Map Our Shared Past in the Mediterranean

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Introductory Essays

Foreword from the Directors: A Statement of Purpose

by Peter Mandaville and Susan Douglass

Why the Mediterranean? What does a body of water have to teach us about a common human heritage? The teaching resources that collectively comprise “Our Shared Past in the Mediterranean” share a common focus on the idea of World History as a distinctive paradigm for learning about the past and understanding the present. By studying the people, events, and processes that have defined the evolution of human history in a particular region, or, in this case, a space that connects multiple world regions, we learn much more than just isolated facts about culture and society in specific locales. We rather come to understand how broader global forces, trends, and currents of change manifest themselves in particular historical and geographical experiences.

While the Mediterranean features heavily in many conventional tellings of “Western civilization,” it tends to be figured as a zone in which precursor civilizations are born, die, and subsequently become reanimated by the cultural inheritors of a uniquely European legacy. Monotheistic religions appear, fall into conflict, and those fault lines seemingly persist. What tends to be left out of this standard narrative for any number of reasons, not least of which is the fact that the historical reality is much messier and more complex than textbooks like, is the idea that the Mediterranean has always been in contact with—shaping and being in turn shaped by—world historical forces. Easy categories and supposedly distinctive civilizational and religious identities—e.g. traditional, modern, Islamic, Christian, Middle Eastern, European—turn out to resist the roles we commonly assign them in the making of the present.

The team that produced “Our Shared Past in the Mediterranean” has achieved the rather remarkable feat of recognizing and taking on board this complexity while rendering it in a form that is accessible and legible to a broad learning audience. The complexities of world history are not simply narrated on top of standard paradigms. Rather, students are invited to discover the diverse and multifaceted social realities that comprise Mediterranean histories through research and critical thinking exercises framed around questions already familiar to them in their own daily lives. Among the authors and scholar consultants that produced this material are to be found historians, yes, but also social scientists and pedagogical experts. This multidisciplinary team worked together to identify key themes and approaches that were integrated across the full set of modules—ensuring a high level of continuity and cohesiveness across the various periods of history covered here.

We strongly encourage you to read the project’s introductory essay, by Edmund Burke III, who explains extremely eloquently just what is at stake in grounding our teaching in the world history approach. At a time when the worldwide interconnectedness that define what we call globalization seems to be at historically unprecedented levels, it is vitally important for our students to understand that world historical forces have actually been with us for a long time. In light of the ongoing process of European integration, regional migration dynamics, and the dramatic Arab Revolutions of 2011, no world space is better than the Mediterranean for understanding how our shared past shapes all manner of shared futures.

Why the Mediterranean in a World Historical perspective?

by Edmund Burke, III 

The Our Shared Past in the Mediterranean curriculum includes six modules aimed at providing students with an historical understanding of the Mediterranean as a zone of interaction and global change. Grounded in state of the art historical understandings, it provides full lesson plans, including maps, illustrations and suggested student activities. Keyed to world historical developments, it encourages students to see beyond the civilizational binaries that have hitherto clouded our understanding of the region. By linking the histories of the Mediterranean region into a single if complex historical narrative, Our Shared Past in the Mediterranean encourages students to perceive the deeper structural roots of global change from the classical era to the present.

Where is the Mediterranean? Its northern rim extends from Spain to the Balkans and Turkey while its eastern and southern limits include the Middle East and Arab North Africa. Depending upon the interests of the historian, however, a bigger or smaller Mediterranean configuration may be proposed. Because the modern Mediterranean is not included in most history curricula, students lack the ability to understand its history. This is a huge problem in this post 9/11 world, since in the absence of a global perspective, events appear to come out of nowhere. As a consequence, this crucially important world region remains misunderstood, and civilizational explanations have tended to supplant more grounded world historical understandings.

The world historical approach is only one of the note-worthy features of Our Shared Past in the Mediterranean. The curriculum provides a series of historically grounded lessons that enable students to understand the sequences of change by which the Mediterranean region was transformed as a whole. By following the lessons in the six modules, students acquire an understanding of the region’s path to modernity and why it differed from that of northwestern Europe. In the process, they learn to distinguish the main types of change (ecological, economic, political and cultural) that affected Mediterranean societies since 1492. The curriculum also allows students to comprehend how these changes affected both Mediterranean elites and ordinary people in similar ways regardless of cultural background. The emphasis on patterned responses to global changes constitutes a major distinguishing feature of this curriculum.

A brief summary of the modules reveals the distinctive features of this approach.

Module One provides an innovative approach to the deep past of the region, keyed to the eco-historical forces that have shaped its successive transformations since the dawn of civilization. It emphasizes the role of the environment and the hand of man in the shaping and reshaping of the region over the human past.

Module Two examines the classical Mediterranean from an unusual vantage point: the empire of Carthage. It also examines technology, economic exchange, cultural innovation, power and authority, and spiritual life across the Mediterranean region in the formative period 5000-1000 BCE.

Module Three covers the period 300 – 1500 CE. Among other topics, it emphasizes the transformation of Mediterranean cities, migrations within and beyond the region, and Mediterranean trade in the medieval period. The increasingly global yet intensely local character of Mediterranean trade is emphasized. From the silk roads to the spice trade to the trans-Saharan gold trade to the Arabian coffee trade, the Mediterranean has been deeply emeshed in trade that spans Afroeurasia.This module also provides lessons that survey religious tolerance and intolerance in an increasingly diverse Mediterranean society. The result is more complex understandings of how cultural difference worked locally and across the region.

What I call “the Liberal Project” is an instable, always contingent and conflictive phenomenon which nonetheless when viewed from the perspective of world history can be seen to assume particular patterns. It is the particular phase of the global development project.

Module Four surveys the rise of the Hapsburg and Ottoman empires in the post-1500 CE period, and links this development to long term waves of global change in the early modern period. The same module contains important lessons on the political and cultural transformations of the region, and how they affected different groups, together with lessons on slavery within the region.

The long nineteenth century (1750-1919) constitutes the subject of Module Five. As old empires crumbled across the region, new economic, political and cultural forms struggled to be born. Economically, the Mediterranean path to industrialization was rendered more difficult by the absence of significant deposits of coal within the region. The construction of the Suez Canal on the other hand renewed the place of the region in the global system of trade and commerce.

Politically, the example of France, and French military, political and economic models were widely influential within the region from Italy and Spain to the Ottoman empire and North Africa. The nineteenth century Ottoman reform process known as the Tanzimat thus paralleled the introduction of French reforms in Spain and Italy. The module explores the impact of these changes in the Ottoman province of Tunisia. The onset of colonialism in the Mediterranean and human migration are studied as regional examples of global processes of change.

Module Six explores the period from 1914 to the present, with emphasis on the post-1945 period in the Mediterranean. It shows how the changes that have affected the region are manifestations of larger global patterns of change. For instance, the cases provided in this module link the end of colonialism, the rise of petroleum as a leading global energy source, and the dissemination of large-scale engineering projects such as the construction of the Aswan High Dam and other major water projects to global patterns of change. Overall students come away from Module Six with an increased understanding both of the specificity of local change, and the ways it echos broader global patterns.