• Adrian J. Boas

On the Role of the Sea

G.Mannaerts / CC BY-SA (

As a child, gazing out across Port Phillip Bay, I remember feeling that I was looking off the edge of the world. There was more land out there of course, somewhere across the horizon; Tasmania, and further to the east New Zealand; but beyond those there was nothing, nothing but endless stretches of sea, and far, far in the distance, rock and ice, whales and penguins… but no people, no houses, no streets, no shops, no culture, no history… nothing of a human presence.

How very different from the sea I have known for the past half-century. The Mediterranean is not on the edge of the world, but at its very heart. Gazing west from Tel Aviv is an entirely different experience from that of my childhood. Not that you can see anything other than water, but you know it’s out there. Just over the horizon there are ships, islands, a vast continent, forests, people, cities, farms... and history, millennia of human endeavour. This is a fundamental difference, this human presence. It makes one place, for its lack, alarming, another, for its presence, hospitable and connected.

Compared to the Southern Ocean, the Mediterranean indeed gives a very different feel of the relationship between land and sea. The two are much more bound together. And because there is not that sense of emptiness, the sea seems less formidable, and the land on the other shore seems less separated. When the Crusades established European settlements in the eastern Mediterranean, people in the West speaking of this new and distant "mini-Europe" often referred to it by the body of water in between, calling it Outremer, Ultramare, "across the sea". It really meant "the land across the sea", a name that reflected both the sea as a barrier and also as a connection.

The Mediterranean divided and tied together West and East. This duality, as divider and binder, is central both to the history of the Latin East and to that of the medieval and post-medieval West. The role of the Italian naval powers, Genoa, Venice and Pisa, and their alliance with the crusaders and the crusader states established in the early twelfth century, were not only of profound importance to crusader history but were central to the emergence of Europe from the Middle Ages. The Renaissance, which evolved through a combination of wealth gained through international commerce and a renewal and strengthening of cultural ties with the East, was to a large degree the result of a rebinding of worlds across a dividing sea.