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Exploring the Mediterranean with muddy boots
By Jackson Murphy
Robert Kaplan's newest book, Mediterranean Winter: The Pleasures of History and Landscape in Tunisia, Sicily, Dalmatia, and Greece tells the story of a series of trips the author took to the Mediterranean as a struggling freelance writer. The book is part travelogue, part bibliography, and part history lesson as he weaves a travel tale across the region from past to present.
In his previous works, such as The Coming Anarchy or Warrior Politics, the longtime foreign correspondent for The Atlantic has demonstrated both an encyclopedia-like knowledge of history and a mastery of astute political analysis. This time he does the rare feat of making the history and politics leap, literally, off the pages.
Take for instance, his description of a three-hour train ride to Palermo and a stop at in Segesta's Greek Doric temple, which dates to the fifth century B.C. He begins with a painter or sculptor's description of the landscape before leading into his very first encounter with Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War. The landscape lays the groundwork for the history, and for Kaplan it was a, "history worth knowing."
Coincidentally Kaplan's first trip occurred just after the end of the Vietnam conflict offering a wonderful angle for exploring the Athenian adventure in Sicily, and a brief biography of "two of the most intriguing figures in classical history."
Kaplan captures other tales in exactly the same passionate way. Every train, bus, or boat trip into a new setting offers him a playground to explore. A typical chapter begins like this. A quick trip to Rodin's sculpture garden in Paris leads to the Greek and Roman styles that inspired him. Rodin and two thousand years of history, in turn, lead Kaplan to three books he happened upon in a New Hampshire bookshop - Gustafe Flaubert's Salammbo, Michel Zeraffa's Tunisia, and Livy's The War with Hannibal.
Like Indiana Jones leading you into dark and cobwebbed hidden passageways, these books lead Kaplan into the world of empires and ancient civilizations from Rome, to Carthage, and Byzantine and beyond. Once there are taken into the lives of the characters that lived and breathed there, Jugurtha (a classical era Osama bin Laden), St. Augustine (whose "haunting, aromatic monologues" were an outgrowth of a "tough and restrained landscape") and Ibn Khaldun (a free spirited "writer, thinker, traveler, and historian of the caliber of the Italian Renaissance"). It may sound hard to keep up with, but it isn't.
One of the reasons Kaplan has become such a wonderful travel writer is that he isn't just reporting what he sees. For him a journey includes stopping at a place like the Great Mosque of Kairouan, which he writes, "is still the most impressive building I have seen in the Arab world. I learned more from walking around its courtyard and prayer hall, and sitting quietly beneath its teeming forest of columns, than from many of the books about Arab civilization that I have read since."
Two things become clear as Kaplan recounts such vivid impressions. First his modus operandi is to do his journalism "silently" and much of that can be done by getting to know, not just the character of the people, but the things they build. The second is Kaplan's quirky belief in never using a camera. "Photographs," he says, "can be passive and reductive. They allow us to recall too easily, omitting from view what is behind the camera, and to the sides of it."
If there is one fault with this book, it is that through Kaplan's vivid and beautiful appreciation of the past you get the guilty feeling that you really haven't done near enough exploring of the world. In that sense it is more of a challenge than a failing.
What Kaplan does especially well, particularly in Mediterranean Winter, is to explore learning as travel. Destinations, a book, a painting, a building, a view of a certain landscape are all a simple avenue to lift away the many layers of history and explore the world today.
Jackson Murphy is a commentator from Vancouver, Canada. He a senior writer at Enter Stage Right and the editor of "Dispatches" a website that serves up political commentary 24-7. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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