralized states began to form in the later Middle Ages. Motivated by religion and dreams of conquest, the kings of Europe launched a number of Crusades to try to roll back Muslim power and retake the holy land. The Crusades were unsuccessful in this goal, they were far more effective in weakening the already tottering Byzantine Empire that began to lose increasing amounts of territory to the Ottoman Turks. They did, however, rearrange the balance of power in the Muslim world as Egypt once again emerged as a major power in the eastern Mediterranean.
Europe continued to increase in power as the Renaissance began in Northern Italy . The Islamic states had never been major naval powers, and trade from the east to Europe was soon in the hands of Italian traders that profited immensely from it.
Ottoman power continued to grow, and in 1453, the Byzantine Empire was extinguished with the fall of Constantinople. The Ottomans already controlled Greece and much of the Balkans, and soon also began to spread through North Africa. North Africa had grown wealthy from the trade across the Sahara Desert, but the Portuguese, who along with other Christian powers, had been engaged in a long campaign to evict the Muslims from Iberia, had found a method to circumvent this trade by trading directly with West Africa. This was enabled by a new type of ships, the caravel, that made trade in the rough Atlantic waters profitable for the first time. The reduction in the Saharan trade This weakened North Africa, and made them an easy conquest for the Ottomans.
The growing naval prowess of the European powers halted further Ottoman expansion in the region when the Battle of Lepanto delivered a decisive defeat to the Ottoman navy and left the seas in the hands of Italian, and increasingly Iberian, traders.
The development of oceanic shipping began to affect the entire Mediterranean, however. While once, all trade from the east had passed through the region, and the circumnavigation of Africa allowed gold, spices, and dyes to be imported directly to the Atlantic ports of western Europe. The Americas were also a source of extreme wealth to the western powers, of which, some of the Mediterranean states were largely cut off from. The base of European power thus shifted northward and once wealthy Italy became a peripheral area dominated by foreigners. The Ottoman Empire also began a slow decline that saw its North African possessions gain de facto independence and its European holdings gradually reduced by the increasing power of Austria and Russia.
By the nineteenth century the Northern European states were vastly more powerful, and began to colonize North Africa. France spread its power south by taking Algeria in 1830. Britain gained control of Egypt in 1882. The Ottoman Empire finally collapsed in the First World War and its holdings were carved up among France and Britain, but the Turkish regions quickly regained their independence becoming the independent state of Turkey.
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