Circling the Mediterranean: Europe and the Islamic World

The Mediterranean Sea brought together Europe, North Africa and the Near and Middle East. Not only commodities, but also stories and songs continually circulated from place to place, crisscrossing the water to link nations. The opposition of “the Islamic world” and “Europe” is a modern invention: it was not the way medieval people described themselves or the world.  The cultural ferment of the Islamic world was an essential element in the emergence of the early modern West. The story of pre-modern history and literature is, therefore, above all a story of connections, interaction, and mutual influence. In other words, the Middle East helped shape what we consider European texts.

Christianity and Platonism

The influence of the Roman Empire was spreading which worried other cultures. The expansion of the Roman Empire culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem and scattering (or “diaspora”} of the Jewish community. About three centuries later this heterogeneous collection of new religious orientations became codified as a single Christian doctrine. Augustine’s autobiography, the Confessions, worked as the lynchpin between Roman philosophies and new Christian ideals. These moments illustrate the imaginative pull of classical literature which persisted during the period of Christianity’s emergence. The written works and other customs began to transform as Christianity grew in popularity. The yearning for a mystical faith that would provide a sense of purpose was ubiquitous in the late Roman Empire. In the 4th century Christianity became Roman state religion. It was an empire so vast that it had two capitals. The waves of invasions of Italy by Germanic tribes came to a head in the fifth century, when Rome endured a series of weak rulers. Augustine and Boethius, writing in the 5th and 6th centuries, bear witness to the decay of Rome and to the birth of something entirely new, as a Christian culture, various and diffuse, rose out of the ashes of empire. The simultaneous emergence of rabbinic Judaism and Christianity can be described as a kind of twin birth, both of them formed in the crucible of Roman aggression in the first century. The Jewish diaspora laid the groundwork for many Christian “beginning” stories.

The Spread of Islam

The dissemination of the Qur’an by Muhammad in the 7th century and the formation of an Islamic community affected the development of Mediterranean culture. In Ibn Ishaq’s account of Muhammad’s life, we find a community struggling to meet the expectations found in the Qur’an, and to the exemplary life of its prophet, Muhammad. The revealed book and the life were the religious guidelines of an empire that grew almost overnight to dominate large swathes of the Middle East and North Africa. Islamic rule extended westward through Spain into southern France and Persia to India. The spread of Islam took place not only through cultural and religious means, but also through direct military conquest. The most important of the many religious divisions is of the Sunni from Shi’a Islam: the former centers on a strict conformity to the exemplary life of the Prophet Muhammad and a literal reading of the Holy Book; the latter, instead, prescribes a special veneration of the family of the Prophet, especially his daughter Fatima, her husband and their sons. There was a later medieval emergence of Sufi mysticism.

Internal squabbling finally gave way to utter chaos with the invasion of the Mongols in the early 13th century and their seizure of Baghdad in 1258. Damascus, Baghdad, and Cairo—the various nations yoked under Islamic rule, shared one crucial element: the Arabic language. Arabic was the standard language of conversation, administration, and poetic composition, not only for Muslims, but also for Christians and Jews who lived in regions under Islamic rule, such as al-Andalus. Arabic language served to unify diverse populations, in much the same way as Greek had done in the ancient eastern Mediterranean and Latin would do in medieval Europe. Poetic traditions in Arabia before the revelation of the Qur’an had placed special value on recitation and the musical quality of verse, its rhythmic repetitions and use of end rhyme. Because the Qur’an itself conformed to many of these pre-Islamic norms, it became a standard model for poetic excellence while maintaining its preeminent theological value. Persia came under Islamic influence and offered gifts as well. The Ottomans held Persian language, art, and poetics in high esteem, and imported painters as well as writers to serve their imperial court. Finally, the marriage of religious devotion and an exquisite poetic sensibility, so finely expressed in the lyrics of Attar, Rumi, and Hafez, would come to be a crucial part of the literary legacy of Islam, widely disseminated not only among the community of Muslim readers, but also among the diverse modern audiences of world literature.

A productive feature of medieval culture was the intersection of poetics and philosophy. In these strikingly parallel cases, Platonic philosophy supplied the means to express a religious worldview that focuses particularly—whether in Christian or in Islamic terms—on how the individual soul can come to experience the divine presence. Avicenna began to interpret the literal journey metaphorically or even mystically, understanding the singular ascent of the Prophet as a model for the journey that every soul must make toward God. This text, known as the Libro della Scala (or Book of the Ladder) was widely disseminated, providing a vision of the layered heavens that would inspire European Christian writers, including Dante. The influence of Islamic literature was felt not only through the exalted union of philosophy and theology with poetics but also on a more mundane, vernacular level. The vibrant tradition of frame-tale narratives, in which an outer layer organized a series of nested narratives that are contained within the frame like the layers of an onion, had a long history in the Mediterranean region. The genre took off in Persian and Arabic literatures. Other collections and their frame-tale form served as the inspiration for many European manifestations of the genre.


The Invention of the West

The idea of the West as a synonym for Christian Europe—which seems so natural and familiar to modern readers—did not even begin to emerge until the late Middle Ages. Christian European Jews were only sporadically tolerated, and Muslims were virtually unknown. Latin was used for religion and politics. Latin’s cultural hold was stronger: medieval Christians used it exclusively to compose their philosophical and scientific works, while both Arabic and Persian functioned as languages of literature and learning for Muslims. Beginning in the 9th century, however, and with increasing frequency from the 12th century onward, vernacular languages such as English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish became more common vehicles for poetic composition.

The medieval map, with its deeply religious imaginative geography and central focus on Jerusalem, illuminates the ways in which the repeated cycles of European warfare around the Mediterranean and into the Middle East—called “Crusades,” after the cross (Latin crux) sewn by the warriors onto their garments—functioned not just as actual military campaigns, but also as symbolic assaults designed to reclaim control of the spiritual homeland of the medieval Christian. The Crusades functioned mainly as opportunities for economic development and international cooperation among the nations of Europe, helping to unify these disparate Christian nations through their shared opposition to the Muslim enemy. Anti-Muslim violence in the form of crusades was therefore closely linked with the persecution of Jews and the early emergence of anti-Semitism. The opposition of Christian and non-Christian, so fundamental to the ideology of the crusades, permeates the epic literature of the Middle Ages. Metaphorically, the victory of Christian over pagan is presented as a template for all holy war.

The epic genre began to emerge, originally in oral form. Epic, whether in England or in Persia, creates a sense of national identity by evoking a common historical origin, but it also grafts upon the rootstock of native myth new forms of identity—especially religious forms imported from outside the borders of the nation. Epic is often opposed to romance: the former is portrayed as a masculine genre dedicated to the deeds of knights and the matters of war; the latter as a feminine genre that focuses on the relations of the lady and her lover, confined to the domestic sphere of the court. Both genres, which rose to prominence in the 12th century, share the idealized image of the knight: if he expresses his chivalry on the field of battle, the work is epic, but if his prowess is displayed in the private space of the bedchamber, the work is romance. The French origins of the romance genre are closely tied to the emergence of French as a literary language. Latin was unquestionably the primary language of scholarly learning, but vernacular or spoken languages increasingly came to be the first choice for poetic composition. In the 12th century, French was the first of the European languages to be elevated in this way; by the 14th century, other vernaculars had also begun to be widely used. Latin was still trying to hold on and expand out into literature. Petrarch is considered Renaissance—and used early 14th century Latin and Italian. Boccaccio is considered medieval—mid-14th century Italian/Latin. The example of these two contemporaries illustrates the ways in which period divisions, like geographical divisions, sometimes obscure the profound continuities that underlie literary history.

Even medieval authors longed for classical antiquity, even though we associated this idea with the Renaissance. While we can read Boccaccio, Chaucer, and Christine de Pizan in the context of the emergence of Latin humanism, they can also be seen as central participants in the late medieval European flowering of the frame-tale genre. Transmitted from India to Persia, then disseminated throughout the Islamic world and across the Mediterranean, frame-tale narratives such as the Thousand and One Nights were widely popular, both in written and in oral form. Petrus Alfonsi’s work is just one of the first in a long series of frame-tale narratives. The age of Boccaccio and Chaucer also witnessed the rise of yet one more genre centered on the crossing of cultural boundaries: the travel narrative.

Ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern Literature

The Invention of Writing and the Earliest Literatures

“Literature” comes from Latin for “letters.” Before writing, people told stories and sang songs. Preliterate societies had different intellectual values from us. They tended to enjoy stock phrases, traditional sayings, and proverbs; essential mechanisms by which cultural memory was preserved. Before writing, there was no such thing as an “author.” Storytellers echoed and manipulated old tales and passed on inherited wisdom. All oral storytelling is inevitably lost. Literacy did not take hold all at once. Early poets sometimes attempted to imitate oral gestures.

Writing was not originally invented to preserve literature. The earliest written documents contain administrative, commercial, legal and political, information. Mesopotamia, specifically in the area of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, is where writing first developed (3300-2990 B.C.) Pictographic characters were inscribed on to wet clay tablets with pointed sticks. The bulk of the texts involve economics and  lists.  By 2800 B.C., scribes began to use the wedge-shaped end of stick to make marks rather than pictures: cuneiform (a wedge). By 2500 B.C., historical events and literature began to be written. The early Sumerian epic Gilgamesh was found on clay tablets. Still, this writing was not designed for the public; too complicated. The script could be written and read only by experts: scribes.

The Egyptians use hieroglyphics. The writing system that was destined to survive was developed by the Phoenicians. The script consisted of 22 simple signs for consonantal sounds. Through trade, the Phoenician script spread throughout the Mediterranean. It was easy to learn, but the absence of notation for the vowels made for ambiguity. Eventually, the signs for the vowels were invented by the Greeks.


Ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean Cultures

The ancient world developed around natural resources using the strength of slaves.  (Unfortunately, injustice and exploitation were essential to cultural existence.) The first civilizations of the Mediterranean basin developed in two regions that were particularly receptive to agriculture and animal husbandry: the valley of the Nile, and the valleys of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers near modern Iraq. These were centers for the complicated administration of irrigated fields. Supported by the surplus the land produced, these areas became centers for culture, government, and religion. Then arose the Greeks, Hebrews, and the Romans; all distinct cultures. There was large-scale cultural exchange between these various peoples due to colonization, imperialism, and trade.

Most ancient cultures were polytheistic. Gods were often reinvented from one place to another. There are two exceptions to early polytheism: the Egyptian Great Hymn to the Aten and the Hebrew Bible. Morality and religion were not necessarily linked in the ancient world. Religious practice (orthopraxy) was more important than religious belief (orthodoxy). Religion involved a shared set of rituals and practices which united a community in shared activities such as festivals and song. Be wary of assuming that the stories about gods that appear in literary texts are necessarily a record of the religious beliefs of a whole culture.


The Greeks

Their origins are still a mystery. They were presumably a blend of native tribes and Indo-European invaders. The second millennium B.C. saw a brilliant culture in the Minoans on a large island of Crete, complete with enormous palaces. On mainland Greece there was also a rich culture with a writing system called Linear B, later destroyed by fire. The next few hundred years the Greeks were illiterate and they entered the Dark Ages. Then oral poetry evolved and we still have the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Eighth century B.C. Greece again became literate with the alphabet borrowed from the Phoenicians. The cities differed from each other in custom, dialect, and political constitution. They were rivals and fierce competitors. Seventh century B.C. treaties and political decrees were inscribed in stone and literary works written on rolls of paper made from Egyptian papyrus. In the sixth century B.C. the Persian Empire dominated the Near East and Mediterranean areas, eventually becoming the largest empire in the ancient world. The Persians developed a very sophisticated culture and assumed they would continue to dominate, but the Greeks (led by Athens and Sparta) managed to repel repeated Persian invasions. Free from the fear of foreign invasion, the Athenians produced their most important literary and cultural achievements. While Sparta was conservative and ruled by the few, Athens was democratic, although women and slaves could not vote. Athens was strong by sea and Sparta was strong by land; they fought the Persians together. When they no longer had Persia to fight, they turned against each other and fought for 27 years, ending with the total defeat of Athens.

In the 5th century B.C. Athenian democracy provided citizens with cultural and intellectual environments new to the ancient world. There was a breaking away from myth and a study of how the body works and how the environment contributes to health. New thinkers began to use their powers of observation. It was the dawning of prose literature in medicine, history and philosophy. Athenian theater became popular. Boys began to be educated in a new way. They studied the alphabet and the poems of Homer. Intellectuals immigrated to Athens and began to teach; public speaking was a serious subject. These “wisdom teachers” were called Sophists and taught astronomy, ethics, government, literary criticism and rhetoric. These new ways of teaching created a generation gap with the parents wishing for the old ways of thinking.

The most famous Sophist was Socrates. He was an Athenian citizen and charged no fee for teaching. He investigated ethics, politics and truth through “dialectics,” a method of question and answer. He believed in the possibility of true goodness. Socrates became the starting point for all later Western philosophy. After Athens was burned by Sparta, the Athenians later returned to democracy, but killed Socrates who had become viewed as a corrupting force.

Later, Philip of Macedon took over Greece, and his son Alexander inherited a powerful army and political control of all Greece. The Hellenistic age followed (323 B.C. to 146 B.C.) Due to Alexander’s achievements, Greek culture was spread far and wide: their architecture, geographers, gymnasiums, language, libraries, mathematics, poetry, sciences, and theaters. When Jesus of Nazareth became known he was recorded by the simple vernacular of Greek known as Koine.



Rome experienced a time of growth. By 201 B.C. they were a world power. Rome was never a democracy, but a complex political system known as a republic which was designed to prevent any single person or group from seizing total control. Romans saw conflict as deadly. They valued a sense of tradition, and a myth of old Roman virtue and integrity. They valued the custom of predecessors, duty, efficiency, industry, manly courage, seriousness, and strength through unity. They developed a legal code that formed the model for all later European and American law. They built baths with hot and cold water, sewers, and straight roads and aqueducts that would last two thousand years.

Roman poets often struggled with, or rejected, the moral codes of their society. Many artists were rebels. Romans conquered half the world before they began to write, then they borrowed wholesale from Greek originals. Still, Latin literature is original.

The institutions of the Roman city-state proved inadequate for world government. The second and first centuries B.C. were dominated by civil war between various factions vying for power. Augustus defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra and claimed to be restoring the Republic. Instead, he assumed primary control of the state and became the first in a long line of Roman emperors. There followed a long period of Roman rule. Eventually the empire became too big to be run by one man, but left behind its legacy.