Once the Mediterranean was the center of the civilised world, home of great civilisations and powerful empires. Today, it is at most seen as a route for migration, a store for natural gas or simply a place of political instability. But why is that the case today, will it change again and what can tell us the capitals of the region about this?
If one is investing some time to look closer at the political map of the Mediterranean, he may recognise the large number of different countries that border to the sea. The memberstates of the European Union, the smaller states of the Balkan, Turkey and Israel, as well as the countries of the Maghreb, cramped between Mediterranean and Sahara. What is eye catching as well is the frequency of conflicts right at the coast or just behind it, the Middle-East conflict, the fight for gas-fields in the eastern part of the sea, the Sahel zone. It´s almost unbelievable that the Romans were able to conquer and govern all of these states for such a long period.
For most periods, before and after the Roman rule, the Mediterranean was considered to be a center of human civilisation. While it was Mesopotamia at first, and Persia at times, which used to be the leading civilisation, the Mediterranean has never been far away. Egypt, Greece, Rome, Byzanz, the Ottoman Empire. The modern world, both Orient and Occident, have their roots in the area, in politics, art, and of course religion.
But where is this influence today? From the great powers of the last two centuries, Great Britain, Russia, the German Empire, Japan and now China, neither one of them border to the Mediterranean, only France has a relatively small coastline, far away from its industrial centers and its capital. And that´s one of the crucial aspects of todays regional politics. In fact, most of the countries at the sea don´t have their capital at the coastline, in fact, it seems almost as if they try to hide it away from it to shelter them in the middle of their respective countries.
Morocco, at the south-western end of the Mediterranean, has a capital at the Atlantic Ocean, Rabat. In times of independence, the country always focused on a north-south axis, parallel to the Atlantic Ocean. Today, this is evident by its annexation of Western Sahara. As well, the Mediterranean seems almost like a quiet lake for the country, compared to the stormy ocean and the deadly dessert. And the Street of Gibraltar, Moroccos entry towards Europe, seems to be more of a river than a sea.
Northern Africa is home to three big states with capitals at the seaside, Algeria, Tunesia and Libya. For them, the Mediterranean is of much greater importance given that they´re enclosed between waters in the North and sand in the South. Their coastal regions are by far the most seminal and most populated areas fo their countries and their capitals are therefore as much the center as the gateways for their countries. Should the situation in Sahel continue to deteriorate, and everything points in that direction, they might focuse even stronger towards the northern coastline.
Egypt is a unique case, as it was the first area to build a territorial state at the coasts of the Mediterranean. For most of history, its capital was at a place where it could provide control over the large country, usually bewteen the delta and the river, like Cairo of today. On the other side, there were times when the political and economic center was close to the sea, lastly under the rule of Muhammad Ali in the 19th century. But today, Egypt is building a new capital, New-Cairo, just east of the current city. It´s not likely that the focus of the country will shift towards the Mediterranean anytime soon.
Israel is the most obvious exmaple of a country that tries to get the capital away from the sea. With Jerusalem laying in between the coastline in the west and the Jordan Valley in the east, it is the perfect place to overlook the whole area. And a similar situation occurs in the northern Levante, with Damascus as all dominating city. It is only due to France that Lebanon is now seperated from Syria and as a small state, a harbor city like Beirut was the only logical choice for a capital. In both cases, in Israel as in Syria, controling the hinterland is more important than access to the sea.
Turkey is somewhat weird, as Istanbul is the biggest and most influencual city in the whole eastern Mediterranean area, but no capital. After the establishment of the Republic of Turkey, Ankara, far away from any coast in the mountains of Anatolia, was chosen to receive this status, partly because it´s not so close to Greece, wartime enemy during that period, partly as a form of emanzipation from the heavy burden of the Ottoman Empire.
Greece on the other hand is the state with the longest coastline at the sea, geography gave the country hardly any other chance than choosing a seaside city as a capital. Cyprus, interestingly, even though it is an island, has a capital in the middle of the country, for both parts of the divided island. And just as Cyprus, the states bordering the Adria placed their capitals inside the country, Albania, Montenegro and Croatia, not to mention Bosnia-Herzegovina and Slovenia with their small coastlines. This is especially worth mentioning as this was a classical area city states and little empires build on trade, foremorst Venice.
This is even more obvious at the coastlines of Western Europe. Rome, Madrid, Paris, all of them are used as a central platforms of organisation for far-reaching national states. Even thought Rome is growing towards the seaside nowadays, the more important aspect is the fact that it´s located right in the middle of the country. Spain on the other side is primarily focused to hold control over large areas of the Iberian Peninsular, no easy task given the independence movements in Catalonia and Basque Country. In France, the first people to implement a modern nation, everything is aligned on Paris, which is closer to the political and even more economic centers of Western Europe. The Rhine in many ways is more important to the country than the Mediterranean, although it only touches a small part of the eastern border.
All this points to a deeper cause. After the Italian city states were still able to exert considerable influence in the Mediterranean region in the late Middle Ages, especially in the East, they controlled trade between the European continent and Asia. The Byzantine Empire was already weakened at this time, but in many respects it was still the leading state in Europe. But this state came under increasing pressure as time went on. On the one hand, the Byzantine Empire was visibly collapsing (also thanks to the 5th Crusade, in which Venice in particular inflicted severe damage on the city), and the Ottoman Empire was able to expand its sphere of influence throughout the region, which visibly weakened the position of the Italian city states. In order not to be dependent on this power and to find their own sources for the coveted goods from Asia, first the Portuguese and then the Spanish began to look for alternative routes to the huge continent.
Columbus accidentally found his way to America and Vasco da Gama succeeded in circumnavigating Africa and thus gaining access to India. The Atlantic Age had begun.
First the Spanish, later the Portuguese and above all the British expanded their positions and trade with the New World, later the USA became Europe’s most important trading partner and the entire region became the political and economic centre of the world. Moreover, in the 19th century, in the face of the Ottomans’ weakness and through the construction of the Suez Canal, the European powers succeeded for the first time in gaining supremacy over the waterways and land routes between the Mediterranean and Central Asia. In this constellation of strength, with the Atlantic as the most important waterway and simultaneous control of the Suez Canal, the Western world reached the height of its power.
But it is coming to an end. Military defeats in the last two decades, the economic upswing of Asia and, in the meantime, competition from various states for control of the sea routes, especially China in the Western Pacific, Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean and Iran in the Gulf region, have done considerable damage to the position of the Western states and their leading power, the USA. Their own weaknesses have done the rest. So today we see the end of that very Atlantic era, the Indo-Pacific will in future be both the centre and the battlefield on which the future of humanity will be decided.
Although the Indo-Pacific will probably be the most important, the Mediterranean will also soon experience a renaissance. Since trade between Asia and Europe, with the European Union as the largest market in the world, but also that between Europe and Africa must take place via the Mediterranean or the surrounding countries, some of these states will certainly be able to profit from it. At present, Turkey and Iran in particular are trying to use this strategic starting position for themselves and control the trade routes. But countries like Morocco, Egypt and Israel are also in a good position. On the European side, Greece and Italy, in particular, will pick up where they left off in their history as mediators between European and Asian or African cultures.
As long as large territorial states exist on the Mediterranean coasts, their capitals will also be located in such a way that they occupy a central position within them. For this to happen, they must be located inland.
More interesting is the question of whether new forms of empires might not develop, especially through Turkey and Iran, or new forms of semi-autonomous city-states. There are some candidates for this, especially in the eastern Mediterranean, such as the southern Lebanese coastal cities, which are under the control of Hezbollah. Under such circumstances, the old trading cities could once again enjoy the position they once held, and the Mediterranean could once again become that place where humanity meets and which once again deeply impresses us all.