The Mediterranean Sea is the central feature of the vast geographical region that has produced some of the greatest civilizations in history, including those of ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome. The lands that surround the sea, such as Greece, Italy, Egypt, and northern Africa, have similar climates and geological features, and the people of these regions have for many centuries used the sea for trade, travel, and communication. Not only are the geological characteristics of the region important, but the rocks, minerals, and natural resources contained in the land also played a significant role in the development of the Greek and Roman cultures.
The Geography of the Mediterranean Region. About 970,000 square miles in area, the Mediterranean Sea extends more than 2,200 miles from the Strait of Gibraltar, which connects the sea to the Atlantic Ocean, to the coast of the present-day nations of Syria, Lebanon, and Israel. However, the sea rarely spans more than 500 miles at its widest places. The Mediterranean averages about 4,920 feet in depth, and the sea floor is marked by trenches, ridges, and deep basins.
The Strait of Sicily divides the Mediterranean Sea into two basins. Islands further divide the western basin into three smaller basins, while the Adriatic and Aegean seas extend northward from the Mediterranean’s eastern basin. The Mediterranean is connected to the Black Sea by the shallow waterways known as the Dardanelles (called the Hellespont in ancient times), the Sea of Marmara, and the Bosporus.
Several peninsulas are the most recognizable land masses in the Mediterranean region. The present-day countries of Spain and Portugal make up the squarish Iberian peninsula, which separates the Mediterranean Sea from the Atlantic Ocean. The boot-shaped Italian peninsula and the Balkan peninsula, which includes Greece, extend from southern Europe into the sea. The rectangular-shaped peninsula of Asia Minor stretches westward from Asia between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea.
Other major landforms that make up the Mediterranean region are the area of southern France now called Provence, and the Levant, the region south of Asia Minor that includes the countries of Syria, Lebanon, and Israel. The southern shore of the Mediterranean is marked by the delta* of the Nile River in Egypt, a desert in Libya, and the rugged land mass that stretches west from the Atlas Mountains of northern Africa to the Atlantic Ocean. Sicily, off the southern tip of Italy, is the largest of the numerous islands in the Mediterranean. The western basin of the sea includes the large islands of Sardinia and Corsica, while Crete and Cyprus lie in the eastern part of the sea.
Mountains are a prominent feature of the landscape of the Mediterranean region. The mountain ranges of Greece sometimes extend right to the sea, a hindrance to communication between Greek lands. Other major mountain ranges of the region include the Pyrenees that separate Spain and France, the Apennines in Italy, the Dinaric Alps in the Balkans, and the Taurus Mountains in Asia Minor. The major geological feature of the land south of Lebanon is a valley containing the Jordan River, the Dead Sea, and the Gulf of Aqaba. This valley is the northern extension of the Great Rift Valley of Africa.
* delta fan-shaped, lowland plain formed of soil deposited by a river
The Mediterranean region does not have many rivers, although the Nile, the world’s longest river at more than 4,000 miles, flows through Egypt into the Mediterranean Sea. Near the coast, the Nile divides into many small branches, forming a delta of extremely fertile farmland. The Danube, the great river of eastern Europe, empties into the Black Sea. Other important rivers flowing into the Black Sea include the Dniester, the Dnieper, and the Don. The Ebro River, in Spain, flows into the Mediterranean, as does France’s Rhone, whose source lies in the central Alps. In Italy, the main rivers are the Arno, the Tiber (which flows through the city of Rome), and the Po. Although Greece has many famous rivers, few have been useful for transportation.
There are few large lakes in the Mediterranean region. Italy has about 1,500 small lakes and a few larger ones, such as Lake Garda, Lake Maggiore, Lake Como, and Lake Lugano. As it is today, Lake Como was a resort area during the ancient period, and the Roman writers Vergil and Pliny the Elder celebrated the lake in their works. The largest lake in Asia Minor is Tuz Golu, a shallow, saltwater lake that is about 50 miles long. In addition to rivers and lakes, the generally dry Mediterranean region has several areas of marshland, the largest of which are in the river deltas.
A SEA BY ANY OTHER NAME...
Because the Mediterranean sea played such a central role in the lives of the ancients, the Greeks and Romans gave the sea special names. To the Greeks, the Mediterranean was he eso thalatta, and the Romans called it Mare Internum. Both of these terms mean "the Inner Sea." The Romans also called it Mare Nostrum, or "Our Sea." The name Mediterranean probably dates from the A.D. 200s, when the geographer Gaius Julius Solinus first used the term Mare Mediterraneum, which means "the Mid-Earth Sea."
The Geology of the Mediterranean Region. The distinctive geological features of the region are the result of the shifting of the earth’s continental plates—huge, slow-moving segments of the earth’s crust—over hundreds of millions of years. The Mediterranean Sea as we know it probably emerged about 5 or 6 million years ago. The Strait of Gibraltar opened up and, in a tremendous waterfall, the waters of the Atlantic rushed in and covered the dry land. After a few centuries, the Mediterranean filled up, and the shifting of the earth’s plates compressed the peninsulas and islands into their current shapes. The continental plates are still moving, resulting in frequent earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.
The Mediterranean region has many active volcanoes. The most dangerous is Etna on the island of Sicily. Although Etna is the highest volcano at more than 11,000 feet and has the most frequent and varied eruptions, the most famous volcano in the region is Mt. Vesuvius on the Italian peninsula, near Naples. Its eruption in A.D. 79 buried the cities of Pompeii, Stabiae, and Herculaneum. In the Aegean Sea, several volcanoes have caused widespread destruction over the centuries. The most important one for geologists and archaeologists* is on the island of Santorini. Its eruption during the Greek Bronze Age may have led to the downfall of the Minoan civilization on the island of Crete.
Limestone, the most common rock of the Mediterranean, was formed millions of years ago from sea water, sea creatures, sand, and mud. Evidence of seashells has been found in the limestone columns of many ancient temples in Greece. Over time, deposits of limestone under pressure and high temperature became marble. Major marble quarries were located in Carrara, in Italy, and on the Aegean island of Paros.
Many valuable minerals and metals are found in the Mediterranean region, and ancient peoples made good use of them. Gold was mined in the Pyrenees, in Thrace, and in Egypt. Silver was mined in Macedonia and in southern Italy. Lead, which was widely used in building construction, was extracted in southern Spain and on the island of Cyprus. Iron ore was found in central and northern Spain, in the Jura Mountains of France, and in the Balkans. Although coal was found in Spain, Asia Minor, and northern Africa, it was not widely used for fuel. Petroleum and natural gas were known to the ancients, but they did not have the technology to extract these resources. (See also Aegean Sea; Climate, Mediterranean; Environment; Mining; Tiber River; Transportation and Travel.)
* archaeologist scientist who studies past human cultures, usually by excavating ruins