The Imagined Mediterranean

Written by Eva Mol |

In this blog post we hear from Eva Mol, one of the organisers of upcoming conference - ‘An imagined past Architectural reconstructions and geographical imaginations in the making of Mediterranean history’ - which takes place 20-21 June 2022.

Misrata, Libya
Habeebi just take the boat.
In front of you : Bahr.
Behind you : Harb.
And the border, closed.
Your Sea, Mare, Bahr. Our war, our Harb.

(From “No search, no rescue” by Jehan Bseiso)

I am incredibly excited to discuss the Imagined Mediterranean during a two-day online conference on Monday 20 and Tuesday 21 of June. Yes, it is a bit of a nuisance to be online, but it means that we can assemble an amazing and very diverse group of people from all around the world that will shed their light on imagination and Mediterranean history. Our common goal is to scrutinise historical reconstructions and discuss how they shaped history and scholarship as well as assemble images, maps, and reconstructions that allow for a more inclusive image of the Mediterranean past.

The world map of al-Idrisi 1154.
The world map of al-Idrisi 1154. Facsimile by Konrad Miller, 1928.

If we imagine the Mediterranean today many will very quickly conjure up blue-skyed holiday destinations supplied with turquoise waters and small white houses, a diet consisting of olive oil, wine, fresh vegetables, and nuts that make you live longer. In a negative guise we imagine the northern Mediterranean population as a bunch of otiose people on which we can blame the Euro-crisis; we imagine the southern half as fortune seeking migrants of yet another ‘crisis’. Part of the West, sometimes part of the East, always part of a mythical South. All such imaginations are based on homogeneous stereotypes, on Eurocentric xenophobia, on a fake nutritional arrangement for an idealized white diet (as will be discussed by Gabriele Proglio in the paper on food and colonial propaganda), and neither of those images allow for the actual complexity of people and their histories. In this way, imagination serves as a simplified version of reality, fuelled by ephemeral confirming visits during the summer months, but also quite literally, fuelled by images, and a testament of a clear disbalance in who is in charge of the narrative.

An image sticks, a map orients people, and the reception and historiography of the Mediterranean is filled with images that made and re-made its history through time. Many studies have been done to the way we are influenced by reconstructions and we are well aware of how such reconstructions and representations create ideas about the past and how they become integrated in society as facts. They not only colour our contemporary view of the Middle Sea and its surrounding lands, but also that of the past, producing for instance a continuous preoccupation with Bronze Age- and 5th century Greece, or Imperial Rome (the ‘Classical western’ past), often carefully stripped from its Eastern connections and subaltern realities, or, the other way around, in full orientalising exotic mode; shaped by and shaping museum exhibitions, blockbuster movies, Assassin’s Creed’s Odyssey, as well as academic publications and archaeological reconstructions. We know these images affect us in thinking about the Mediterranean, but we do not often try to find out how they were formed, or what images are missing.

assassin's creed
Still from Assassin's Creed Odyssey @ Ubisoft.

The Warburg Conference ‘An imagined past Architectural reconstructions and geographical imaginations in the making of Mediterranean history’ - jointly organised with the Institute of Classical Studies - will try to scrutinise the image of the Mediterranean both in a literal as well as a metaphorical sense by asking what we can learn from these histories of imagination and imaginary histories. How in particular points in time, did the Mediterranean become shaped by certain images, reconstructions, or maps, such as the image of the fantastical ‘Homo Mediterraneo’ in the Ottoman period for instance, which affected processes of self-identification (Sezgi Durgun Özkan)? We want to bring together and supply the study of Mediterranean history with more images that show the richness of vantage points and complexity, showing how different maps can change our perspectives, with the sea in the background as a repository of troubled archives and as a continuous pursuit of connecting journeys. In this context, neglected illustrated manuscripts can give us a completely different side of a Holy ‘war’ (Johannes von Müller), maps on ceramic tiles are able to change our views of the history of Jerusalem and its religious architecture (Virginia Grossi), orienting and reorienting maps can teach us about the Islamic imagination of the world (Karen Pinto), and we can learn an incredible deal about Mediterranean history from Islamic imaginations of classical remains such as the Parthenon (Elizabeth Fowden). These images do not just provide history with different pictures, they directly question traditional historiographies and ask us to reconsider longstanding narratives on the history of the Mediterranean.

the Serpent Column and bronze horses of Constantinople, (copyright British Library), Anonymous, Harleian 5500,  fol.30a
The Serpent Column and bronze horses of Constantinople, (copyright British Library), Anonymous, Harleian 5500, fol.30a

The wider objective of the conference is therefore to take imagination seriously in the production of historical knowledge. Why? Because imagination is not just something that simplifies reality, it has an effect on reality and for this reason it does not belong to the domain of the unreal, fictional, or illusory: instead of opposing the real, imagination should be seen as that by which the real is made available to us. Because the imagined is firmly rooted in the real, examining more carefully how maps and certain reconstructions came to exist will teach us about the worlds in which they were made (up). This is exemplified in Sebastian Marshall’s paper on the reconstructions of Ephesus and the temple of Diana by Edward Faulkner and Francesco Lovino’s (re)construction of the two Basilicas of Santa Croce in Rome and Milan will show, but also, in different ways, in the paper on the imagined Eden l (Ohad Sorek) as a window on the ideal city through imagination and the reconstructions of wonders at the Ottoman Court in Gunseli Gürel’s paper. It is the experience of the world, the texture of the real, weaving together the present and absent in a way that requires both invention and discovery, and that should remain open to possibilities of revision. Exploring the concept of imagination is therefore vital for historical science in order to better grasp both historical experience as well as diverging processes of creation.

This conference wants to take a broad view not just to how the sources and the maps made history, but also at scholars’ entanglements with images, maps, and reconstructions of the past. Reconstructions are an integral part of science, history, and archaeology, first in drawings, later in digital reconstruction. Although nowadays we are very concerned with ‘faithful versus fanciful’ reconstructions, how to chart uncertainties, and how to reach a ‘realistically as possible’ image, this concern is quite a recent development, and also in many ways a myth, such as for instance will be discussed in the paper by Anastasia Amrhein and Elizabeth Knott on Babylon’s Ishtar Gate, Near Eastern architecture of ‘Nowhere’ by Maria Gabriella Micale, or Roko Rumora’s discussion on scholarly visions of Roman aedicular façades. They always involve imaginative processes and practices on the part of their producers which can teach us about reception at various points in time, but also more broadly, about the influence of representations in the creation of historical narratives. By not acknowledging this we leave out the role of historical imagination in reconstruction and it does not take advantage of how we can learn from imagination in reconstructions, images, and maps.

Edward Falkener The City of Ephesus (From the Theatre) 1859
Edward Falkener The City of Ephesus (From the Theatre) 1859

In this end I believe that critically interrogating imagination, its context, and its consequences, might be a way to a more inclusive and more complex understanding the past. A partial and narrow imagination of Mediterranean history leaves many things out. It is therefore equally important to pinpoint where imagination is lacking as it is to show where it led to construction of certain narratives. Using imagination in a more active way - toward possibilities of revision as I mentioned before - can serve as a way to bring back those parts, people, and perspectives within Mediterranean history that have been structurally neglected or even directly ignored. This kind of imagination is not historical fabulation, it is an attempt to historical justice. So let us revise, reformulate, and reimagine.

> Join us for the conference


Selective readings

Fowden, E.K. 2018. The Parthenon, Pericles and King Solomon: a case study of Ottoman archaeological imagination in Greece, Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies 42: 261-274.

Franco Llopis, B., And L. Laura Stagno (eds.), 2021.  A Mediterranean Other, Images of Turks in Southern Europe and Beyond (15th – 18th Centuries), Genoa: Genova University Press

Holland, R., 2018. The Warm South: How the Mediterranean Shaped the British Imagination, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Micale, M-G., and D.Nadali (eds.), 2018. How Do We Want the Past to Be? On Methods and Instruments of Visualizing Ancient Reality, New Jersy: Gorgias Press.

Mol, E., 2018. Present in Absence: The Imagination, Memory, and Reconstruction of Egypt and the Iseum Campense in Rome, in M.J. Versluys, K. Bülow Klausen and G. Capriotta Vitozzi (eds.), The Iseum Campense from the Roman Empire to the Modern Age, Temple – Monument – Lieu de mémoire, Rome: Edizioni Quasar, 353-75.

Moss, M., 2008. Toward the visualisation of history, the past as image, Lanham: Lexington books

Proglio, G. 2018. Is the Mediterranean a White Italian-European Sea? The Multiplication of Borders in the Production of Historical Subjectivity. Interventions 20 (3): 406–427

Smythe, S.A., The Black Mediterranean and the Politics of Imagination, Middle East Report 286: 1-9.