Collision and cleft: from 50 million years ago

The Mediterranean is formed in the process of Continental drift, when Africa crashes against Eurasia. The resulting sea is of a size and a shape almost perfect for the development of civilization. More than 10,000 km of coastline, around a relatively calm sea, with plentiful harbours and numerous islands as staging posts, provide an ideal setting for intricate patterns of trade, migration and warfare - all of which stimulate a mood of creative energy in human communities.

Much of the rugged coastline on the northern shore is difficult terrain. So the real potential of the region awaits the arrival of sea-going Boats.

Egyptians and Phoenicians: 2000-250 BC

The Egyptians are trading by sea from about 2000 BC. Their commercial partners are the Minoans in Crete and later the Phoenicians.

The Phoenicians, more than any other seafaring people, open up the Mediterranean, founding merchant colonies along its entire length. In this they are soon followed by the Greeks. A pattern of rival Phoenician and Greek colonies on the islands and shores of the Mediterranean is well established by the 5th century BC. The third great power of the period is not yet in the field. When Rome begins to take an interest, in the 3rd century, the situation changes rapidly.

Rome's private sea: 1st century BC - 6th century AD

The gap between the establishment of Rome's first province outside mainland Italy (Sicily in 241 BC) and Roman control of the entire Mediterranean is little more than two centuries. With the annexation of Egypt in 30 BC, the Mediterranean becomes for the first time one political unit - a large lake within a single empire.

This situation lasts for four centuries, until Germanic tribes move round the western Mediterranean in the 5th century AD. This most historic of seas will continue to play a central role in human history, but never again under unified control. Tribal pressure from the north has been gradually building up throughout the heyday of Rome.

By the end of the 5th century southern France and Spain is in the hands of Visigoths. Vandals are established along the coast of northwest Africa. Even the eastern coast of Italy is ruled by Ostrogoths.

For a while, under Justinian in the 6th century, the Roman empire reasserts control over Italy and north Africa. But the impression of a return towards a unified Mediterranean proves illusory. A decisive change occurs in the 7th century, bringing to more than half the Mediterranean coastline a new culture which will prevail from then until our own time - that of Islam.

A sea of two religions: 7th - 16th century AD

The eruption of the Arabs into world history in the 7th century, with their dynamic new religion, changes the Mediterranean scene in a remarkably short time. Antioch in the northeast falls to the Muslims in 645; they are in Toledo, in the west, by 711.

The great sea is now evenly divided between Christianity and Islam. Anatolia at one end and Spain at the other become the fault lines along which, again and again, the two faiths struggle for territory. They also compete for the islands of the Mediterranean. Cyprus, Crete and Sicily become regular battlegrounds.

From the 12th century, fortune for a while favours the Christians. The crusaders establish the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem. Barcelona, Genoa, Venice and Constantinople build extensive Trading empires in the Mediterranean, in spite of constant threat from Muslim pirates.

But the Christians, disunited, eventually damage their own interests - most notably in the sack of Constantinople in 1204. And the weakened Byzantine empire is increasingly confronted by a new Muslim threat, from the Turks.

The Turks make steady inroads into Christian territory in the heartland of the Byzantine empire. They win Anatolia and then the Balkans before finally capturing the prize of Constantinople itself, in 1453.

During the following century the advance of the Turks in and around the Mediterranean seems inexorable. In 1516-17 Turkish armies defeat the Mameluke dynasty of Egypt, bringing the entire eastern Mediterranean (the coasts of Syria, Palestine, Eygpt) into the Ottoman empire. Between 1512 and 1574 Muslim pirates, with Ottoman support, secure the rest of North africa for the rapidly growing empire.

The great Islands lying off Turkey are also brought into the Ottoman fold. Rhodes is taken early, in 1523, but the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1570 prompts a vigorous Christian response. A joint Spanish and Venetian fleet defeats the Turks decisively at Lepanto in 1571. It proves a hollow victory. Only two years later, in 1573, Venice cedes the island to Turkey. But almost a century passes before the Turks, in 1669, finally evict the Venetians from another great prize, Crete.

Of the island staging posts to the east, so carefully accumulated by Venice, only the Ionian group (including Corfu, Cephalonia and Zante) escapes Turkish encroachment.

If the Mediterranean seems a somewhat calmer sea after the battle of Lepanto in 1571, this is partly because it has lost much of its importance. For 3000 years this has been both the central sea of western civilization and the trade link to the riches of the east. Now, in the 16th century, the centre of gravity shifts to the Atlantic coast of Europe. America is the source of untold new wealth from the west; and Portuguese navigators have opened up a less hazardous route by sea to the east.

The Mediterranean can never be a backwater. But not until the opening of the Suez canal will it regain its full and proper status in the world.

This History is as yet incomplete.