Around 4 million years ago, a cataclysmic earthquake in the region of Gibraltar split the land between the continents of Europe and Africa. This epochal geological event resulted in the creation of the largest waterfall in the history of the Earth. It allowed the Atlantic Ocean to tumble into a previously barren, landlocked basin and form the sea we now know as the Mediterranean.
With over 6,000 miles of coastline surrounding a relatively tranquil sea, with numerous natural harbours and hundreds of islands to break long sea voyages, the Mediterranean provided the ideal environment for the evolution of complex patterns of trade, migration and the communication of ideas. These conditions led to an unparalleled explosion of human creativity and the birth of the great civilisations of antiquity.
Egypt and the Phoenicians
Although there are many mysteries – such as the 5,000-year-old temples and monolithic tombs of Malta – surrounding the origins of Mediterranean civilisation, without doubt the first truly great culture to evolve was that of Ancient Egypt. The period we know as Ancient Egypt began with the 1st-Dynasty in around 3100BC and ended with the 31st-Dynasty in 332BC, when Egyptian independence was crushed by the invasion of Alexander the Great.
The Egyptians were essentially an insular people and their cultural heritage is contained within the Nile area - the first great civilisation to emerge as a maritime power in the Mediterranean was that of the Phoenicians. Their civilisation was centred in the north of ancient Canaan, in an area corresponding to the coastal regions of modern day Lebanon and taking in parts of Israel, Syria and the Palestinian territories.
The first records of this great seafaring people date from about 1550BC, with the emergence of the ports of Byblos, Tyre, Sidon and Arwad. From here over the next 1,200 years, Phoenician colonies were established throughout the known world: from Kition in Cyprus (modern Larnaca) to Panormos (Palermo) in Sicily and Leptis Magna in Libya.
Although noted for their skill in trade and commerce, the Phoenicians’ greatest contribution to civilisation was the invention of the alphabet. For the first time, the spoken word could be represented by groups of letters, a marked improvement on hieroglyphs. The decline of Phoenicia began in 539BC when it was conquered by Cyrus the Great of Persia. It is believed that much of the Phoenician population fled to Carthage.
The Minoans: Palaces and Myths
As the great monuments of Egypt rose from the sand and before the Phoenicians had become masters of the sea, another civilisation was emerging on the island of Crete. Ideally placed as a staging post between the Near East, Greece and North Africa, by 2000BC, Crete had become the centre of Mediterranean trade. The culture that developed on Crete we now call “Minoan” after the legendary King Minos.
The Greeks were responsible for one of the most brilliant and inspiring epochs in human history. They revolutionised every aspect of civilised life from art, literature and architecture to politics, philosophy and mathematics. Their technological and scientific achievements were no less remarkable (among other Greek innovations were the first maps, gear technology, the screw, plumbing, and even the vending machine).
Never a unified nation, it comprised a number of polis or city-states that were often at war with each other. The most important of the city-states was Athens. It was here in the 5th-century BC that the genius and creativity of the ancient Greek world shone with unprecedented brilliance. This was the time of the great statesman Pericles who organised the construction of the Acropolis, of the dramatists Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripedes and, of course, of the philosopher Socrates. It was truly the “Golden Age”.
Mare Nostrum and the Rise of Rome
Disciplined, organised and bellicose, in 510BC the Romans defeated their Etruscan overlords and never looked back. Over the following centuries, Roman military supremacy in the Mediterranean would become total, from Syria and Egypt in the East to France and Spain in the West. The great empires of Greece and Carthage would be swallowed up, and, in a customary display of arrogance, the Romans would christen the Middle Sea “Mare Nostrum” – Our Sea.
As builders they were masters: their roads were conceived on a scale previously unimaginable in the ancient world; and their skills as engineers (they were the first people to use the arch) remarkable. From the end of the Second Punic War in 201BC until the founding of the new imperial capital at Constantinople in 330AD by the first Christian Emperor, Constantine the Great, Rome was the centre of the known world.
Byzantium and Beyond
Constantine the Great’s capital Constantinople was founded on the site of the ancient Greek city of Byzantium. It was to last 1,123 years, for several centuries of which it was the most powerful military, economic and cultural force in the Mediterranean. During this time, the Empire was a bulwark of Christianity against the forces of Islam. It provided a staging post for the Crusaders heading off to the Holy Land and it has left behind some of the most beautiful and architecturally exciting buildings in the world.
The Coming of the Barbarians
The emergence of the "barbarian kingdoms" in the 5th-century and the rise of Islam in the 7th-century meant that the medieval Mediterranean world would not be nearly as cohesive as its ancient counterpart. Amidst this chaotic background of plagues, wars and crusades emerged two remarkable cultures: the Norman Kingdom of Sicily and the Venetian Empire.
The Rise of Venice
The Venetian Republic existed for over a millennium, from the late 7th-century AD until 1797. It is often referred to as La Serenissima, the Most Serene Republic. Over the years the Venetians acquired an overseas empire that was primarily concerned with protecting and developing their commercial interests. They were a superpower motivated by the pursuit of profit.
The Venetian Empire is the last great power that concerns us here, but during the Voyages to Antiquity cruises there will be several reminders of later events that have shaped the history of the Middle Sea: the tragedy of Gallipoli in World War I; the construction of the Suez Canal; and the transformation of so much of the coast by tourism. Despite all these upheavals, however, the world of the ancient civilisations endures and, as you will discover on your journey, is still a source of inspiration and wonder.