Frontiers between civilizations can seem fixed in place. They’re not.

As I said in my last post, I’ve very recently been on holiday to the south of Spain.

The place where we stayed had a wonderful view over the Mediterranean. On the horizon, we could see a distant line of – clouds? Or maybe mountains?

I tried to convince my wife that what we were seeing was the outline of the Atlas mountains of North Africa. They may not have been, but if not, I am sure that they were clouds denoting a weather system created by those mountains.

For me, it was exciting to think that we could see Africa, or at least evidence of Africa. I know that the world is shrinking, and probably the first thing one sees as one approaches a town in Morocco or Algeria is a McDonald’s. But there will also (I hope) be plenty of evidence of an older, non-Western civilization: the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer, the minarets of the mosques, the bustling bazaar.

For centuries, ever since 1492 when the last Islamic state in Spain fell to the Christian forces of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, the small stretch of sea between Spain and North Africa has represented a frontier between two civilizations. But before that date, this same area of sea was a busy highway connecting the two regions. Muslim states were to be found on both shores, north and south – in fact, sometimes the same Muslim state – the early Caliphate, for example, or the later Almoravid and Almohad emirates – straddled the sea. Even when no single Islamic state controlled both shores, there were deep religious, cultural and economic ties binding the two areas together.

During medieval times, the real frontier between the two civilizations lay to the north, running east to west through northern, then central, and finally southern Spain. To the north of this frontier were the Christians, to the South the Muslims. Despite the fact that a great deal of commercial and cultural transaction took place across the frontier, to the great enrichment of European civilization, the essential relationship between them was one of hostility and incomprehension.

Thinking about all this, as I sat on our balcony looking across the sea, led me to reflect on the fact that, through history, frontiers can move dramatically. Once established, however, they can seem as if they have always been fixed.

For centuries the frontier between the Classical civilizations of Greece and Rome lay along the border between Syria and Iraq. Syria was a vibrant centre of Hellenistic and Roman culture, while Iraq was being progressively Iranianized under first Parthian, then Persian, rule. Then, from the 6th century, the frontier between the “West” and “East” (or between Christendom and Islam) shifted to the borders of Anatolia (what would later be Turkey), and then towards the Bosporus. After that it became a little less defined as the Muslim-ruled Ottoman Empire reached deep into the heart of Europe: the political border was real enough, but in religious and cultural matters the Ottomans by and large allowed the conquered Christian societies to continue as before. In the early 20th century, this frontier returned to the Bosporus, in so far as the Balkans mostly returned to Christian rule. In the 21st century, depending on how the Turkish democracy, secularism and economy progress, this frontier may disappear altogether.

Anyhow, like a lot of things that we think of as being fixed in place for all time, frontiers are constantly in flux. Also, we think of seas as being natural barriers. In fact, as the case of Spain and North Africa tells us, areas of sea can function just as easily as bridges. When you consider that, until the coming of railways, sea transport was far cheaper and quicker than land trasport, it is easy to sea how maritme highways linked different countries rather than separated them. 

By Peter Britton