Edmund Burke III, a research professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, analyzed the significance of the Mediterranean’s geographic location in the development of the region during the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies’ 2013 Annual Symposium Wednesday.

This year’s conference focus is “The Mediterranean Re-Imagined” in honor of late Georgetown professor Faruk Tabak, author of “The Waning of the Mediterranean, 1550-1870: A Geohistorical Approach.”

Burke’s keynote address, “Models of Mediterranean Modernity: The Perspective from the Longue Durée,” emphasized the Mediterranean’s centrality to a broader world history.

“In this talk, I seek to reexamine against the background of world history how the Mediterranean came to modernity,” Burke, who is also director of UC Santa Cruz’s Center for World History, said. “Middle Eastern problems are not just Middle Eastern problems.”

Ecologic and economic factors were key in shaping the history of the many regions that surround the Mediterranean, Burke added. In particular, the Little Ice Age, a period of significant cooling in temperatures that affected Europe from the mid-14th to 19th century, precipitated to a great decline in the continent’s relative prosperity.

“The Little Ice Age cumulatively devastates Mediterranean agriculture,” Burke said.

The Mediterranean’s population, which was equal to China’s population in 1000 CE, was only one-fourth of the Chinese population by 1800, he added.

Despite the negative impact of the Little Ice Age, Burke said, Europe achieved preeminence as the world’s most powerful region in great part because of the economic benefits it reaped from its exploration and later colonization of the New World.

“Europe’s overseas colonies provided a strategic advantage in the new local struggle for empire,
Burke said. “As a result it achieved results well above the new global norms.”

However, before global colonization, the Mediterranean Sea helped civilizations in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa prosper. The role of the sea in precipitating cross-cultural maritime trade guaranteed Mediterranean-based peoples certain economic advantages over those who did not have access to warm water ports.

“For millennia, the prosperity of the region was ensured,” Burke said.

However, the rise of trade routes through Indian and then Atlantic Oceans reduced the sea’s importance to Northern Europe.

While Mediterranean countries today take advantages of oil reserves, the region was at a developmental disadvantage during the Industrial Revolution due to its lack of coal and iron. This, in particular, stymied the process of industrialization in much of the Arab world.

“It’s a time when we can begin to start to rethink the modern Arab world in bigger ways and indeed in global ways,” Burke said.

Burke is currently working on a book, “The History of the Modern Mediterranean, 1450-1950,” that will examine themes from his keynote address.

Nabil Matar, professor of English at the University of Minnesota, said he thought Burke underemphasized some aspects of Europe’s dominance of Mediterranean cultures.

“This is, in my view, not sufficient. In my view there is also the military side,” Matar said, citing British and French attacks on Mediterranean infrastructure.

Matar presented his own work on the Mediterranean as an obstacle to Arab cartography at the symposium Thursday afternoon.

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