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Monday, 20 August 2012

My sea (Η θάλασσά μου)

This post contains part of a text I helped edit for the Mediterranean Agronomic Institute of Chania (ΜΑΙCh).

All the auditoriums at MAICh have been given an ancient Greek name: Archimedes, Epicurus, Heraklitus, Demokritus, Theophrastus, Socrates, Pythagoras, Thalis and Aristotle. The auditoriums are used as both lecture theatres for students of agronomy and conference centre facilities for international gatherings. There is also a dining area, used for conferences and more formal meals, called the Mediterranee, named after the Mediterranean sea that surrounds the island of Crete. It also reflects the multi-cultural nature of the institute - our students come from the countries bordering the Mediterranean's shores, as well as other European and Middle Eastern countries.

 File:Mediterranean Sea political map-en.svg
Generally shallow with an average depth of 1,500m, the Mediterranean reaches a maximum of 5150m just off the western coast of Greece. For such a small expanse of water, there is no other sea in the whole world that has a history as turbulent and bloody as that of the Mediterranean:
A meeting ground but also a dividing point: throughout its history the Mediterranean brought together and concealed in its depths blood and experience, riches and ransoms, goods and human efforts which never reached their destination. In the past, its waters, changeable and threatening, aroused fear and temptation; in our age, they have been tamed by technology and despised.
Caught in the Mediterranean

The Mediterranean is fed by the Black Sea via the Bosphorus, many rivers (the Nile in Egypt and the Rhone in France) and the Atlantic Ocean (via the Straits of Gibraltar). It is not characterised by tides (something my children find hard to understand), due to the sea’s great rate of evapotarion from the heat. The Mediterranean is the remnant of a vast ancient sea, the Tethys, which shrunk 30 million years ago, after the collision of the crustal plates carrying Africa and Eurasia. Today the Mediterranean represents the complex and shifting tectonic plates which are fragmented at their edges, which in turn make up the adjoining continents. This structural instability produces the characteristic tangled mountain chains and valleys, and the intricate coastal topography with numerous indentations, and the  many islands found within it. It also justifies the presence of volcanoes and frequent earthquakes which shake mainly the area of the eastern Mediterranean. Crete is well known for its seismic activity, although in contemporary times, the earthquakes that have occurred have not caused major destruction as in other parts of Greece (they are mainly centred below water). 


The geophysical unity of the Mediterranean region promotes some uniformity in the coastal climate and vegetation of the islands and peninsulas; the sea works as a stabilizing factor in this. The distinctive features of the Mediterranean climate are the hot and dry summer and the rainy and not too cold winter. In agricultural production, uniformity is reflected in the restricted vegetation of the valleys between rocky mountains, in the extensive cultivation of the vine and in the cultivation of short-trunk trees, such as olive and citrus trees.

Agious Apostolous

The most hisotrically significant aspect of the Mediterranean is that it is the geographical frame in which, for some thousands of years, some of the oldest and greatest cultures have rooted. In antiquity, when land transport was difficult due to the lack of means for opening up satisfactory arterial routes, the sea was the most appropriate method for the circulation of goods, people and ideas. Since ancient times, art and science, people and civilisations have repeatedly met across the waterways paved by ancient and modern seafarers. An old and distinct testimony of this meeting can be found in the modern usage of the alphabet. The Phoenician letters, which impressed the Greeks from very early on (before the 8th cent. BC) and were transported to Greece, provided the impetus for the formation of the first phonetic alphabet (the Greek alphabet), which served as a basis for the Latin and modern European alphabets. 


Owing to their navigation skills, the Phoenicians became the most famous and successful merchants of the ancient world. According to Thucydides, however, the first Mediterranean people who became a thalassocracy (dominant sea power) were the ancient inhabitants of Minoan Crete. The traces of their contacts with other people of the known world, the influence of their goods on other civilisations, and their contribution to the flourishing of the Aegean, Mycenean and wider Greek (and hence the earliest European) civilization is indisputable.


Following along the lines of the Minoans, the Greek civilisation of historical times developed and flourished through an unbroken relation to the sea. The epic hero Odysseus, a perennial symbol of the Greek spirit and vision, wandered for years over the Mediterranean waters, but remained bound to his destination, his homeland Ithaca. Contrary to the Roman or Islamic people who distanced themselves from the Mediterranean Sea as an inimical and alien element, the Greeks promoted their familiarity with it. The famous cry of refuge: thalatta, thalatta! (sea, sea!), uttered by Xenophon’s soldiers (4th cent. BC) when seeing the Aegean Sea for the first time after months of travelling in Asia, reveals the sense of homeland that the sea represents for Greeks. In the ancient Greek language there was no special term for the Mediterranean Sea; it was simply known as our own sea, the sea which lies from our side. For the Romans, this also seems to be true, at least until the 2nd century AD when lulius Solinus coined the term mare Mediterranean (not found in the surviving sources before the 6th cent. AD), providing us with concrete symbols of the nature and image of the Mediterranean, which was none other than the famous mare nostrum (our sea) the sea which, after the sea battle at Actium, allowed the establishment of the celebrated Pax Romona. A few centuries later, the Arabs managed to detach and win for themselves important southern and eastern provinces of the Roman Empire, helped partly by proving their prowess in that very sea.

Agious Apostolous

My children never took swimming lessons at a pool - they learnt to swim in the Mediterranean Sea. But the fate of our sea is under threat: 
As if out of a desire for revenge, modern man attacks the Mediterranean with toxic waste and corrupts it through tourism, exhausting it with voracious fishing and recognising it only on the basis of strategic and economic expediency - preferring to forget or to ignore that the Mediterranean has been the nurse and the cradle of ancient civilisations, as well as of familiar, inexhaustible cultures.
Agious Apostolous

I share my Mediterranean heritage with a host of other people, not just Greeks, living near the shores of one of the most significant seas in the world. I feel lucky to be living here, to have come back to the land of my roots, as all my family's origins lie in the island of Crete. This continuity, part of an 'inexhaustable culture', provides me with peace of mind. I don't fear the future because, no matter what form it takes, I know that there will always be one.

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