Christophe Picard’s new book Sea of the Caliphs is the translation of his La mer de califes: Une histoire de la Méditerranée musulmane, VIIe-XII siècles (2015). In this book Picard wants to demonstrate the crucial importance of the Mediterranean for Muslim maritime activities and power. While the dominating role of Muslim traders in the Indian Ocean has been acknowledged, the Mediterranen is still linked in our understanding with the rise of the Italian mercantile cities such as Genoa, Pisa, and Venice. Picard tries to counterbalance this picture with quite some success. He organizes the book in two parts, with more or less the same geographical and chronological scope. For those interested in the Arab perception of the Mediterranean, the first part (The Arab Mediterranean between Representation and Appropriation, 117–182) provides new evidence about how the famous geographers rediscovered/reinvented the Mediterranean as a stage for the expansion of Islam.
The shorter second part (Mediterranean Strategies of the Caliphs, 185–286) is a political history of the Arab conquests in the Mediterranean. Unfortunately, here many facts, presented in the first part, appear again. Thus readers can and should, according to their interests, either concentrate on the first or the second part. Because I myself work on the perception of seas and oceans, I find the first part more remarkable.
Al-Mas’udi, for example, a great traveler himself, highlighted the information that he received by sailors and renowned seafarers and confronted this knowledge with the ancient tradition. Al-Idrisi and Ibn Khaldun had different ways of observing maritime space. The Sicilian al-Idrisi considered the sea to be the center of the Mediterranean region, thus linking the Christian North and the Muslim South. Ibn-Khaldun went one step further when he emphasized the importance of the dominion of the seas for the power of the sultans. According to him, without shipbuilding the sultans would leave the Mediterranean to the Byzantines and the Latins. Various other authors, such as Abbasid chroniclers, perceived the Mediterranean and especially its frontier regions as an arena of Jihad.
In the second part of the book, these ideas become materialized in the political and maritime activities of the caliphates from the seventh to the thirteenth centuries. Picard shows that the sea was frequently regarded as place of military encounter, although trade was also acknowledged as maritime opportunity by the caliphs. The fundamental change in the transition process of the Mediterranean from a sea of caliphs to a global commercial arena (independent of the religion of the trading partners) could have been elaborated further. In this context, it is no surprise that Ibn Battuta is only briefly mentioned in the conclusion. Nevertheless, it is the merit of Picard’s book that he brought the medieval Muslim Mediterranean to our attention.