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The Mediterranean Sea has always afforded a favourite and fertile theme to naturalists and geographers; its shores are pre-eminently lands of story and of song; and it has been the theatre of events that have employed the historian ever since history began. The beauty and grandeur of its natural features have suggested images for the loftiest poetry; they have furnished scenes of inexhaustible attraction to the artist; and the memories and monuments that linger on the Mediterranean shores give them an unrivalled interest for the architect, the antiquary, and the scholar.
By its eastern waters Art and Poetry, Eloquence and Philosophy, had their earliest seats, and events that occurred upon its coasts have affected the whole world and the destinies of the human race. Upon this splendid sea," navigation,” in the words of Admiral Smyth, "made its earliest efforts ;” and it was the Mediterranean Sea that in ancient times brought Western Europe into communication with the lands that had long been the home of all civilisation. Almost every bay, every cape and noble promontory, from the Black Sea to the Ocean, from Neptune's watchtower on Thracian Samos to the most southerly pharos-tower of the Levant, has its place in history or poetry; the rivers that fall into the Mediterranean are to this day made familiar to us by the classical associations of their coasts; and undying memories of ancient genius and refinement give those coasts attractions that are undiminished by time. By the Mediterranean Sea kingdoms that swayed the destinies of the world flourished and fell, and its coasts are haunted by the shades of ancient power. It gleams in the pages of sacred history and prophecy, for to the isolated Hebrew nation it was “the great,” the unknown “sea,” and its waters may be truly said to reflect the history of thirty centuries. By its shores the picturesque remote dynasties of Egypt ruled and accumulated their wondrous and colossal monuments; and upon the Mediterranean the Phænician traders carried colonies and commerce to the limits of the known world. Amidst “ Edens of the Eastern wave" flourished those republics of illustrious Greece
Immortal, though no more; though fallen, greatwhich have left such imperishable remains of poetry, philosophy, and art. On Mediterranean shores rose Phænician Carthage, and the later sway of that great empire which advanced, from a once-obscure town upon Tiber, to the dominion of the world. And then the wonderful Arabian power, “offspring of the Koran and the sword,” after subjugating the African coast of the Mediterranean and the richest part of Spain, reigned from Cordova to Mecca, and raised elaborate works of Saracenic archi
* The Mediterranean : a Memoir, Physical, Historical, and Nautical. By Rear-Admiral W. H. Smyth, K.S.F., D.C.L., F.R.S. London: 1854.
Rambles of a Naturalist on the Coasts of France, Spain, and Sicily. By A. de Quatrefages, Member of the Institute, &c. Translated by E. C. Otte. Two Vols. 1857.
tecture, to which princes of Western Europe were ere long to give a Christian dedication. Upon this southern sea, Norman princes gained a kingdom, and raised ecclesiastical edifices that at this day blend with Grecian temples on the lovely hills of Sicily; and, finally, when more than a thousand years had elapsed since the events that had consecrated the coasts of Palestine, Christian powers established their dominion upon all the European coasts of the Mediterranean, and the chivalrous brotherhoods of warrior-monks maintained in its island fortresses the cause of Christendom.
But in the present article it is proposed to take a rapid survey of the geographical features and natural phenomena of the Mediterranean, rather than to indulge in historical retrospect. On looking at a map of this great inland sea, even the most cursory observer must at once be struck by the remarkable character of its physical configuration. Opening from the Atlantic, its waters mingle at the entrance with those of the great ocean of the West; while their eastern extremity, two thousand five hundred miles distant, is divided by only a low, narrow isthmus from the ocean-inlets of another hemisphere, namely, the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf
. Its land-locked area ; its immense expanse between the great continents (its total periphery, following the shores of its principal gulfs, is more than 13,000 miles, and its area in square miles is 760,000); the innumerable bays which deeply penetrate its shores;* its mountainous and volcanic islands; and its straits and inper seas—for the Black Sea, the Sea of Azof, and the Sea of Marmora, may be regarded as inner basins of the Mediterranean-are not less striking features of its outline. Channels, in some respects as remarkable as the straits of Gibraltar, connect the Mediterranean with these inner seas, which bring its waters to the foot of the Caucasian chain and the steppes of Russia ; and they flow between shores memorably connected with the history of former times, and conspicuous for the unchanged grandeur of their scenery. The archipelago of mountainous islands and lofty coasts, which those straits and channels penetrate, display physical features of the most extraordinary and romantic character.
But the lofty chains of mountains which, for the most part, surround the Mediterranean, and the mountain-isles which stud its surface, constitute its grandest scenery. The entrance to the sea is fitly guarded by that stupendous monument of some distant geological convulsion, the rock of Gibraltar—a mass of oolitic limestone, rising to a height of more than fourteen hundred feet, and forming a narrow peninsula of nearly three miles in circuit, joined to the continent by a low, sandy neck of land. Then come the stupendous mountain ranges of Spain, many of whose snowy peaks exceed ten thousand feet in height; the Maritime Alps ; the "marble-crested Apennines,” which run in parallel ridges through the centre of Italy to Calabria, there dividing into two branches after a course of eight hundred miles ; the mountainous ranges on the eastern side of the Adriatic; the long line of capes, headlands, and mountainous coasts of Asia Minor and Syria; and, loftier than these, the
Thus, Sicily, though in surface actually smaller than Sardinia, has a coast so diversified by bays that its circuit, following the indentations of its shores, measures 550 miles.
ranges of African mountains, which are divided from the waters of the Mediterranean by
-a dry unfathomed deep
Their waves in rude alarm. The Black Sea is equally bordered by precipitous cliffs, and is girt on its eastern side by that vast rampart of the Caucasus, which seems as if intended to divide two different races of men, and rises everywhere to a height of ten thousand feet, with glacier-filled valleys and gigantic peaks of snow. Besides these mighty barrier-ranges, a hundred mountains and promontories, celebrated in classic story, diversify the Mediterranean coasts, or rise as islands amidst its waters, from the mighty rock-fortress of Gibraltar at its entrance, to those marvellous straits—the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus—where the promontories and palaces of Europe and Asia border the same great stream.
First and fairest of Mediterranean isles is mountainous Sicily, with its wooded heights and sunny bays; its lovely Castellamare, whose semicircular bay of deepest blue is enclosed on one side by a crescent of olive woods rising from the sea towards the distant mountains, and on the other by precipices of bare grey rock that rise abruptly from the water's edge; its beautiful Palermo, whose domes and spires give the town an almost Oriental aspect as it spreads between hills clad with verdure and encircled by a framework of lofty mountains; its rich valley of the Concha d'Oro, where the vegetation is quite southern and African in its character, and where the eye ranges over forests of citron and orange; its mountain scenery, and its monarch Etna—Sicily, where Doric temples blend majestic relics of Greek art with Italian beauty, on sites around which Nature again reigns in loneliness, and only natural features retain an impress of beauty that has resisted time, “as if Venus still continued to shed her favours on the land that was once consecrated to her worship.”
And here we are tempted, in passing, to glance from the physical geography of the Mediterranean to those picturesque combinations of the characteristic features of the East and the West, which meet us on so many lands of this wondrous sea, for we find them in many parts of Sicily. At Palermo, for example, edifices raised by Norman princes blend with Moorish palaces that look like the fabric of Aladdin's genii
. The palaces and ecclesiastical buildings of the city are adorned with marbles, malachites, and lapis-lazuli
, and one may traverse churches and cloisters that are enriched with wondrous carvings.
Their Moorish builders have encrusted the walls with mosaics wrought in porcelain and delicate plaster of variegated tints; and roofs that rest on palm-like pillars of marble are pierced as with lacework, and are bright with colour and gold. In other parts of the island, as if in contrast to this Arabian splendour, one may stand beneath a weather-stained and stately monument of severe classic art, rising on its rocky plateau, amidst the mountain scenery which entranced the sight of Æneas, in a solitude that might seem to have escaped all contact with human industry. Thus, it is in such a desert situation that the temple of Segesta stands, the solitary monument of a once proud and opulent city, the rival of Syracuse and Agrigentum.
Time has not "rounded with consuming power” the cornice-stones of this noble edifice, nor overthrown one of its thirty-six columns.
In features of natural grandeur, Sardinia, and Corsica-island of mountains and forests—are likewise conspicuous amongst the islands of the Mediterranean, and seem to belong to the mountain system of the Maritime Alps. Then, as we glance from the volcanic islands of the Calabrian Gulf towards the wood-environed, tower-crowned heights of Corfu, and the multitudinous isles of Greece, we must not
-in silence pass Calypso's isles,
The sister-tenants of the middle deep; for the island citadel of Malta has not only been surrounded with illustrious memories by the Knights Hospitallers who there maintained the cause of Christendom so proudly, but is unrivalled for exhibiting the alliance of the finest and most strongly fortified of harbours with the greatest of maritime powers.
The coasts of Greece are remarkable for their bold, mountainous frontage to the waters. Some of the chasms by which its mountain. chains are torn form gulfs of the sea, whilst the valleys are for the most part basin-shaped hollows, enclosed by lofty walls of rock, which look as if they had been filled by lakes in some remote geological epoch. The shores of the Ægean, serrated by bays and islets, and abounding in phenomena produced by former volcanic agency, proclaim the ancient power of those forces of upheaval which have everywhere raised the mountains and continents of the globe. There is not, perhaps, in these waters so conspicuous an example as the giant height of lonely Athos, the “Holy Mountain" of the modern Greek monks—that stupendous promontory whose precipices of greyish-white marble are piled magnificently to a height of six thousand feet above the sea, whilst in the wooded region below, the monastic mountaineers thickly cluster—the only populous government in the world where there is not a woman or child?' In like manner, but on a comparatively miniature scale, most of the Lipari islands present steep, cliffy fronts on the western side, which plunge into deep water, sloping on the eastern side, and shelving to a regular gradation of soundings.
The volcanoes, which are still active in different areas of the Mediterranean, are significant of the gigantic forces which determined the configuration of this wondrous Valley of Waters and raised its majestic eminences. A volcanic zone is found to extend from the Caspian to the Azores, and the Mediterranean has been aptly described as undermined by fire. Dark, igneous rocks pervade islands of the Ionian Sea ; trachytic and trap-rocks border the Bosphorus, and are scattered over Asia Minor and Greece, where volcanic districts are found that resemble in their structure those of Central France. Parts of Italy abound in extinct craters, and were evidently, at some remote period, centres of volcanic action, now no longer exerted in those particular areas of the country. Of the continued energy of volcanic forces in the area of the Calabrian and Sicilian shores, Mount Vesuvius, the ever-fiery crater of Stromboli
, the active volcanoes of the Lipari Islands, and the monarch cone of Etna, afford, of course, the most terrible and conspicuous proofs; and to those ancient and gigantic volcanoes may be added the isolated craters that have
suddenly arisen amidst the waters, and, after a brief reign of terror, as suddenly disappeared. *
But igneous rocks, and lava-streams ancient or recent, and craters extinct or still burning, are not the only phenomena resulting from the energy of subterranean forces. The mountain chains and towering landmarks that now stand so steadfast in their “ sublime repose,” are the more stupendous monuments of volcanic forces, but of forces which Nature no longer employs on the same gigantic scale. To their action, however, although in a greatly modified form, we must attribute that gradual upheaval of some coasts and gradual depression of other coasts, which we may at this day witness on many parts of the Mediterranean shores.
In many places on the western coast of Italy the sea has steadily advanced
upon the land, and some tracts have been submerged even within historic times. Thus, Astura, an island about six miles from Antium, well known to the reader as the favourite retreat of Cicero, and the place where he appears to have erected a memorial-temple for his daughter, Tullia, is partly submerged,
and all traces of his villa and temple have been swallowed by the sea. The coast of the bay of Baiæ, on the northern shore of the gulf of Naples, has undergone great changes since the time when its baths and villas were resorted to by the Romans. Their ruins may now be seen many feet below the surface of the pellucid sea, just as the ruins of Greek towns are seen on the submerged eastern coast of Candia. Neptune has taken into his embraces the temple which the Romans dedicated in his honour, and the adjacent Temple of the Nymphs besides. And the ruins of the once-stately Temple of Jupiter Serapis, near Puzzuoli
, afford a celebrated example of oscillations in this tract of land. It is supposed that the temple must have actually sunk, and long remained below the level of the Mediterranean at some unknown period; and, as it afterwards rose again, and has again become depressed, it is continually a matter of interest to learn what may be its actual state, and to speculate on what may next happen to it. When, in the year 1750, its columns and basement-walls, then standing twelve feet above the sealevel, were excavated from the mixed deposit which covered them, the three erect marble columns then and now standing, were found to have been perforated by a marine shell-fish, whose habit it is to make its cell in calcareous rock, and it was evident that the sea had once covered the ruins to the depth of fifteen feet. The architecture of the temple appears to assign it to the time of the Emperor Augustus. In 1814, the pavement was dry, but was only a little above the sea-level. In 1822 it was covered with salt-water to the depth of two inches; and twenty-three years later, the water sometimes stood two feet above its floor, having gained at the rate of three-quarters of an inch yearly. From observations made in 1852, it was inferred that the subsidence of the land had ceased. But all that part of the coast appears to be in a state of instability. At Caligula's bridge the land must have risen, for there are indications in the piers that the water formerly stood four feet higher than its present level; and elsewhere in the vicinity are ancient beaches, from
* The reader need not be reminded of that wondrous island which arose in the year 1831 in the midst of the sea, between Sicily and Pantellaria, and threw from its crater columns of burning cinders and lava, amid flames and fumes of sulphur, and which soon afterwards sank again beneath the waves.