Tag Archives: Mediterranean

Transcultural Mediterranean in the History of Chinese Travelogues: Oumei manyou riji as a Case Study


The Mediterranean[1] is commonly perceived not only as the cradle of Europe, but also as a conceptual region that cannot be enclosed by the traditional idea of national borders;[2] the region may be indeed better defined by its natural delimitations.[3] Even though its symbolic meaning for European societies is well acknowledged, very few studies have attempted to investigate the perception of the Mediterranean by the Chinese people, exploring its formation, development, and relevance. More specifically, this article aims to assess if and to what extent the Mediterranean came to be described and perceived as a transcultural space in China, taking as a case study a fundamental but unknown travelogue, Oumei manyou riji 歐美漫遊日記 [Diary of a journey in Europe and the United States]. Given that the Mediterranean has been defined not as “un passage, mais d’innombrables paysages. Non pas une mer, mais une succession de mers. Non pas une civilisation, mais des civilisations entassées les unes sur les autres,”[4] it would be difficult to aim for an all-encompassing representation in the limited span of an article. For this reason, I decided to focus on the description in Oumei manyou riji of relics both as cultural finds and comparison examples. In fact, as brilliantly described by Predrag Matvejević, “Mediteran nije samo zemljopis”[5] [the Mediterranean is not only geography] and should be described adopting other perspectives than mere geographical ones. Even though descriptions of people might work as well for the purpose of this article, I decided not to concentrate on those provided by Chen Yifu and Chen Dayou, since they are one of the most difficult themes when dealing with the Mediterranean.[6]

The choice of both Oumei manyou riji and the Mediterranean as a focus is not a coincidence. The former is a fundamental milestone in the late Qing and Republican era odeporic production. The authors of this travelogue, almost unknown in present secondary literature, are Chen Yifu 陳一甫 (1869–1948) and his son Chen Dayou 陳達有 (exact dates unknown); they were not literati or diplomats, as were most of the authors of previous travelogues of this period, but were known in the first place as entrepreneurs. They were, however, well integrated into the scholarly milieu of the epoch: famous personalities, such as Yang Shounan 楊壽枏 (1868–1948), Jin Liang 金梁 (1878–1962), and Zhao Yuanli 趙元禮 (1868–1939), wrote the prefaces and annotations for Oumei manyou riji. Both this integration in the world of scholars and the entrepreneurial formation account for the specific role of Oumei manyou riji. As evidenced in secondary literature,[7] Chen Yifu’s background was strongly linked to his historic era, and consequently this was true also of his (and his son’s) travelogue: he was a renowned patriotic entrepreneur in a semi-colonial China and dedicated his life to revitalising his country mainly through industrial development.

The Mediterranean, on the other hand, has always been intimately linked to China. It was Marco Polo, a Mediterranean, who discovered and presented China to his Western contemporaries;[8] we shall see further on in this article the connection between Polo’s city of birth, Venice, and China. Furthermore, previous research has already drawn a fruitful comparison between the historical layers of the Mediterranean and those of China.[9]

  1. The first steps toward Europe

According to research by the anthropologist David Tomas,[10] cross-cultural contact contributes to the formation of spatial zones between opposing cultures, particularly “when cultural elements, such as material artefacts and human bodies, are deployed against or are projected into alien territories.” These zones between cultures can be indeed described as transcultural spaces; even though such spaces are difficult to perceive, given their transitory nature, and are the “ephemera of cultural contact,” they are worth studying for a variety of reasons. In fact, they penetrated the Chinese cultural layers, also thanks to the contribution of the first explorers of the Song and Yuan dynasties, continuing with the Jesuit and Protestant missionaries, until the production of travel diaries, especially after the first Chinese diplomatic mission to the West in 1866.

As for the transcultural representation in Oumei manyou riji, before switching to artefacts and cultural relics, we shall start the analysis of the representations of Chen Yifu and Chen Dayou’s trip with one of the most noteworthy relevant topics: food. Food is indeed considered a transcultural commonplace par excellence and “has long been used as a powerful means to establish and maintain relationships with individuals and groups.”[11] Chinese people travelling with the Chens felt the necessity to bring their own chef, since there were many Chinese on the ship from Shanghai to Europe (Chen 1937, p. 9B:[12] “此外有華廚一人專作華餐蓋我國旅客甚多也”). Even though in Oumei manyou riji we can read different descriptions of travellers from China integrating well with others on board the ship, they all felt the need of keeping food as a connection with their motherland; indeed, cookbooks were an instrument used in European colonies to retain ties with the motherland, as well as for group solidarity,[13] and this was no exception.[14]

As hinted above, one of the peculiarities of the diary is the distinct cultural and working background of the Chens when compared to authors of previous travelogues;[15] this discrepancy is projected in many representations of foreign cultural and material landscapes within Oumei manyou riji. For example, Chen Yifu and Chen Dayou’s entrepreneurial experience is mirrored in the descriptions of the ship they were travelling on, with numerous data and technical terminology about engineering aspects of their travel, such as fuel consumption and boat parts, or details about the speed of different means of transport they were moving with. This information was provided by the authors in brackets in English.

Oumei manyou riji is also representative of the social stratification and the view that Chinese travellers thought Westerners had on the topic. The Chens, in fact, describe in detail the classes in which the ship was divided, focusing in particular on the presence of many Indians (“印人”). Among them, they reflect Chinese people’s surprise at the fact that men wore earrings and women had rings or pearls on their noses. Also, according to the author of Oumei manyou riji, as the section close to the infirmary was extremely dirty, all passengers passing near it had to hold their noses, given that “Westerners pay utmost attention to hygiene” (Chen 1937, p. 9B: “有統艙均下等社會人士其中印人甚夥男多帶耳環女有穿鼻孔以環或珠者艙內污穢最奇者船上醫室即在其旁旅客莫不掩鼻而過西人最重衛生”).

Oumei manyou riji can be read as a source of historical information, provided by Chen Yifu and his son through the prism of their travel account. They mention (Chen 1937, p. 10A) a picture taken by a certain “賀公使,” conceivably a reference to the general He Yaozu 賀耀組 (Ho Yao-tsu, 1889–1961), who was ambassador to Turkey between 1934 and 1936. Allusions to other political figures are scattered throughout the travelogue: “張賀二公使” includes a reference to perhaps Zhang Jingjiang 張靜江 (Chang Ching-chiang, 1877–1950) or most likely to Zhang Huichang 張惠長 (Chang Wai-jung 1899–1980), ambassador to Cuba from 1935 to 1937.

Of course, as on a modern cruise, the authors of the travelogue also enjoyed moments of leisure: they focus in particular on a night-time dance party (Chen 1937, p. 10B) in which we read about a wonderful Asian woman and an Italian man dressed as an Arabian dancer moving on the stage (“某華女士飾旗裝甚華麗盧夏二女士亦均參加九時奏音樂舞者登場紙條紛飛亟形熱鬧尤以一意國男子作阿拉伯舞者最為出色”). “Transcultural masquerades” as well are “characterized by mimicry, alterity, and the tensions and pleasures,” which are associated with the cultural diversity of the age of colonialism.[16] The Chens thought this masquerade was worth recording in their travelogue, perhaps because it could convey a feeling of exoticism to attract more readers.

  1. The Mediterranean as a cultural landscape

The real immersion in the atmosphere of what we commonly perceive as the Mediterranean starts after their arrival in Cairo. The Chens focus on the climate of the capital city and its Egyptian museum (Chen 1937, p. 11A), where a lot of relics on display strike the Chinese travellers’ attention. The authors carefully describe the rationale behind the idea of mummies (“古物多種陳列門前多石棺石像均極龐大樓上有木乃伊[Mummy]多具埃及人信靈魂不滅之說”), including notes on the process of preservation of bodies and of sarcophagi. The Chinese travellers are particularly struck by the sarcophagus of “Tutan Khamen.” We find in this passage for the first time a storytelling technique often used in Oumei manyou riji: the analogous products back in the Chens’ motherland, China, would pale in comparison with the exquisiteness of the techniques of Egyptian objects and artefacts (“製造之巧妙雕刻之精緻直使我東方古國退避三舍”).[17] At times, as shown later in the article, this technique is applied instead to point out weaknesses of Western artefacts or values, providing examples of transcultural comparisons and highlighting the Chens’ mixture of pride and confrontation towards their own culture.

The Chens complain about the lack of time to properly appreciate the museum and its contents in Cairo. After a short break in the hotel, the convoy proceeds to visit other relics, including the pyramids and the Sphinx. On the journey from their hotel to their destination, the travellers had to pass through a portion of desert and change cars for camels; Oumei manyou riji adopts this break from the cultural immersion in the Egyptian landscape—both natural and cultural—to provide a description (Chen 1937, p. 12A) of the temperament of camels and linguistic considerations as to why in Chinese pyramids are called jinzita 金字塔, also furnishing detailed information on their measurements, as was typical with the Chens’ entrepreneur background.

According to the traditional vision that pyramids were essentially either the embodiment of Egyptians’ mathematical knowledge or the representation of historical authority,[18] the Chens analyse them as products that were built so the power of the Pharaoh could be perceived concretely by his subjects (“小民望而生畏其君主威權可見一斑”).

The stay in Egypt is distinguished by the insistent mention of the unfavourable weather conditions, for example when travellers had to step off the camels and strongly felt the heat. After paying a gratuity, they were allowed into the pyramid, where they finally found refreshment from the scorching temperature while the guide, who could speak English, explained the interiors (Chen 1937, p. 12A).

Once the convoy finished visiting Cairo, it headed for a boat to Port Said, in which we read a description of men wearing hats and women with black veils on their heads, similar to Chinese Buddhist nuns; the Chens compare them to Western sisters (“此處男子多著土耳其式帽穿寬大長袍類我國僧侶女多頭披黑紗由後觀之略似西洋女教士”).

An important portion of the convoy’s passage in Egypt is significantly devoted to the description of the Suez Canal, which passengers learnt about through a small booklet they purchased (“散步波賽街中購得運河略圖一冊附有簡短說明對混合之歷史略得梗概”). Even though the Suez Canal cannot be considered a relic, it is indeed a fundamental leg for Chen Yifu and Chen Dayou as Chinese travellers: the Suez Canal is one of the two doors to the Mediterranean and also served as privileged access to the sea for many Chinese travellers to Europe after 1869.[19] As reported in detail in Oumei manyou riji, the booklet narrated the history of the canal: after conquering Egypt, Napoleon once planned to excavate the canal in order to connect the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. However, given a mistake in the measurement,[20] the feat could not be accomplished. It was the French diplomat and entrepreneur Ferdinand de Lesseps (1805–1894) who would promote and complete the construction, which the authors provide specific information on, including depth, width, and measurement. Before that, communications between Europe and Asia could pass only through the Cape of Good Hope. As was typical with their practical backgrounds, the Chens detail the shortened distances between various cities in the two continents before and after 1869 and, most of all, the cost of the construction. According to the Oumei manyou riji, half of the financial capital was provided by the French and half by “Mohommed Said” (sic.: in Chinese 賽氏, Chen 1937, 12B), a reference to the Egyptian political figure Mohamed Sa’id Pasha (1822–1863). Control, however, was soon gained by England; in fact, by December 1875, the British government became a large shareholder of the Suez Canal Company, owning forty-four percent of the shares, only one percentage point less than France.[21]

According to Chen, most of the boats crossing the canal were consequently those of France and England, but some were also from the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Norway, Japan, the USA, and even the extremely small Free City of Danzig. Compared to the number of foreign vessels, Chinese boats were never seen crossing the Suez Canal, as supposedly confirmed to the Chens by a long-standing local worker (“於一八六九年所過船舶以英法為多荷德意挪日美次之即蕞爾坦澤自由市亦有船隻通過獨具有萬餘里海岸之我國竟付缺如無怪有工作於該河數十年者竟以未見我國船隻為異也”). As seen in other examples throughout this article, complaints by the authors on China’s attitude compared to other visited countries are not uncommon in Oumei manyou riji. At times, therefore, not only the Mediterranean, but more generally the West, is used both as a transcultural paradigm and a cross-cultural comparison example to point out the weakness of their native land. The opposite is also true: instances where Chen Yifu and Chen Dayou’s commitment and pride for their native country point to deficiencies in the places they visited are not uncommon (see, among others, Chen 1937, 27B: 廣場之東舊時城垣猶存惟甚矮小無我國城垣之雄壯: “Ancient bastions are located East of the square, but rather short and small; they cannot compare to the magnificence of bastions in my country”).[22]

  1. Italy as the main Mediterranean goal, between cultural relics and comparisons

Other than Egypt, the main representative of the Mediterranean in Chen Yifu and Chen Dayou’s Oumei manyou riji is Italy; a substantial portion of the diary is devoted to the peninsula for a variety of personal and historical reasons.[23] The authors describe Italy as the cradle of beautiful landscapes (“人言意大利為藝術淵藪信不誣也”; Chen 1937, p. 13A); the first detailed introduction to the country is about Venice and the Doge’s palace (“總制府”).

Venice is presented as the city of water, with no signs whatsoever of chariots (“有澤國之稱出門除步行外概須乘船無車馬踪跡,” Chen 1937, p. 13A), and as the first city in order of importance in Italy and Europe as well. That is why, as the saying goes, you can skip visiting Rome, but you cannot miss sightseeing in Venice (“意大利之本冠全歐而威尼斯又為豪商富賈所集故有甯不遊羅馬不可不遊威尼斯之諺語,” Chen 1937, p. 13A).[24] This infatuation for the city of Venice is a pervasive topic in Chinese literature and related textual production, starting at least from the fourteenth century and the well-known account of Marco Polo (1254–1324); in fact, the Italian city has been long compared with the Chinese city of Suzhou. Even though the presence of bridges in the latter[25]—although at times overestimated in numbers—makes the comparison plausible, there is a subtle difference in the way Suzhou itself was interpreted: while Europeans perceived it mainly through the comparison with Venice, Chinese, Japanese, and other East Asians could “appreciate Suzhou on its own terms—or rather, in terms of its preeminence in scholarly Chinese culture […].[26] The opposite, however, is not true for Chen Yifu and Chen Dayou’s travelogue: Venice is not examined in comparison with Suzhou, but only for its personal beauty and cultural relics. In Oumei manyou riji the Italian city is particularly praised for its mosaics (“文石”): with their different colours and patterns, mosaics are an Italian specialty, as the Chens put it, making the buildings of Venice similar to oil paintings (“以各色碎石砌成各種花樣如人物花鳥建築等遠觀與油畫無異[…]此為意大利特產發源於茲地”; Chen 1937, p. 13B).

Like contemporary tourists, the members of the convoy are fascinated by the antiquity of Venice’s buildings, St. Mark’s Church in particular, dating back to the eleventh century, according to the authors’ information (“聖馬可教堂即有十一世紀物,” Chen 1937, p. 13B). An interesting switch in the narration can be read here: “隨父親及俞君[…]” [following my father and Mister Yu…]. We might infer that the whole diary is narrated from the point of view of Chen Dayou, reporting the words his father Yifu dictated, and that only at times the paternal figure emerges; however, we do not know who the Mister Yu referred to is.

The description of St. Mark’s Square is extremely detailed. The Chens emphasise it as the most flourishing and beautiful part of Venice, and dedicate a careful representation of the square itself, St. Mark’s Campanile, its peculiar pigeons, and the general atmosphere of the city (“鐘樓造於十五世紀[…]飛鴿成羣畧不畏人飼之則就手中來食[…],” Chen 1937, p. 13B). They particularly refer to the fact that on Sunday nights only music in the square could be heard, given that the musical penchant of Italian people was higher than all other countries. The Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari is the next step of their visit to the city; as usual in Oumei manyou riji, the authors detail the time of completion of the church and information on the relics stored inside, such as the heart of the artist Antonio Canova (“意人音樂興趣獨高於各國也[…]此處最華麗教堂之一意名雕刻家坎喏瓦[…]葬心於此,” Chen 1937, p. 13B).

The bridge of Rialto elicits enthusiastic appraisals from father and son, particularly for its barrel vaults; the Chens heard from unspecified sources that the bridge has five to six hundred years of history, and the visit is a chance to buy some mosaics, as well as witness the glassblowing process taking place on the bridge stalls (“利奧爾陀橋[…]有窗頂形[…]當場製各器皿以示作法,” Chen 1937, p. 13B). Most of the workers of these stalls were women and their craftsmanship was so excellent that an expensive table could be sold for ten thousand liras, corresponding to approximately twenty thousand custom gold units,[27] literally leaving people breathless (“往觀製花邊者多女工價亦奇昂一大桌布花樣為某名人設計售十萬里耳合我國二萬元左右令人咋舌,” Chen 1937, pp. 13B–14A).

The description of St. Mark’s Basilica the following day follows the same pattern seen in Oumei manyou riji: it was built during the ninth century, but restored in the eleventh. In the passage we see for the first time in the travelogue an appreciation of Western cultural relics for their supposed resemblance with Oriental counterparts: the five cupolas on its top have an “Oriental feeling” (“圓頂五尊頗具東方氣象,” Chen 1937, p. 14A). This was due perhaps to the presence of four horses, brought from Constantinople and moved to Paris by Napoleon for only a short period; the fact that they were moved to other places during the First World War was an epitome of their value (“四銅馬立門上騰躍如生一二零四年由君士但丁堡[…]以此拿破崙曾移至巴黎但不久即歸還歐戰時亦將四馬藏避他處可証其寶貴,” Chen 1937, p. 14A).

The convoy also visited the Doge’s palace, with its famous painting “Il paradiso” [The paradise], probably the largest one in the world. The last stop before a visit to the Lido is St. Mark’s Campanile. In this case, it is a hotel that is used as an example: the Excelsior, a new building in the Lido. There is a discrepancy, however, in the dates of construction reported in the travelogue: while it is true that the Excelsior opened in 1907 or 1908, in 1937 a new place was built close to it to host movie screenings, one of the most advanced movie theatres in Italy at that time and a success for the hotel as well.[28] The magnificence of the building, as well as the completeness of its interiors, filled Chen Yifu and Chen Dayou with regret that there was nothing comparable in similar seaside resorts in China, such as Qingdao and Beidaihe (“我國青島北戴河諸地即無類此者,” Chen 1937, pp. 14B).

  1. History, literature, and other considerations on the road to France

The journey of the convoy to Verona, passing by Padua and Vicenza, is a chance for the Chens to describe in careful detail the history of Romeo and Juliet, from the tragic plot to their burial site, to the history of the Verona Arena, compared with Rome’s Colosseum. As read earlier in this article, this is not the first time that Chen Yifu and Chen Dayou mix various literary, historical, and broadly-defined cultural elements in Oumei manyou riji; their travelogue is a testimony of both the places visited and their relevant cultural heritage. This should come as no surprise, since according to previous research, recording travel experiences can open various discourses on the others: “Fondamentalement discours sur l’Autre, regard sur l’hétérogène, le récit de voyage offre donc la perspective exaltante et démultipliée de l’ouverture sur les discours des autres.”[29] This enriches the travelogue, even though it makes it depart from its original heuristic intention: “le voyage livresque qu’il effectue le constitue en genre littéraire mais le détourne de sa mission première et heuristique, qui est de rendre compte du monde nouveau découvert.” This link with reality makes the travelogue a factual text, keeping at the same time connections with fiction: “Ainsi, alors même qu’il est ancré dans le réel, le récit de voyage—genre dit «factuel» (Genette)—entretient des liens avec la fiction.”[30]

After crossing the border between France and Italy, in which to the Chens’ surprise there was not much difference in the landscape, with the exception that Italian roads were better equipped (“入法竟後沿途風景與意相同公路及其設備較差或意多新築之路” Chen 1937, p. 28A), the convoy arrives in Nice. Chen Yifu and Chen Dayou take note of the extremely high prices of local meals, with the cost of a meal equivalent to one month of school meals in China (“每餐可敷余在國內學校一月飯費”).

A visit to the Casino de la Jetée, dismantled only a few years after their visit to Europe, was their next stop after a short break in the hotel. As soon as they got inside the building, the visitors were asked about their ages. Mister Xia, one of the members of the convoy, replied twenty-one, since according to the regulations, people under that age were not allowed inside. The authors describe the one-hour tour inside the casino and some of the attractions, including dance representations—this is also a chance to compare them to the relevant shows in China, this time to the detriment of the latter (“跳舞雖無奇特然較在我國所觀者華麗多矣” Chen 1937, p. 28B). A more involved visit to the Monument aux Morts, honouring the fallen of the First World War, is brushed off with few characters: “原路歸經旅舍至歐戰紀念牌” (We went back on the same road, passing by the hotel and stopping at the Monument aux Morts). The visit to the city of Nice is concluded with climatological considerations about the Mediterranean; Nice is in fact known for its Mediterranean climate among the Chinese, even though there were different opinions in other accounts of the time, particularly pertaining to the city’s famous “vent de Bise.”[31]


In Oumei manyou riji, the Mediterranean appears at first glance as a collection of places, more than a unitarian, even if fluid, entity. Chen Yifu and Chen Dayou’s background as entrepreneurs justifies the presence of technicalities and description of infrastructures; their “hidden” role as scholars, however, surprisingly entails descriptions of cultural and immaterial landscapes of the cities visited, from Egypt to Italy to France, from Port Said to Nice to Venice. The pattern used for the descriptions of historical landscapes and cultural relics in the travelogue is indeed almost the same throughout the text: a brief introduction, with historical information highlighting the old history of the relic itself, and considerations about the cultural and historical novelty of the place visited. Most of the time, however, this was only meant to arouse the reader’s interest more than out of a sense of pure exoticism—and comparisons from different perspectives and different outcomes with similar products in the motherland. It is exactly the last point that makes it possible to consider the description of the Mediterranean in Oumei manyou riji as “transcultural”: at times, these comparisons take the form of the authors using the countries visited as an epitome to point out what they consider weaknesses of their motherland, at times weaknesses—from various perspectives—of the Western countries visited.

The transcultural production depicted, including cultural artefacts and relics, is an extremely complex matter: “the space of transcultural art is not Euclidean, but interstitial—between cultures, experience and imagination, memory and loss, desire and anxiety, and dream and reality.”[32] The art described by the Chens places itself exactly at the intersection between two or even more different cultures, the imagination, experience, and expectations of the traveller and the entrepreneur, and of the Chens’ desire for their country to imitate—or reject—the places and relics they saw.

On the other hand, contrary to the tangible artefacts and cultural relics presented in Oumei manyou riji, the contact zones produced by travel narratives are imaginary. These zones can be described as “atopia,” a term that Roland Bartes indicated as a product of texts: “le système est en lui débordé, défait.”[33] The atopic space of transcultural arts has spatialities and temporalities that “may offer cultural self-criticism or a momentary interrogation […]”:[34] this was exactly the case of the Chens’ descriptions of Europe, and the Mediterranean in particular, with self-criticism and interrogations for a possible model for China, as well as judgements and suggestions on the Western countries visited.

Chen Yifu and Chen Dayou’s travels can indeed be considered a mixture of three of the five steps in the so-called “游历的五生型式 (five shengs pattern of experoutination)”:[35] the “industrial experoutination” (shengye 生业), the “idealistic experoutination” (shengsi 生思), and the “trade experoutination” (shengyi 生易). Although it most likely started due to the first intention, in order to study the industrial technologies of Western countries, Oumei manyou riji resulted in a pleasant and culturally-connotated text, particularly pertaining to the Mediterranean section of the travels, to which most of the text is dedicated. This is mostly due to the father and son’s background and the unique era China was going through at the time: in the semi-colonial era after the Opium War, China’s view of the West was especially complicated. The fear and shame brought by the defeat in war and colonisation, the admiration of new technology, and the yearning for a modern society form a mixture of pride and confrontation towards the Chens’ own culture. Chen Yifu was a patriotic entrepreneur and philanthropist in this era, and his determination and contribution to revitalise China through industrial development are renowned and evident within the written characters of Oumei manyou riji.[36]

More generally, the two “worlds” presented in this article, the Mediterranean and China, were always connected; in fact, they were two of the main passages in the travels around the Old World. However, until the nineteenth century, there was an imbalance between the European knowledge of China, and the knowledge of Europe and the Mediterranean by the Chinese people.[37] The odeporic production put into records starting from the first mission to Europe in 1866 tried to successfully fill that gap. The admiration, and at times criticism, by the father and son recorded in their travelogue and analysed in many episodes above is derived exactly from this discrepancy and the complicated historical factors of China’s history in the second half of the nineteenth century and the first part of the twentieth century.



Abulafia, David. The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Barthes, Roland. Le plaisir du texte. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1973.

Ben-Zaken, Avner. Cross-Cultural Scientific Exchanges in the Eastern Mediterranean, 1560–1660. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010.

Bescherer Metheny, Karen, and Mary C. Beaudry (eds.). Archaeology of Food: An Encyclopedia. London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015.

Braudel Fernand. La Méditerranée: l’espace et l’histoire. Paris: Flammarion, 1985.

Cabanas, Edgar, Razak Khan, and Jani Marjanen. “Travellers: Transformative Journeys and Emotional Contacts.” In Encounters with Emotions: Negotiating Cultural Differences since Early Modernity, edited by Benno Gammerl, Philipp Nielsen, and Margrit Pernau, 61–84. New York: Berghahn Books, 2019.

Carroll Peter J. Between Heaven and Modernity: Reconstructing Suzhou, 1895–1937. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006.

Centre de recherche sur la littérature des voyages. Miroirs de textes: récits de voyage et intertextualité. Nice: Publications de la Faculté des lettres, arts et sciences humaines de Nice, 1998.

Chen, Yifu 陳一甫. Oumei manyou riji 歐美漫遊日記 [Diary of a journey in Europe and the United States]. 1937.

Codell, Julie F. (ed.). Transculturation in British Art, 1770–1930. Reprinted edition. London; New York: Routledge, 2016.

Harrison, Robert T. Gladstone’s Imperialism in Egypt: Techniques of Domination. Greenwood Press: Westport, London, 1995.

Leininger, Madeleine. “Transcultural Food Functions, Beliefs, and Practices.” In Transcultural Nursing: Concepts, Theories, Research & Practice, edited by Madeleine Leininger and Marilyn R. McFarland, 205–216. New York: McGraw-Hill Education. Third edition, 2002.

Liu Shanling 刘善龄. “Zhongguoren chu she Suyishi 中国人初涉苏伊士” [The first Chinese to cross the Suez Canal]. Xungen 寻根 (2002) no. 3: 25–29.

Matvejević, ‎Predrag. Mediteranski brevijar. Zagreb: Grafički Zavod Hrvatske, 1990.

Matvejević, ‎Predrag (Silvio Ferrari, trans.). Mediterraneo: un nuovo breviario. Milano: Garzanti, 1993.

Matvejević, ‎Predrag (‎Heim, Michael Henry, trans.). Mediterranean: A Cultural Landscape. Berkeley; Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999.

May, Jan Andreas. “«Queen of the Arts» — Exhibitions, Festivals, and Tourism in Fascist Venice, 1922–1945.” In Creative Urban Milieus: Historical Perspectives on Culture, Economy, and the City, edited by Martina Heßler and Clemens Zimmermann, 209–227. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

M’Culloch, John Ramsay. A Dictionary, Geographical, Statistical, and Historical of the Various Countries, Places, and Principal Natural Objects in the World. Vol. III. London: Longmans, Green, and Co, 1866.

Tignor, Robert L. Capitalism and Nationalism at the End of Empire: State and Business in Decolonizing Egypt, Nigeria, and Kenya, 1945–1963. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998.

Tola, Gabriele. “An Unknown Diary Across Italy and Europe: Oumei manyou riji and the Late Chinese Rediscovery of the Other.” Nordicum-Mediterraneum 20 (in press) no. 1.

Tomas, David. Transcultural Space and Transcultural Beings. Reprinted edition. New York: Routledge, 2018.

Wang, Yi-Wen, Christian Nolf. “Historic Landscape and Water Heritage of Suzhou Beyond the Tourist Gaze.” In Suzhou in Transition, edited by Beibei Tang and Paul Cheung, 42–86. London; New York: Routledge, 2021.

Wu Bihu 吴必虎, Huang Shanhui 黄珊蕙, Zhong Lina 钟栎娜, et al. “Youli fazhan fenqi, xingshi yu yingxiang: yi ge yanjiu kuangjia de jiangou 游历发展分期、型式与影响:一个研究框架的建构” [Phases, patterns, and impacts of youli (experoutination) development: building a research framework]. Lüyou xuekan 旅游学刊 – Tourism Tribune 37 (2022), no. 3: 50–67.




[1] ‎This article was conceived from a conference panel, organised by Prof. Renata Vinci for the AISC (Italian Association for Chinese Studies) biennial meeting, held at Sapienza University of Rome in September 2023.

[2] ‎Predrag Matvejević (‎Michael Henry Heim, trans.), Mediterranean: A Cultural Landscape (Berkeley; Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999), 10 and passim.

[3] David Abulafia, The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), xxiii–xxiv.

[4] Fernand Braudel, La Méditerranée: l’espace et l’histoire (Paris: Flammarion, 1985), 8.

[5] ‎Predrag Matvejević, Mediteranski brevijar (Zagreb: Grafički Zavod Hrvatske, 1990), 13.

[6] ‎Predrag Matvejević (‎Silvio Ferrari, trans.), Mediterraneo: un nuovo breviario (Milano: Garzanti, 1993), 60.

[7] Gabriele Tola, “An Unknown Diary Across Italy and Europe: Oumei manyou riji and the Late Chinese Rediscovery of the Other,” Nordicum-Mediterraneum 20 (in press) no. 1.

[8] Braudel, La Méditerranée, 75.

[9] Braudel, La Méditerranée, 157.

[10] David Tomas, Transcultural Space and Transcultural Beings (Reprinted edition. New York: Routledge, 2018), 15. I would like to thank Dr. Michèle Thériault for providing me a copy of this text.

[11] Madeleine Leininger, “Transcultural Food Functions, Beliefs, and Practices,” in Transcultural Nursing: Concepts, Theories, Research & Practice, ed. Madeleine Leininger, Marilyn R. McFarland (New York: McGraw-Hill Education. Third edition), 205.

[12] For the sake of legibility, quotations from Oumei manyou riji are pointed out in this article without the addition of a footnote for each.

[13] Karen Bescherer Metheny, Mary C. Beaudry (eds.), Archaeology of Food: An Encyclopedia (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), 116.

[14] Other examples of transcultural comparisons, including Rome’s Holy Stairs and Trevi Fountain are examined in Tola, “An Unknown Diary Across Italy and Europe.”

[15] Tola, “An Unknown Diary Across Italy and Europe.”

[16] Edgar Cabanas, Razak Khan, Jani Marjanen, “Travellers: Transformative Journeys and Emotional Contacts,” in Encounters with Emotions: Negotiating Cultural Differences since Early Modernity, ed. Benno Gammerl, Philipp Nielsen, Margrit Pernau (New York: Berghahn Books, 2019), 70.

[17] The chengyu used by Chen, tuibi san she 退避三舍, means to withdraw one she (a unit of measurement roughly corresponding to thirty li 里) in order to avoid confrontation.

[18] Avner Ben-Zaken, Cross-Cultural Scientific Exchanges in the Eastern Mediterranean, 1560–1660 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010), 114–115.

[19] Liu Shanling, “Zhongguoren chu she Suyishi,” Xungen (2002) no. 3: 25–29.

[20] A ten-metre difference between the two was wrongly calculated; see Robert T. Harrison, Gladstone’s Imperialism in Egypt: Techniques of Domination (Greenwood Press: Westport, London, 1995), 42.

[21] Robert L. Tignor, Capitalism and Nationalism at the End of Empire: State and Business in Decolonizing Egypt, Nigeria, and Kenya, 1945–1963 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998), 42.

[22] Tola, “An Unknown Diary Across Italy and Europe.”

[23] Refer to Tola, “An Unknown Diary Across Italy and Europe.”

[24] The saying, of which I was not able to trace the Italian version, presumably derives from one of the travel books Chen Yifu and Chen Dayou consulted or from the guide that was accompanying them and other travellers during the trip.

[25] Yi-Wen Wang, Christian Nolf, “Historic Landscape and Water Heritage of Suzhou Beyond the Tourist Gaze,” in Suzhou in Transition, ed. Beibei Tang, Paul Cheung (London; New York: Routledge, 2021), 69.

[26] Peter J. Carroll, Between Heaven and Modernity: Reconstructing Suzhou, 1895–1937 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006), 4.

[27] The currency issued in China at the time of travel, known in Chinese as guanjinyuan 關金圓.

[28] Jan Andreas May, “«Queen of the Arts» – Exhibitions, Festivals, and Tourism in Fascist Venice, 1922–1945,” in Creative Urban Milieus: Historical Perspectives on Culture, Economy, and the City, ed. Martina Heßler, Clemens Zimmermann (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 220.

[29] Centre de recherche sur la littérature des voyages, Miroirs de textes: récits de voyage et intertextualité (Nice: Publications de la Faculté des lettres, arts et sciences humaines de Nice, 1998), X.

[30] Centre de recherche sur la littérature des voyages, Miroirs de textes, XI.

[31] John Ramsay M’Culloch, A Dictionary, Geographical, Statistical, and Historical of the Various Countries, Places, and Principal Natural Objects in the World, vol. III (London: Longmans, Green, and Co, 1866), 437.

[32] Julie F. Codell (ed.), Transculturation in British Art, 1770–1930 (Reprinted edition. London; New York: Routledge, 2016), 9.

[33] Roland Barthes, Le plaisir du texte (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1973), 49.

[34] Codell, Transculturation, 10.

[35] Wu Bihu, Huang Shanhui, Zhong Lina, et al. “Youli fazhan fenqi, xingshi yu yingxiang: yi ge yanjiu kuangjia de jiangou,” Lüyou xuekan 37 (2022), no. 3: 61–62.

[36] This aspect is thoroughly analysed in Tola, “An Unknown Diary Across Italy and Europe.”

[37] Wu Bihu, Huang Shanhui, Zhong Lina, et al. “Youli fazhan fenqi,” 55.

The Polar Mediterranean Imaginary. A Renewed Paradigm by Vilhjalmur Stefansson

Nordicum-Mediterraneum, the scholarly journal where this article is published, has an interesting and almost paradoxical name. It explores the ties between the Arctic and Mediterranean regions. When thinking about these two areas, it is almost guaranteed to have blended glimpses of cold, white and snowy landscapes immersed in dark skies full of dancing northern lights with warm and sunny afternoons by the seashore while enjoying the view of an historic town. However, the concept of mixing these two somewhat opposite geographical sites is not a pioneering idea coming from the creators of this journal.

Without any hostile intention towards the editors, this article presents another academic who dedicated his life attempting to shift inaccurate and misconceived ideas about the Arctic by “fostering the awareness and the understanding concerning the common origins, … intertwining and shared elements” [1] between the Arctic and the Mediterranean.

At first sight it seems almost illogical, or at least contrived, to find meaningful similarities between the Arctic region and any other southern regions of the globe, especially the Mediterranean basin. How can a frozen and inhospitable territory be connected with such a historical region, which is considered the cradle of European and Western civilization? What could be the possible relations between a peripheral zone of the globe, distant from the largest and most influential urban centers, with a central socio-economic and political hub?

This paper intends to introduce a different imaginary about the Arctic and its potential, an imaginary capable of facilitating the comprehension of the Arctic and its multiple players, especially as regards the Southern and Western populations with scarce information and outdated ideas about the North.

The concept of the Polar Mediterranean Imaginary (hereafter PMI) is the chosen one, mostly because it utilizes creatively and insightfully the famous Mediterranean region, which is well-known for its history, culture, economy, and long-lived political reality, but also to establish intriguing relations and parallelisms with the Arctic’s present and future. In fact, this paradigm, proposed almost a century ago, is not particularly well-known by today’s societies, nor is it well-established in academia. However it offers an accurate and rather positive approach regarding the potentialities of the Arctic under a great variety of perspectives.


Arctic Social Imaginaries

The concept of “imaginary” has been gaining more and more influence in research and studies belonging to many different branches within the social sciences [2]. Social imaginaries rely upon individual imagination and require intersubjective interactions, all within a specific socio-environmental context, i.e., an historical people and their actual environment. Hence, social imaginaries are built to help in the organization of communities in a never-ending meaning-giving process [3].

Collective imaginaries are never completely irreplaceable nor universal, since they are the result of dynamic relations and can be rearranged in time. As a matter of fact, the 20th -century philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis (hereafter CC) offers a very interesting insight regarding the “Social Imaginaries” [4].

Metaphorically, and quite aptly in the Icelandic context, CC compares the incessant flow of images, thoughts, ideas, and conflicts thereof, that any given socio-cultural imaginary exhibits in history with “successive formations of volcanic lava that almost never entirely solidify”, for each imaginary may seem to “preserve itself”, but in fact “it never ceases to alter itself.” [5] [6] .

The relationship between human imagination and the imaginary is the present article’s starting point to understand how the Arctic has been variously conceived of, i.e., imagined or comprehended, especially by Western and Westernized societies throughout the centuries, i.e., as a remote and distant territory with very reduced contact with the southern regions.

For most of its history, information in the West about the Arctic was scanty, especially when compared with other parts of the globe. The remoteness of the location, its harsh weather and geographical setup made the North a hard place to reach. On top of that, the information available was chiefly from reports by ancient sailors and old manuscripts [7]. Those sources helped to identify the existence of a northern region, by providing some clues of what the Arctic could be – the West’s (Arctic) social imaginaries.

Arctic Social Imaginaries are a set of ideas which were a product of collective efforts, not just individual ones. These ideas, consequently, may spread and, above all, are created through communication networks [8]. Thus, the Arctic itself has often been seen as a frozen wasteland and as being utterly inhospitable, according to the meanings produced and projected by southern and, culturally speaking [9], Western/ized societies [10].

For much of Western recorded history, governments and educated communities never looked to the Far North as an obvious opportunity to prosper. In other words, their specific and decisive imaginaries were interiorized, and fictions were embedded, turned into rules or “truths” that took the Arctic as a region of the world without significant potential, and despite the fact that certain human communities had actually managed to survive there for numerous generations [11].

Yet, the contemporary Arctic reality is marked by enormous socio-economic potentialities, just like the Arctic’s own history and legacy, i.e., the imaginaries developed by its native communities. As we will explain, the West’s interest in the northernmost region of the planet has shifted quite abruptly, especially during the last two centuries. Thus, in keeping with CC’s own metaphor, new layers of lava have been erupting and modifying the composition of old imaginaries, engendering eventually new ones.


Unveiling of the Arktos from a Mediterranean Perspective

The Arctic is a region characterized by unique features, such as its geographical remoteness from the world’s centers of global socio-cultural power, harsh weather conditions, richness in natural resources, and extraordinary biodiversity.

Composed politically today of 8 recognized States, the northmost territory of the globe can also be named “the Circumpolar North”, since the region includes, in the shared imaginary of contemporary experts and key local actors, the Arctic and Subarctic zones [12]. In truth, the Arctic itself does not have clear borders, because any such geographical determination results from the combination of geophysical, political, and social factors and conceptions [13]. All these culturally mediated forces have contributed to the construction of cultural ideas that define the historical Arctic imaginaries and determine the global understanding of the region as a region.

As a result, the Arctic can be seen from many different perspectives. On the one hand, the northernmost region of the globe is the home of different Indigenous Peoples [14]. Indigenous populations have established themselves in it many millennia ago, each group possessing their own perspectives and cosmologies regarding their living place [15] [16]. On the other hand, due to its remoteness and distant location from other civilizations and socio-economic hotspots, the Artic has been an almost unreachable/impenetrable place that led many southerner cultures to “forget” altogether about its existence and focus on their proximities instead [17].

To begin with, as regards the prevalent imaginary in Western culture, we should observe that the etymology of the name “Arctic” derives from the Greek word arktos, which means “bear”, because the Ursa Major (“the Great Bear”) is the constellation that applies to the polar region in the northern hemisphere, at least according to classical Graeco-Roman astronomy. It was during the apogee of the Greek Era that the Circumpolar North started to be imagined by important scholars and philosophers, who characterized the northernmost territories as inaccessible and remote places connoted with a mythical and mystical background [18].

Centered in the Mediterranean region, Classic Antiquity played an important role in determining the Western conception of the Arctic as an essentially unknown zone located at the outer limits of the human world. Reportedly, the first known contact with the Circumpolar territories was achieved by the Greek merchant and explorer, Pytheas of Massilia, who went sailing over the north Atlantic. His odyssey culminated with the discovery of the Island of Thule, “the most septentrional of the Islands of Brittany.” [19] Pytheas’ new description of the northern region had a large impact on his contemporary intellectuals (mainly cosmographers), who contributed to shape a more detailed Arctic imaginary.

At the apogee of the Roman Empire, especially through the migratory fluxes to and from the ‘barbaric’ regions of the North, a few more mysteries were uncovered. More populations were made contact with, and an increase in the knowledge about the septentrional areas of Europe was facilitated [20]. Nevertheless, the conception of the Arctic as an essentially unknown zone located at the outer limits of the human world persisted, to a great extent.

For many centuries, the West’s prevalent Arctic imaginary inherited from Greek and Roman times remained stable, up to the Renaissance, i.e., the so-called “Age of Discovery”, when long sailing explorations took place. Navigators such as Columbus, Vasco da Gama and Magellan opened the trend of maritime routes to new continents ready to be explored and, more often than not, plundered. The economic drive, combined with the renewed interest in the knowledge accumulated by Classic Antiquity about these regions of the world, and the legacies from older scholars and intellectuals, led to considerable improvements in the cartography of these regions. Thus, a more exact geographical grasp about the Arctic was built and, eventually, about the local inhabitants as well [21]. The Western imaginary of the Arctic started to change, as a result.

After the 16th century, on the basis of the European trends in navigating the oceans and, from Europe’s point of view, in exploring entirely new regions of the globe, the one surrounding the North Pole got on the spotlight too. Explorers started trying to sail and study those seas, in order to understand what economic and scientific potentials and other opportunities there could be in the Arctic. For instance, the possibility of a transpolar route that could connect the North Atlantic to China gained considerable traction. This theory, despite being very ambitious, was eventually proved to be beyond reach, due to the very harsh weather conditions and the many geophysical obstacles encountered, above all, by Mercator. Likewise, other navigators could not successfully prove the existence of a north-west passage to the Pacific Ocean [22].

The last steps of Arctic exploration were marked by the discovery of the Spitzbergen archipelago by Wilhelm Barents, while navigating over the northern seas. The inclusion of newfoundland territories had a tremendous impact in Westerners’ understanding of the septentrional regions. After the 19th century, reaching the North Pole became the main goal for the leading European Powers. Important expeditions were made in order to reach it and unveil the most ‘mysterious’ parts of the Arctic region. Many explorers (Captain Perry, Fridtjof Nansen, to mention few) attempted this feat, without success, but their contributions helped to modify the perceptions of the North and how it was imagined. It was only in 1909, when Robert Peary reached the pole by dog-sledge, that this long-sought goal was fulfilled.

All such endeavors contributed to a parallel evolution of thought in the 19th and 20th century, such that the focus moved onto crossing and exploring the Arctic qua valuable and possibly profitable destination in se, rather than as an instrumental route capable of facilitating the access from the Atlantic regions to the Orient [23].


Vilhjalmur Stefansson – The Mission and Roots of a New Imaginary

The Icelandic-Canadian-American explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson (hereafter VS) introduced the concept of “Polar Mediterranean” in 1920, whereby he highlighted how the Arctic Ocean was a relatively navigable central space that united diverse coastal peoples in commerce and productive interaction. In other words, his perspective was a friendly one, based on a historically successful case of international human transactions at many levels, thanks primarily to a shared navigable sea. VS’ perspective stood in opposition to the ones that had been embraced by previous Arctic explorers, who had seen the region as merely hazardous for human survival, and certainly most dangerous from the point of view of navigation  [24].

To understand the relevance of PMI, it is necessary to consider VS’ ideas and the way he perceived the North, along with its key players. His mission and focus were to clarify ideas and reeducate the southern communities (European and American) about the Arctic. VS was more than an anthropologist. He was a man on a mission. As a matter of fact, the scholarly literature about him often states that his work as an adventurer overshadows his anthropological career and personal life [25].

VS’ explorations were essential to establish a seminal yet stable contact with some isolated Arctic communities, and to discover new places that were unknown by the Western nations. Additionally, detailed descriptions and reflections exposing wrong Arctic ideals such as “The eternal polar silence” [26] and “The Polar Ocean is without life” [27] helped his readers to better understand the Arctic’s biodiversity, climate, and many other aspects that were not very clear until then to both specialists and non-specialists.

The preoccupation of introducing to Western nations new conceptions of the Circumpolar region was a fundamental step for a more accurate understanding of it. A transformation of old imaginaries was central for VS in both his field research and writings. VS even jokingly suggested the creation of a “National University of Polite Unlearning”, a concept created by one of VS’s teachers (Samuel Crothers) at Harvard University [28]. It was meant as a place where people could go to clear up the wrong ideas acquired in school, at the university, or through the mass media. Despite the sarcastic tone of this concept, its critical focus was very precise. VS himself wanted to help the dissemination of a new Arctic imaginary. He intended it to be his legacy.

Therefore, it was no surprise that throughout his career, VS gave numerous lectures and conferences throughout the US, Canada and Europe. These talks were a good opportunity to share his discoveries and experiences to audiences that had only a rather primitive idea about the Arctic. Even after his campaigns, VS describes his mission as one of shifting mentalities: “I wanted to remain south to continue my campaign of education with regard the Arctic sections of geography textbooks, and in general to influence school and university teaching” [29].

VS published numerous notes that reveal some rather interesting and curious reflections about many Arctic exploration topics. These transcripts offered, among other things, a first-person report about the diet in the North, the advantages of snow when compared with rain, and the importance of sled dogs in the northern communities [30].

As a matter of fact, throughout his books and diaries, and whilst always keeping a visionary and pedagogical mindset. VS approaches issues that are elemental for life in the North and, parallelly, are not trivial for most of the southerners either – as he wondered: “is the Arctic region barren and its nature hostile to life or is it hostile merely to life of a southern type and to men who live like southerners” [31]?



As mentioned above, VS emphasizes the necessity of introducing new data essential to create a solid structure of knowledge regarding a largely unknown territory. The remodulation of ancient socio-cultural imaginaries assumes for him a central role that can be achieved if and only if there is new data and a capacity for transmitting a message effectively. However, this a lengthy and complex process of demystification of well-established ideas: “If the average American or European university graduate has 10 ideas about the North, 9 of them are wrong. So far as the victims of American education are concerned, I know from experience. As to the Europeans, I judge them by their books and conversation” [32] [33] .

It was with this aim of fighting back the general ignorance about the Arctic and outdated social imaginaries that VS devised the concept of “Polar Mediterranean”. By presenting the Circumpolar North, not as a remote and inaccessible place, but rather as a friendly center connecting different cultures, territories, and resources, capable of making human flourishing a concrete possibility in this region [34] — “[VS] visualized the Arctic Sea as one great Mediterranean, not only in the sense that is a rather small ocean surrounded by populated lands, but also in the sense that it could be useful to the world as quick and relatively easy transportation route between import cities” [35] .

VS adopts a positive posture regarding the upcoming events by comparing the discovery of circumnavigation of the globe with the new understanding of the Arctic that he promoted: “When the world was once known to be round, there was no difficulty in finding many navigators to sail around it. When the polar regions are once understood to be friendly and fruitful, men will quickly and easily penetrate their deepest recesses” [36].

Contemporary academics have been taking this imaginary very seriously in order to understand the Arctic and its potential development in the upcoming decades. Indeed, in his works, VS writes of the advent of his day’s new transportation technologies (airplanes, submarines, ships and zeppelins) [37] that would facilitate the movement of people and goods, integrate diverse communities, enhance navigation across the ocean, and allow the region to emerge as a new epicenter of civilization [38] .

In particular, VS focusses on those means of transportation that can act as facilitators in the achievement of an Arctic Mediterranean, even if official governments and Western society had not realized that such a process could be occurring: “Although realizing the applicability of both aircrafts and submarines to commerce and warfare in our own latitudes, we have not adequately realized their significance in solving after four hundred years the problem of the northwest passage and giving us at last a short route from Europe to Far East” [39].

Moreover, his emphasis on the different economic activities that are possible to develop in the Arctic region suggests that the Far North is bound to become an indispensable economic, infrastructural, and socio-cultural center for the South too [40] . Hence, based on all the above-mentioned aspects, one of the core references about PMI was so written by VS: “A glance at a map of the northern hemisphere shows that in the Arctic Ocean is in effect a huge Mediterranean. It lies between its surrounding between Europe and Africa. It has in the past been looked as an impassible Mediterranean. In the near future it will not only become passable but will become a favorite route, at least at certain times of the year, safer, more comfortable, and much shorter than any route that lies over the oceans that separate the present-day centers of population” [41] .

VS intended with his paradigm to send a clear message: transpolar corridors assume a front role in the development and accessibility to the North (as mentioned/cited above); furthermore, the Arctic is not a wasteland, a resourceless region without capacity to prosper.

VS’ concern with offering a more accurate vision about the Circumpolar geography and culture ends up with his prophetic visions about the future potentialities of the Arctic Sea: “Whoever has any grasp at all of the great natural resources of the polar regions and of the conditions under which they are about to be developed, will have fascinating dreams about any number of other transpolar routes destined to come into common use whenever air travel itself becomes a commonplace in the more dangerous but already speculatively accepted routes between Liverpool and New York, San Francisco and Hawaii and Japan” [42] .

Hence, economic activities and the available resources of the North were diligently highlighted by VS. His appeal for economic investment all around the far North is economically justified by the geostrategic location of the Arctic Ocean, insofar as it connects three different continents and two oceans.

However, to be ethically, legally and politically justified, global connections and profit-maximization by exploitation of the Arctic resources must also be able to secure the local populations’ first needs, such as food and health-care services, as well as many secondary ones, lest they meet opposition and resistance [43]. Remarkably, VS developed arguments on this subject in an almost prescient chapter devoted entirely to “Arctic Industries” and focusing on the economic future of the region. He declares that economic development largely depends on the solid development of local infrastructures: “Local food production is fundamental in every permanently occupied land. It furnishes a basis for a stable population, it makes easy the development of industries which, although based in minerals, cannot well flourish when all the food needed has to be brought from a great distance” [44] .

In spite of being mere predictions (some of them rough, of course), he opened the window to a new Arctic region capable of being connected with the southern and global hubs. In other words, PMI can still bring a fresh perspective towards the general understanding of the Arctic, and the interactions among its human and institutional players. In particular, as VS depicts this reality in 1922: “the polar sea is like a hub from which continents radiate like the spokes of a wheel” [45] .


An Eventful Century

Since PMI’s first reference in 1920, a little more than a century has passed. During this period, the way to understand the Arctic and its social imaginaries have changed drastically. In fact, the first 100 years since PMI’s initial proposal were marked by many historic events that helped to shape international relations in the Arctic region and, haphazardly, push it in the direction envisioned by VS.

Two global wars, World War II (WW2) and the Cold War, were conflicts mirroring opposite political ideologies, using the world as a battlefield. The control of larger strategic territories became fundamental for the security of the different States. The Arctic was no an exception, and several States realized the geostrategic importance of the northernmost regions for their security and access to other parts of the globe [46].

‘Thanks’ to WW2 and the Cold War, the Arctic became a vital place for Arctic States such as the United States, the USSR and Canada, which aspired to influencing, if not controlling, all intercontinental movements of goods and peoples in the region.

Simultaneously, the North experienced exponential scientific, technological, and infrastructural advancements as a direct outcome of these global conflicts, which also improved accessibility and services around the region [47]. The warlike atmosphere also gave space to the natural sciences across different areas (e.g., oceanography, geology, and geography) to generate new knowledge and new perspectives about the Arctic. Inevitably, with the development of better aerial and aquatic transportation vehicles, and with the building of modern infrastructure aimed at facilitating the further exploration of the northernmost regions, the Arctic became a military and geostrategic site [48].

The 20th century clearly put the Arctic region on the map. Like VS suggested, science and technology contributed to a better knowledge and, eventually, increased cooperation in the region, making the PMI a more viable option [49]. A new paradigm of the Arctic was clearly brewing. Finally, among the outputs of scientific knowledge and strategic concerns stood out the Arctic States’ investments into infrastructures (e.g., airports, roads, buildings, harbors) that became valid promoters of regional development [50].

Despite not being characterized by VS’ friendly approach, these wars and confrontations also highlighted how the Arctic had passed from a mere transition point to a geostrategic center [51].

The end of the Cold War era brought increased peace and stability to the Arctic region, and helped to develop a new cooperative and diplomatic reality [52]. The world changed, and social imaginaries were once again reshaped – the North became closer to be seen as the proposed PMI. In other words, more globalized, connected, and accessible in terms of information/knowledge, goods and (inter)national cooperation.

Since then, initiatives focusing on Polar matters and respective strategies of cooperation have taken different shapes, but are nevertheless legion.

For example, we can list: the foundation of the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy in 1991 (Rovaniemi Declaration) and the Arctic Council in 1996 (Ottawa Declaration), involving simple intergovernmental agreements; the Northern Forum of 1991, giving voice to subnational subjects and their respective interests, usually different from their national governments; the Inuit Circumpolar Conference of 1977 and the International Arctic Science Committee of 1990; and even the launching of the University of the Arctic (2001), which did not have a governmental root but has constituted an important platform for the research, discussion, and promotion of Arctic-related matters, ranging from social work to natural science [53].

The Arctic region was a very active place of these shifts, in fact, still is. The scientific advancements also unveiled the existence of climate change and its dire consequences for the planet, especially the Polar regions [54]. Warmer temperatures have a direct impact on the biodiversity and geographic composition of the Arctic, which can be seen, simultaneously, as a menace and/or an opportunity. This trend raised considerable awareness during 20th century and, since then, it has caught much attention from governments, international organizations, and national as well as local communities [55].


How Does the Mediterranean Basin Mirror the Arctic?

Unlike the Arctic, the Mediterranean region has been an epicenter of Western socio-cultural and economic interactions for many centuries. Its history is well-documented, and a varied number of civilizations have thrived along its shores. A multicultural environment has always been surrounding the basin. The unique geography and climate have also played a big role in the development of the region.

In spite of being diametrically opposite in many respects, both the Mediterranean and the Arctic regions have similarities and nuances that allow them to be compared, as done creatively and insightfully by VS. This comparison is the core element of his PMI, because it aims to find those significant parallelisms that can help us to comprehend what could possibly happen in the future of the Arctic.

The Mediterranean basin is characterized by an agglomeration of fragmented landscapes that are densely interconnected [56]. Indeed, the variety of local communities and the possibility for mutual communication led also to the promotion of three major religions within a relatively small area, underlining the richness of the social imaginaries in the region. These paths proved essential for the regional and global development of numerous societies and their imaginaries. Hence, the Mediterranean Sea and the adjacent rivers had the role of uniting, instead of disjoining [57].

Historically, despite its conflicts and contradictions, the Mediterranean basin provided an ideal environment promoting trade and socio-cultural interactions through the establishment of routes over millennia. Mediterranean civilizations had a great influence on world development at large, and could be seen as pivotal merchant and cultural highways that stimulated prosperity and growth [58]. Well-established economic and cultural routes throughout the Mediterranean Sea could then play a function as mediators between the central territory and other regions or continents, i.e., a hub or transition point where other cultures could trade different goods and ideas.

As the historian Fernand Braudel underlines: “The rule has been that Mediterranean civilization spreads far beyond its shores in great waves that are balanced by continual returns (…) The circulation of man and goods, both material and intangible, formed concentric rings around the Mediterranean. We should imagine hundred frontiers, not one, some political, some economic, and some cultural.” [59].


Future Transpolar Routes?

The Arctic’s future is definitely connected with the necessity of being more accessible and open to the southern regions. As mentioned above, the idea of Transpolar Routes dates back to the 16th and 17th century, when there was considered the existence of a path capable to link the Atlantic Ocean to China. It was VS, however, who insisted and envisioned a future for the Arctic region based on (Transpolar) Sea Routes. In VS’ own writings, hints abound at ways in which the Arctic peoples have been capable to accept and adjust to the presence of strangers, who are bound to become more and more numerous in the future, given also how “[t]he transpolar route will become more important decade by decade” [60].

Sea routes constitute an important economic value, but they can also have a tremendous social-cultural impact on the development of the regions, in many negative senses too. Nevertheless, the cementation of transpolar pathways takes time, but by being aware of such possibilities the local Arctic communities can develop strategies to generate income, infrastructure, and services, whilst preparing for any negative impact as well. Finally, it is important not to forget that an accessible and connected Arctic can excel in the assimilation of a Polar identity, especially in a globalized world.

As Fernand Braudel wrote: “The different regions of Mediterranean are connected not by the water but by the peoples of the sea” [61]. This statement can be linked with the contemporary Arctic Imaginaries aiming to establish a new North, which is connected, i.e., not isolated and apart. To a relevant extent, the Arctic has the background and the potential to pursue such a path, i.e., the transpolar routes [62], which would then be capable of offering reliable solutions to the modern and future global community. All of this, of course, as long as we are willing and able to pursue the socio-economic development of the region in an adaptative and sustainable way, i.e., such that it does not threaten international peace, local stability, and human survival.

Parallelly, geography and climate also play a crucial role in the PMI and its future. As mentioned above, both the Arctic and Mediterranean regions have unique characteristics. The geographical boundaries of the Mediterranean Sea are set by a long and jagged coastline. However, this region is more than its sea, or even its coastline, insofar as the radius of influence embraces the adjacent territories from its edges for millions of square kilometers in the hinterlands [63]. Simultaneously, the Arctic is a peripherical region, with less population when compared with the south, but with an extended and also jagged coastline that, allied with the climate and septentrional location, offers a pristine diversity of natural resources (i.e., terrestrial and oceanic). As a result, the Arctic Ocean is a place where peripheries connect.

The predictions regarding the rising of the modern transpolar routes started with VS and are part of the remarkable importance of his legacy. Even though his expectations are not an exact mirror of what happens nowadays, they nonetheless cleared the horizon, so to speak. The new PMI intended to substituted old socio-cultural and political imaginaries into a renewed portrait of the Far North, i.e., a region with a huge diversity of possibilities and far more accessible than it had been thought for centuries: “Accordingly, most of us will get a wider view of the commercial, political, and military future of the world when we realize that the airplane, the dirigible, and the submarine are about to turn the polar ocean into a Mediterranean and about to make England and Japan, Norway and Alaska, neighbors across the northern sea.” [64].


Concluding Reflections

The PMI is a set of ideas originated in order to provide a dynamic and informed conception of the Arctic, promoting an interactive and constructive relation among all the involved players, immersed in their unique geo-cultural surroundings. VS was, to a certain extent, the decisive bridge between the past and the present beliefs about the Arctic. The originality of his ideas earned him the title as the so-called “Prophet of the North” [lxv]. He helped to enlarge the factual comprehension of the local human component, the international divulgation of the region’s potentialities, and the creation of a new way of looking at all things Arctic, i.e., his PMI.

The Arctic region was deemed to be an inaccessible and inhospitable zone, and yet started to be seen as a hub connecting different cultures, States, and socio-economic realities. The frozen and seemingly impassable Arctic Ocean turned into a region “conceived as a land to promote peripheries and not a center” [65]. VS openly pointed out to a conception of the North as a middle point that unites geographically opposite regions, instead of an inaccessible barrier or wasteland.

From the first reference of PM (during the inter-war period) until the first decade of the 21st century, the North slowly became a zone of dialogue and cooperation, promoting all kinds of environmental protections and cooperative projects for sustainable development in the Arctic. The Arctic reality has truly shifted exponentially in the last century. These shifts bringing not only more opportunities but also a plausible threat to what the Arctic is. It is not possible to dissociate the climate, the geography and, of course, its peoples. VS drew the attention for northernmost region in a very positive and friendly way, where everyone could benefit from a more developed and accessible Arctic. However, trends like environmental changes and globalization can also be menaces to the identity of the Polar regions.

PMI is, nevertheless, an interesting approach and worth to be put into table as paradigm to approach the future. A viable balance and a sensible strategy must be obviously thought of in order to not destroy the Arctic’s individuality, its own unique heritage, and constructively capitalize on its potential benefits.

From the early stage of Humanity, the Mediterranean Region has been occupied by many different cultures, traditions and customs, some of them having still a very big presence and impact in modern societies (e.g., the Latin alphabet, Roman law, classical canons of beauty). The dynamic history of this region can serve as a potential source of information for the Arctic. Mark Twain said: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” Parallelly, by understanding the importance of the Mediterranean and how it developed, and using it as a reference point, the PMI can provide the Arctic at least some of the required knowledge to be prepared for the future. With that information, Arctic players can have more tools to negotiate their interests and preserve their cultural identity.



Abulafia D, The Mediterranean in History (Getty Publications 2011)

Actite F, ‘Ancient Rome and Icelandic Culture – A Brief Overview’ (2009) 4 Nordicum-Mediterraneum <https://nome.unak.is/previous-issues/issues/vol4_1/article.php?id=18&art=actite>

Blake GH, ‘Settlement and Conflict in the Mediterranean World’ (1978) 3 Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 255

‘Boundaries of the Arctic Council Working Groups | GRID-Arendal’ <https://www.grida.no/resources/8387> accessed 8 September 2023

Braudel F, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II: Volume I, vol I (Fontana Press 1990)

Castoriadis C, The Imaginary Institution of Society (MIT Press 1987)

Dodds K, ‘A Polar Mediterranean? Accessibility, Resources and Sovereignty in the Arctic Ocean’ (2010) 1 Global Policy 303

Doel RE and others, ‘Strategic Arctic Science: National Interests in Building Natural Knowledge – Interwar Era through the Cold War’ (2014) 44 Journal of Historical Geography 60

Durfee M and Johnstone RL, Arctic Governance in a Changing World (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group 2019) <https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781442235649/Arctic-Governance-in-a-Changing-World> accessed 1 March 2021

Hanson EP, Stefansson, Prophet of the North (Harper & bros 1941)

Harari YN, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Vintage 2015)

Hegel GWF, Hegel: Lectures on Philosophy: The Philosophy of History, The History of Philosophy, The Proofs of the Existence of God (e-artnow 2019)

Heininen L and Southcott C, Globalization and the Circumpolar North (University of Alaska Press 2010)

Komporozos-Athanasiou A and Fotaki M, ‘A Theory of Imagination for Organization Studies Using the Work of Cornelius Castoriadis’ (2015) 36 Organization Studies 321

Marshall T, Divided: Why We’re Living in an Age of Walls (Elliott and Thompson Limited 2018)

Níels Einarsson (ed), Arctic Human Development Report (Stefansson Arctic Institute 2004)

Nymand Larsen J (ed), Arctic Human Development Report: Regional Processes and Global Linkages (Nordic Council of Ministers 2014)

Nymand Larsen J and Nordic Council of Ministers (eds), Arctic Social Indicators: ASI II ; Impletation (Nordic Council of Ministers 2014)

Pálsson G, Travelling Passions: The Hidden Life of Vilhjalmur Stefansson (UPNE 2005)

Peters K, Water Worlds: Human Geographies of the Ocean (Routledge 2016)

Rey L, ‘The Arctic Ocean: A “Polar Mediterranean”’ in Louis Rey (ed), The Arctic Ocean: The Hydrographic Environment and the Fate of Pollutants (Palgrave Macmillan UK 1982) <https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-349-05919-5_1> accessed 26 March 2022

Seland EH, ‘Writ in Water, Lines in Sand: Ancient Trade Routes, Models and Comparative Evidence’ (2015) 2 Cogent Arts & Humanities 1110272

Stefansson V, The Friendly Arctic (The Macmillan Company 1921) <http://archive.org/details/friendlyarctic017086mbp> accessed 1 March 2021

——, ‘The Arctic as an Air Route to the Future’ (1922) 205–18 National Geographic Magazine

——, The Northward Course of Empire (1922) (The Macmillan Company 1924)

Steinberg PE and others, Contesting the Arctic: Politics and Imaginaries in the Circumpolar North (IBTauris 2015) <http://www.bloomsburycollections.com/book/contesting-the-arctic-politics-and-imaginaries-in-the-circumpolar-north> accessed 9 February 2021

Stephenson SR, ‘Confronting Borders in the Arctic’ (2018) 33 Journal of Borderlands Studies 183

Vaughan R, The Arctic: A History (A Sutton 1994)

Young O, ‘Governing the Arctic: From Cold War Theater to Mosaic of Cooperation’ (2005) 11 Global Governance 9



[1] This sentence was surgically taken from the editorial policy section of the Nordicum-Mediterraneum (https://nome.unak.is/wordpress/editorial-policy/), and perfectly suits the aim of both Vilhjalmur Stefansson and this journal.

[2] The concepts of ‘idea’ and ‘imaginary’ are quite complex and relate to different fields, ranging from history, philosophy, as well as psychology, to anthropology and much else. Hence, for this research, I have only emphasized some crucial and brief points in order to help the reader to grasp the notions of ‘imagination’ and ‘imaginary’.

[3] Cornelius Castoriadis, The Imaginary Institution of Society (MIT Press 1987) 117.

[4] This article is based on Cornelius Castoriadis’ (CC) legacy. The Greek French philosopher provides a solid philosophical background that helps to understand how social imaginaries work. He put “imagination” at the very center of his understanding of reality. In particular, he suggested that there are important connections between the individual faculty of “imagination” (i.e., a person’s ability to produce new images, hence ideas or concepts) and the social “imaginaries” (i.e., the complex symbolic networks that we also call “cultures”), without which no society and no individual could ever survive. As a matter of fact, for CC, the human faculty of imagination is the basis of social organization and the possibility of autonomy, i.e., self-rule, both individually and socially

[5] Aris Komporozos-Athanasiou and Marianna Fotaki, ‘A Theory of Imagination for Organization Studies Using the Work of Cornelius Castoriadis’ (2015) 36 Organization Studies 321, 325.

[6] Castoriadis (n 3) 124.

[7] Richard Vaughan, The Arctic: A History (A Sutton 1994) 35–39.

[8] Yuval N Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Vintage 2015) 26–42.

[9] Vilhjalmur Stefansson, The Friendly Arctic (The Macmillan Company 1921) 10–13 <http://archive.org/details/friendlyarctic017086mbp> accessed 1 March 2021.

[10] “West” and “Western” identify cultures originating from Western Europe in a geographic sense, but there exist also many “Westernized” cultures across the globe, given the West’s pervasive influence over the past four centuries, e.g., the US and Australia.

[11] Vilhjalmur Stefansson, The Northward Course of Empire (1922) (The Macmillan Company 1924) 42–50.

[12] Lassi Heininen and Chris Southcott, Globalization and the Circumpolar North (University of Alaska Press 2010) 1.

[13] ‘Boundaries of the Arctic Council Working Groups | GRID-Arendal’ <https://www.grida.no/resources/8387> accessed 8 September 2023.

[14] Mary Durfee and Rachael Lorna Johnstone, Arctic Governance in a Changing World (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group 2019) 9–11 <https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781442235649/Arctic-Governance-in-a-Changing-World> accessed 1 March 2021.

[15] Joan Nymand Larsen and Nordic Council of Ministers (eds), Arctic Social Indicators: ASI II ; Impletation (Nordic Council of Ministers 2014) 23.

[16] The “Far North” started to become populated after the migration routes of “Super Eurasian Family” reached the Northern Circle. In fact, between 40,000 and 15,000 BC, various populations started to occupy the northern parts of Eurasia and, gradually, reached the Northern Circle territories either by boat or on foot. Based on these migratory patterns, different groups took different paths, in what was a mixture between the shared instinct of survival, flexible adaptations to the features of the surrounding environments, and the creative development of unique techniques.

[17] Níels Einarsson (ed), Arctic Human Development Report (Stefansson Arctic Institute 2004) 22–26.

[18] Louis Rey, ‘The Arctic Ocean: A “Polar Mediterranean”’ in Louis Rey (ed), The Arctic Ocean: The Hydrographic Environment and the Fate of Pollutants (Palgrave Macmillan UK 1982) <https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-349-05919-5_1> accessed 26 March 2022.

[19] ibid 5.

[20] Federico Actite, ‘Ancient Rome and Icelandic Culture – A Brief Overview’ (2009) 4 Nordicum-Mediterraneum 1–2.

[21] Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II: Volume I, vol I (Fontana Press 1990) 226–230.

[22] Earl Parker Hanson, Stefansson, Prophet of the North (Harper & bros 1941) 182.

[23] Philip E Steinberg and others, Contesting the Arctic: Politics and Imaginaries in the Circumpolar North (IBTauris 2015) 6 <http://www.bloomsburycollections.com/book/contesting-the-arctic-politics-and-imaginaries-in-the-circumpolar-north> accessed 9 February 2021.

[24] Stefansson, The Friendly Arctic (n 9) 29.

[25] Gísli Pálsson, Travelling Passions: The Hidden Life of Vilhjalmur Stefansson (UPNE 2005) 25.

[26] Stefansson, The Northward Course of Empire (1922) (n 11) 128.

[27] ibid 20.

[28] ibid 20–22.

[29] Hanson (n 22) 178.

[30] Stefansson, The Friendly Arctic (n 9) 354–358.

[31] ibid 162.

[32] Stefansson, The Northward Course of Empire (1922) (n 11) 20.

[33] ibid 22–41.

[34] Klaus Dodds, ‘A Polar Mediterranean? Accessibility, Resources and Sovereignty in the Arctic Ocean’ (2010) 1 Global Policy 303, 308–310.

[35] Hanson (n 22) 182.

[36] Stefansson, The Friendly Arctic (n 9) 6.

[37] In Vilhjalmur Stefansson book The Northward Course of Empire (1922) (n 8), he devotes the entire chapter VII to those matters.

[38] Kimberley Peters, Water Worlds: Human Geographies of the Ocean (Routledge 2016) ch 2.

[39] Stefansson, The Northward Course of Empire (1922) (n 11) 172.

[40] ibid 120.

[41] ibid 168.

[42] ibid 202.

[43] Joan Nymand Larsen (ed), Arctic Human Development Report: Regional Processes and Global Linkages (Nordic Council of Ministers 2014) 154–155.

[44] Stefansson, The Northward Course of Empire (1922) (n 11) 130.

[45] Vilhjalmur Stefansson, ‘The Arctic as an Air Route to the Future’ (1922) 205–18 National Geographic Magazine 205–18.

[46] Scott R Stephenson, ‘Confronting Borders in the Arctic’ (2018) 33 Journal of Borderlands Studies 183, 187–188.

[47] Ronald E Doel and others, ‘Strategic Arctic Science: National Interests in Building Natural Knowledge – Interwar Era through the Cold War’ (2014) 44 Journal of Historical Geography 60, 77–79.

[48] Stefansson, The Northward Course of Empire (1922) (n 11) 199.

[49] Durfee and Johnstone (n 14) 49.

[50] Doel and others (n 47) 63–66.

[51] Durfee and Johnstone (n 14) 107–108.

[52] Tim Marshall, Divided: Why We’re Living in an Age of Walls (Elliott and Thompson Limited 2018) 177–183.

[53] Oran Young, ‘Governing the Arctic: From Cold War Theater to Mosaic of Cooperation’ (2005) 11 Global Governance 9, 9.

[54] Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA). Slide 8

[55] Nymand Larsen (n 43) 142–145.

[56] Eivind Heldaas Seland, ‘Writ in Water, Lines in Sand: Ancient Trade Routes, Models and Comparative Evidence’ (2015) 2 Cogent Arts & Humanities 1110272, 5.

[57] Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Hegel: Lectures on Philosophy: The Philosophy of History, The History of Philosophy, The Proofs of the Existence of God (e-artnow 2019).

[58] GH Blake, ‘Settlement and Conflict in the Mediterranean World’ (1978) 3 Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 255, 255–256.

[59] Braudel (n 21) 170.

[60] Stefansson, The Northward Course of Empire (1922) (n 11) 178.

[61] Braudel (n 21) 276.

[62] The Arctic has been experiencing the changes brought about by climate change about twice as fast as any other part of the globe. Specifically, Arctic average temperature has risen almost twice the rate as the rest of the world in the past few decades. As a direct result of this phenomenon, there has ensued a growing number of months that are considered “ice-free”, which is a viable economic justification for conceiving of the Far North as allowing the settlement of new transpolar routes, using the Arctic Ocean as a means for traveling and connecting different polar regions and the surrounding continents. The Northern Sea Route, Northwest Passage and Transpolar Sea Route are three of the main corridors mentioned and studied in contemporary academia.

[63] David Abulafia, The Mediterranean in History (Getty Publications 2011) 11.

[64] Stefansson, The Northward Course of Empire (1922) (n 11) 199.

[65] Hanson (n 22) 233–234.

[66] Steinberg and others (n 23) 8.

The Mediterranean at the Dawn of the Third Millennium

Where there is danger, there grows what saves

Friedrich Hölderlin, in Patmos

11.IX.2001 – 7.X.2024. The brutal attack on the Twin Towers in New York and the brutal terrorist violence of Hamas mark the dawn of the new millennium and constitute reference dates for a new era in the Mediterranean region, which is already conditioned by climate change, by the affirmation and crisis of international finance, and by growing migratory flows that have transformed the Mare Nostrum into the cemetery of a genocide produced by financial selfishness and political pettiness.

The Mediterranean is no longer the hub of the West-East conflict, typical of the Cold War after the Second World War, but a place of confirmation of the decline of the hegemony of the West. That hegemony is reduced to identifying itself in 2003 in the disastrous invasion of Iraq by a multinational coalition led by the USA with the neocolonial claim of George W. Bush jr. to impose democracy on that country after the defeat and killing of Sadam Hussein, and in recent months – after the massacres of Hamas – the shameful image of Israel reacting to terrorist violence with the massacre of tens of thousands of defenseless Palestinian civilians. And the US-EU axis appears incapable of finding diplomatic ways to reach a ceasefire, hence it passively suffers the wicked choices of the Israeli Government and the consequences of the failure of the attempts of US President Biden to stop Israel, which is responsible for what is now a genocide. It is a massacre that fuels not only hatred due to belonging to Israel or Palestine, but hatred due to religious faith.

The Netanjhau government becomes a negative symbol of the West, but is also the heaviest enemy of the people of Israel, provoking reactions to the detriment of the Jewish people in the world. And while the Jewish people, who have suffered terrible violence in the name of racial and religious hatred, deserve the utmost respect, History reminds us that it will be hard to extinguish religious hatred.

After the Second World War the West had taken on the face of a US and a Western European alliance opposed to the Soviet Union. During the years of the Cold War, “satellite” countries in the various Souths of the world were connected to either leading Western countries or the Soviet Union.

The Russian aggression against Ukraine in 2022 has once again made the decline of Western hegemony legible in the heart of Europe, posing a question that is a call to responsibility and a guilty “distraction” of the US/EU axis: Where were the US and EU in 2014 when pro-Nazi Ukrainian militias (recognized by Kiev and trained by NATO instructors and still used today by Kiev and the West) operated in Donbass, killing defenseless citizens? And the West, incapable of promoting solutions and paths to peace, today finds itself mired in a war destined to have no end or to record the military victory of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

Again, with more specific geographical reference to the Mediterranean, the brutal massacres of 7 October 2024 by Hamas posed the same question, which is a call to responsibility and guilty “distraction” of the USA and the EU: Where were the USA and the EU when, for decades, Israel militarized the Gaza Strip and persecuted defenseless Palestinians in defiance of human rights and United Nations resolutions?

And, again in reference to the Mediterranean, a similar question can be asked about the continuation of an unacceptable Western neocolonialism to the detriment of African peoples, which is confirmed by an unstoppable instability of the current regimes and makes Africa a place of Russian and Chinese neocolonialism.

Climate change produces already massive desertification and hunger, unstoppable migrations, while the financialization and globalization of the economy, with their recurring excesses and crises, facilitate genocides, wars and terrorism, to the detriment of defenseless and migrant populations, and new forms of colonialism thus find in the Mediterranean area a breeding ground made up of fragmentation, conflicts and conditions of institutional confusion. Concomitantly, there is a progressive loss of spirituality, or, even worse, the instrumental use of spiritual values: fanaticism and violence are thus championed from time to time by devious interests, as well as fears, and mixed racial and religious references.

In this context, new protagonists emerge such as India and China, who “hide” their military apparatus, making the numbers of their respective populations weigh – each of the two countries with over a billion inhabitants – as well as their financial and planning resources, the construction of infrastructural works, and their potential for corruption to the detriment of hundreds and hundreds of millions in absolute poverty. China, in particular, is characterized internally by systematic violation of human rights, while still keeping capitalism and communism within itself, and hence conditions that are typical of the global South and conditions typical of the North interact, from time to time presenting a different and captivating face, i.e., with communist or capitalist realities, from the North or from the South of the world. A heavy neocolonialism without the display of armies follows, which appears less unacceptable (but is equally heavy) than Western neocolonialism with its historical burden of military violence.

It may seem off topic that I refer to spirituality, understood as a vision inspired by respect for the human rights of each and every one. Yet, spirituality today means for me democratic brotherhood, beyond the traditional contrast between the primacy of freedom over equality or the primacy of equality over freedom. And I am convinced that the present, and even more future, condition of the Mediterranean is so serious as to require a radical change of spiritual perspective, through the research and choice of fundamental principles that, moreover, are widely codified in Universal Declarations and Conventions on human rights, and call for the consequent coherence of economic, cultural and political actions.

My proposal is to return to placing at the center of attention and reread, in the light of the times in which we live, values and references such as Race, Identity and God, all of which have been widely manipulated, obscured, considered instrumentally at the service of partisan interests and neocolonial claims starting precisely from the Mediterranean.

The first part of this proposal is to reject the belief that identity depends exclusively on the blood of parents and, instead, acknowledge that identity is an unrepeatable and individual act of freedom and personal experience. Approximately 8 billion human beings coexist on our planet and each has a different identity, differently composed. As many human beings as there are, as many as there are identities.

The second part of this proposal is to defend the one human race. Anyone who distinguishes men and women on the basis of a plurality of races prepares marginalization, intolerance, genocide.

In the Mediterranean, these last two propositions lead to the denial of the category of so-called, i.e., closed in itself. “migrants”: we are all human beings, belonging to the same race, all equal and all different without any discrimination between those born in a given reality and those who find themselves living in that reality.

A final part of this proposal for a radical change of perspective concerns God. Whoever believes that God is one (and I believe that God is one) will have to accept that someone meets God in the square of Allah, someone in the path of Jesus Christ, others in the avenue of Yahweh, but also in the paths of Shiva, Buddha or Confucius as well as in the path of reason. It is necessary to reject religion used as the “opium of the people” and respect religious faith as an impulse and choice for the liberation of every human being.

The Mediterranean, rich in history and cultures, faiths and languages, can be an extraordinary miscellany, a mosaic of civil coexistence, an interdependence experienced as an alternative and against intolerance and conflicts. Is this, just mentioned, an abstract and simplistic response to such a complex and concretely violent reality?

Yes and no, at the same time.

The answer depends on the will and ability to contribute – from the world of schools to that of information, from the world of economics to that of finance, from the world of the family to religious and even artistic realities – behaviors, concrete actions, lifestyles. All this is certainly difficult; and it alone is not enough. It is essential that this change of perspective becomes widespread awareness, but it is equally and completely necessary that this radical change of perspective becomes political action, a compass of orientation for States and international organizations.

This vision, this change of perspective in the politics and in the policies of the many States, is struggling to manifest itself, despite the many strong calls from artists, intellectuals, associations of citizens and spiritual leaders (from those condemned to the torture of migrations and dictatorships to artists and Nobel Prize winners, from isolated prophets of a new time to religious leaders such as Pope Francis). The European Union’s political choices currently appear not to be adequate to the ambitions and potential of the EU, which is itself one of the most extraordinary democratic institutional innovations of the history of humanity. And today, everyone understands that the role of European Union is essential for the future of Mediterranean and for peaceful international coexistence.

Günther Handl and Kristoffer Svendsen (eds.), Managing the Risk of Offshore Oil and Gas Accidents: The International Legal Dimension (Cheltenham: E. Elgar, 2020)

Managing the Risk of Offshore Oil and Gas Accidents: The International Legal Dimension is a book from the Edward Elgar’s New Horizons in Environmental and Energy Law Series. It is structured around the assessment of domestic and regional legal concepts regarding safety, liability and compensation for harm, and is divided in three Parts containing topics consisting of one or several Chapters.

Part I is on prevention and reduction of harm. Without restricting itself only to the offshore industry, Topic/Chapter 1 acknowledges the deficiencies of risk management by considering State and stakeholder involvement in corporate governance and concludes that transparency is one of the most important factors for improving it.

Topic 2 is on regulating the safety of offshore oil and gas operations. Chapter 2.1 is on promoting uniformity in international governance. This is achieved by discussing the prescriptive (Malaysia, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia) and performance-based regulatory approaches, and the tendency of moving towards hybrid control (USA, Norway, UK, Australia). The reasons for the latter – that government agencies are not well-suited to inspect the quality of the industry even though obliged to ‘audit the auditor’s auditor’ – are established in Chapter 2.2 using as role model the ongoing changes in the USA following the Deepwater Horizon (DWH) accident. Although international law has no provisions on promoting uniform health and safety standards and that the hybrid system allows for easy harmonisation, it is also possible in States promoting prescriptive regulation.

Topic/Chapter 3 discusses the need to amend treaty law on contingency planning and response (CPR) regarding transboundary pollution through reviewing the vertical levels of governance: treaty (UNCLOS and OPRC), regional (Arctic) and bilateral (Norwegian-Russian) legislation.

Unlike it, Topic 4 is on national and regional CPR – Chapter 4.1 reviews the amendments and implementation of EU law after DWH accident; Chapter 4.2 is on MOSPA  and the 1994 Russian-Norwegian Agreement in the Barents Sea; Chapter 4.3 is on national and interstate CPR of the Arctic by the USA, Canada and Greenland; Chapter 4.4 is chiefly on the Mediterranean, although also referring to the other marine areas – in Europe, the Arab peninsula, Africa, the Pacific, the North East Atlantic and the Caribbean.

The approaches in Topic 4 differ in depth of research. While some might be used for referencing (the regional agreements in Chapter 4.4), others describe the peculiarities of national governance (Greenland in Chapter 4.3). However, all are quite detailed in considering the impact on stakeholders and their authors agree on: the insufficiency in harmonisation, the extant high fragmentation, and the low levels of joint decision-making, thus urging continued cooperation.

Topic/Chapter 5 is on cooperation in marine delimitation and exploitation of transboundary deposits agreements (unitisation treaties, framework agreements and joint development agreements) for avoiding transboundary accidents. The review of several regional and bilateral agreements shows that it is impossible to categorise them. However, diversity also offers a range of options to choose from in order to meet States’ specific objectives.

Part II is on liability and compensation of loss. Chapter 6, describing the 2009 Montara and 2010 DWH accidents, shows the necessity of introducing a treaty law on transboundary losses. States prefer to channel liability to the operator which, unfortunately, is not a panacea, and additional measures for ameliorating the situation are proposed.

Topic 7 is on the most contentious losses that may occur following a pollution accident. Chapter 7.1 is on pure economic loss criticising the method for calculating DWH claims and an alternative is offered. Chapter 7.2 is on pure environmental damage. Unlike pure economic loss, it relates to collective rights and is also difficult to calculate. Treaty law is unclear about who is to be liable. However, certain US and EU laws could be used as a model in amending it.

Since the US are the place of greatest concern for risk managers in the offshore petroleum industry, Topic/Chapter 8 considers when punitive damages are granted. The conclusion is that that they are not quite popular among judges.

Topic/Chapter 9 is on liability insurance in the upstream operations – of the contractors, for well control, rigs and offshore vessels – and the issues of subrogation and business interruption insurance as developed by the London insurance market under English law. And although in 2015 the legislation was amended, the parties are still to be aware that renegotiating the standard terms might affect them negatively.

Part III is on claims processing. While Topic/Chapter 10 is on the role the CLC/FUND Conventions have in resolving pollution claims from carriage of petroleum by sea, Chapter 11.1 is on DWH litigation and Chapter 11.2 on compensation following the Montara accident. The CLC/FUND Conventions are unrelated to seabed petroleum extraction, whose solutions on liability may be completely different. The DWH proceedings describe the consolidation of claims and the distribution of the fund established by BP. Regardless of the procedural and substantive flaws, the settlement of claims has been substantially successful and its experience could be instructive for future oil spills. Unlike DWH, Montara looks from a broader perspective – against whom and where the transboundary and national victims could claim. Thus, the difficulties which the transboundary claimants have encountered when they brought their claim in the Australian court against the operator have been recognised.

Topic/Chapter 12 is on the development of mass tort litigation in Europe. After pinpointing the differences between the continental and US common law systems, the shared features of several European class action cases are discussed – the role of State institutions, preference for individual litigation, and the European (national and supranational) procedural laws. Thus, the authors show what amendments have been undertaken in order to make class litigation more attractive in Europe.

There is no way to disagree with the editors that this book seeks to provide a comprehensive analysis of the transnational dimension of the petroleum activities by looking at harm prevention and post-accident management of risk.  The lack of references in the table of contents for a particular law does not mean that scholarship has not considered it in detail or that its review has not been spread throughout the Chapters (e.g., MOSPA or the US law). Also, the missing acknowledgement of relevant existing legislation, such as the one pertaining to Danish-Canadian relations,[1] shaping as well the Greenlandic obligations due to its colonial past, does not decrease the quality of its research. In addition, the review of recent caselaw and the list of major accidents in Chapter 9 make it a good reference for legal academia at large. Furthermore, by encompassing different levels of governance, the book stresses that States and international organisations need to be more proactive in finding common solutions to the existing problems.

[1] Agreement for Cooperation between Denmark and Canada Relating to the Marine  Environment (Copenhagen, 26.08.1983)

P. Beckouche, (ed.), Europe’s Mediterranean Neighbourhood. An Integrated Geography (Cheltenham: E. Elgar, 2017)

This book is a worthwhile reorientation of our geographical registers, attempting to underpin the construction of a functional region around the Mediterranean through gauging the level and quality of existing data of the countries surrounding it not in the EU. The compilation of existing data is then depicted as maps as per the mandate of the EU ESPON project of which this book is a product. As such the book covers a wide range of research areas in order to support policy development related to territorial development and cohesion around the Mediterranean. The focus is data around territorial structures, trends, and perspectives to inform sector policies, most prominently when it comes to energy, water and agriculture.

Mapmaking is indeed a way to frame narratives and has been the mainstay of my discipline; geography since its 19th-century origins – for better or worse. Founded on a traditional empirical approach to knowledge creation, whereby it is assumed that what is to be known is simply out there, readily representable, these early mapmakers overlooked their own assumptions and ways of constructing and adding to their mode of engagement and knowing. As a geographer in love with maps, one can easily relate to how easy it is to fall prey to the temptation that the world can simply be represented through a comprehensive exercise of mapmaking. Not least today, augmented by techniques of global positioning (GPS) and geographical information systems (GIS). But from this very temptation I question the book and its agenda. Although very reflective about the data underpinning the maps, these are created under the auspices of the EU and can be seen as part and parcel of the surveying tactics of the colonial and consumptive enterprise. These are tactics of enclosure and overcoming any limits to capital accumulation through tying together the resources on the Southern side of the Mediterranean with demand structures on the Northern side. Traditional empiricist approaches to map making have indeed been and still are used in the service of the state and military apparatus (Wainwright, 2013). At the same time, we cannot shy away from the fact that the planet has become an interconnected whole. There is not a corner on the land surface that has not been mapped or visited in one fashion or another by humanity and there is a great thrust to coherently map in a synchronized manner each parcel of land. But for this to happen data underpinning the maps needs to be compatible and reliably constructed. The book is all about identifying the data shortcomings, so as to be able to make better maps, which in turn underpin a narrative of a Mediterranean region. As such the series of maps presented prompt a very necessary reorientation of our spatial register and it is tempting to buy into them as representations of what is out there. But the question needs to be prominently raised as to for whom, why and how these maps are being made and in whose service the narratives will work?

Not falling prey to this temptation, we need to realise that the ‘out there’ resists mapping and a holistic grasping. Through map making and making sense of space, ‘we [can] discover a web-like form of trajectories, of which some are stationary in space and some are in motion, while some entities may grow and others shrink in the process’ (Hägerstrand, 2004, p. 323). The Swedish geographer Torsten Hägerstrand goes on to explain that ‘[t]his condition is the basis for cooperation and conflict and for the human yearning for power over spaces filled with resources or at least over parts of their contents’. The maps thereby weave a web of stories that make for our collective impact on the planet and our future (see Harari, 2017, ch. 4). Whilst this understanding allows us to recognise the value of connectivity, or how everything is related to everything else, and thereby space is fundamentally the ‘togetherness’ of all phenomena, to borrow a term from Doreen Massey (2005, p. 195), we need to loosen the bonds with predefined categories, not allowing oneself to fall back upon explaining things, people or phenomena as manifestation of some essential quality, e.g. to further project Europe in its capitalistic, consumptive guise. Rather than sticking to these reductive strategies we should strive to add, show more, unravel and unfold ever more in our maps. The geographer can thereby provide inclusive road maps, depicting a range of relations and consequences in a creative way. In their guide to counter-cartographies This is Not an Atlas the Kollektiv Orangotango+ (2018, p. 328) demonstrate how these can become tools for action, how creative maps can tie networks, build political pressure, educate, create visibility, show spatial subjectivity, foster self-reflection and critique.

But only if we differentiate between the map and the territory (see article page 86), maps can become part of a “fluid movement whose tactics range from art-making to direct action to policy-making. This slow, cumulative, and constant work across many scales of action is what creates social change” (Mogel & Bhagat, 2007: 12). So, in a nutshell, Not-an-Atlas wants to support emancipatory transformation on the ground by supporting counter-cartographies within and beyond these pages (see notanatlas.org).

The maps we create need to become open to our enterprise and narration. Maps do have the capacity to promote progressive social transformation. Maps are geography’s lexicon and by changing the vocabulary of cartography we can break through the crust of previously held politically conservative conventions, creating something brand new, potentially improving society and the underlying social relations. This cartographic re-description could be about participatory map and sense making, which in turn could and should inform the policies that the book aspires to inform. As such the book provides a wonderful provocation as to what type of Mediterranean region we want to see in the future.


Harari, Y.N. (2017). Home Deus. A Brief History of Tomorrow. London: Vintage.

Hägerstrand, T. (2004). The two vistas. Geografiska Annaler: Series B, Human Geography, 86(4), 315-323.

Massey, D. (2005). For Space. London: Sage.

Wainwright, J. (2013). Geopiracy. Oaxaca, Mililtant Empiricism, and Geographical Thought. New York: PalgraveMacmillan.

Francesca Ippolito, Gianluca Borzoni and Federico Casolari (eds.), Bilateral Relations in the Mediterranean: Prospects for Migration Issues (Cheltenham: E. Elgar, 2020)

The Mediterranean has been at the centre of many heated discussions about migration-related issues in recent years. Especially since the ‘refugee crisis’ of 2015 there is a growing number of publications addressing migration and its attendant issues in this region. The anthology Bilateral Relations in the Mediterranean: Prospects for Migration Issues brings together 14 contributions covering various aspects of bilateral relations in the Mediterranean. Whilst most of the contributions approach the topic from the perspective of the legal discipline, the anthology also incorporates historical and political aspects as well. This work, furthermore, incorporates several levels of analysis and discusses various actors dealing with migration issues in the Mediterranean, such as nation-states, the European Union, and International Organizations.

The book is divided into three chapters. Chapter 1 addresses the topic on the level of the nation state and consists of five sub-chapters covering Spain, Greece, Malta, France and Italy, respectively. Chapter 2 addresses supranational forms of legal bilateralism, consisting of four sub-chapters on relations between EU and Mediterranean countries, Southern Mediterranean States, the EU partnership framework on migration, countries in the EU’s Eastern neighbourhood, and EU-Turkey cooperation. Chapter 3 investigates Horizontal issues of migration management covering five sub-chapters on soft law and shared responsibilities in the Mediterranean, the negotiation process for a Euro-Mediterranean free-trade area, the rhetoric of human rights in EU external relations in the Mediterranean, and fighting irregular forms of migration.

By incorporating case studies from different countries and on different levels, this book provides a comprehensive overview over issues of migration in the Mediterranean. This comparative approach and broad perspective is a significant strength of this publication, and it allows the anthology to pinpoint central issues of migration in the Mediterranean today. Also, this interdisciplinary and transnational approach enables the editors to take a big-picture perspective on issues around migration in the Mediterranean.

A few key challenges and important recommendations for policy makers become apparent when reading this book: The first central challenge that emerges from this analysis is the increasing informality when dealing with migration issues. This issue is emphasized by Casolari (2020) and Di Filippo (2020). The second central issue that becomes apparent is a lack of agreement in crucial definitions across different EU member states. This poses challenges to decision-making, which is especially noteworthy in the context of emergencies where quick decisions need to be taken. Facts such as that there is a lack of definitions on terms such as “Place of Safety”, as shown by Papastavridis (2020: 237), are most concerning, and it is thanks to the book’s comparative approach that these key challenges become evident.

The issues discussed in this publication are very timely. This anthology has been published in 2020, but several of the contributions were updated since 2017. This in itself is not a limitation, but there is a patent lack of information on up to which point in time the data in this anthology apply. This would have been good for readers to know and would make engaging with this book easier, e.g., leading the reader to consult additional sources in order to be better informed about the most recent developments.

Despite this small limitation, this book is a very valuable read, in my opinion. As someone who is not from the legal discipline, I nevertheless found this anthology very easy to access and insightful because the contributions are written in a very comprehensive and clear manner. I would thus recommend this book to all academics working on migration as well as to policymakers dealing with migration issues.



Casolari, F. (2020) The unbearable ‚lightness‘ of soft law: on the European Union‘s recourse to informal instruments in the fight agains irregular immigration. In F. Ippolito et al. (Eds.), Bilateral Relations in the Mediterranean: Prospects for Migration Issues (215-228). Cheltenham/ Northhampton: Edward Elgar Publishing. https://doi.org/10.4337/9781786432254.

Di Filippo, F. (2020) Fighting irregular forms of migration: the poisonous fruits of the securitarian approach to cooperation with Mediterranean countries. In F. Ippolito et al. (Eds.), Bilateral Relations in the Mediterranean: Prospects for Migration Issues (301-315). Cheltenham/ Northhampton: Edward Elgar Publishing. https://doi.org/10.4337/9781786432254.

Papastavridis, E. (2020) Search and rescue at sea: shared responsibilities in the Mediterranean Sea. In In F. Ippolito et al. (Eds.), Bilateral Relations in the Mediterranean: Prospects for Migration Issues (229-249). Cheltenham/ Northhampton: Edward Elgar Publishing. https://doi.org/10.4337/9781786432254.




Silvana Bartoletto, Energy Transitions in the Mediterranean (Cheltenham: E. Elgar, 2020)

Economic historian Bartoletto has written a short overview of energy use in the Mediterranean. Her primary interest is in showing how energy transitions happen and where the states in and around the Mediterranean are relative to the transition from hydrocarbons to renewable sources. The book includes discussion of the entire Mediterranean rather than just parts of it, which allows some comparison of strategies and challenges. The region has states like Algeria with huge oil and gas resources, states with new-found off-shore fields like Israel, and places with little or no hydrocarbon resources like Malta.

The book has five chapters and a conclusion. Most of data end with 2016, though some of the discussions includes information as late as 2018. Chapter 1 compares the countries on their economies and energy use. That data helps inform later chapters. Chapter 2 considers energy price dynamics, production and trade. The ups and downs of conflict, oil prices, and various political events drive the discussion and set up the third chapter on energy security concerns of the different countries. Chapter 4 on energy transitions and energy efficiency is the core of the book. It defines the concept and looks at past transitions in the region. Transitions have phases, as countries switch from older fuels to newer ones. Technological innovation slowly improves the performance of the new technology and associated technological systems change as well. That leads to more economic productivity (though not necessarily environmental health). Chapter 5 looks at renewables and CO2 emissions, again in a comparative perspective. The conclusion notes that strong energy demand in the region will naturally have an impact on environmental policies elsewhere to limit climate change everywhere. The author summarizes how some of the Mediterranean countries are responding.

The volume would have been enhanced if more attention had been paid to specific policies, including more indirect ones, used by the Mediterranean. For example, the author notes increased emissions in Malta, but did not note that one reason for this was to allow more (less polluting) cars into Malta. There is no mention of the serious security discussion there about whether to close the oil-based Marsa power plant in favour of getting power from Italy. The plant was closed in 2017/18, but power cuts to the line (happening after the book was written) have caused it to be reopened. It has a very intensive demand for energy due to five desalinization plants. Yet that country has an energy and reduced greenhouse gasses plan that is being executed: An LNG gasification plant is now in operation and, like other parts of the Mediterranean, many households use solar energy and food waste.

The book is easy to read and understand. The Mediterranean as a case region makes good sense. The region offers developing countries, energy-rich and poor countries, and highly technological ones.

Maurizio Isabella & Konstantina Zanou (eds.), Mediterranean Diasporas: Politics and Ideas in the Long 19th Century (London, New Delhi, New York, Sydney: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016)

This book consists of ten case studies of politics and ideas in the Mediterranean region. They are innovative and thought-provoking, particularly because they reveal that, due to long-distance cultural exchanges, the region was more diversified than previous research has suggested. For the most part, these contributions are biographical explorations of prominent characters, intellectuals and political activists. Broadly speaking, all of them exhibit the influence of Western liberalism, the ideology that helped to shape political systems and political discourse throughout Europe and North America in the course of the long nineteenth century.

This new book focuses upon intellectual networks and the circulation of ideas. All the individuals who are examined in these new studies share a diasporic background, as they spent at least part of their life separated from their principal cultural milieux. That experience clearly influenced their political outlooks, as a number of contributions in this volume reveal. In other words, these are surveys of a cultural transfer, even over long distances, within and outside of the region. Given the title of the book, one might have expected a more comprehensive regional survey, with more detailed elaboration of political thought in the Middle East and North-Africa. However, a 200-page collection of essays is really too small to be able provide such a wide survey and the editors’ decision to concentrate on European areas between the Balkans and Iberian Peninsula is sensible.

Until the end of the medieval period, the Mediterranean Sea was Europe’s main highway for cultural and material exchanges. Following the opening of the Atlantic route and the rise of the European powers on the Atlantic seaboard, the Mediterranean lost its central role. Historiography has generally intimated that these changes turned Mediterranean populations into receivers, rather than sources, of innovation in the modern age, including political and cultural innovation, and not least the liberal ideology. As this new book exemplifies, that interpretation oversimplifies the role of southern European intellectuals, as they undoubtedly contributed to the development of the liberal movements of the Continent.

Liberalism is one of the most difficult ideologies to define, particularly if we also examine it from a North-American perspective, where its content has been expanded considerably. It goes without saying that all liberal thought takes the individual to be an essential unit of society. What varies, however, is how inclusive liberals consider their ideology to be and, in particular, to what extent they regard the less cultivated/educated, as well as members of the lower social strata, to be capable of becoming full-fledged citizens. In this volume, the term “liberalism” is on the whole used in an inclusive way, socially and culturally. Moreover, the authors generally posit a close relationships between liberalism and nationalism, comparing the self-determination of the individual, on the one hand, to the independence of (imagined) nations on the other. But a detailed scrutiny, and deconstruction, of the symbiosis between liberalism and nationalism is not what one would expect to find in a collection of essays like this one.

Finally, as in most examinations of intellectuals and political activists, these are studies of male characters. That reflects the gender system of the nineteenth century. The authors might have examined the absence of female characters, but, again, the compact size of the collection allows little room for the many relevant discussions that might have found a place in a larger work.

All in all, this publication is significant and substantial. By focusing on the dynamic and multiple interactions between different cultural regions, this book enhances our understanding of political culture in a trans-Mediterranean mode.

Twelve Years an Editor – Almost. Nordic-Mediterranean Perspectives on Iceland’s International Image


Since the year 2015 I have been working as editor in chief of Nordicum-Mediterraneum: Icelandic E-Journal of Nordic and Mediterranean Studies, published by the University of Akureyri (<http://nome.unak.is>). As such, I have received, read, reviewed and released a number of contributions by foreign and, in particular, by Italian scholars, dealing with Iceland under a broad variety of scientific perspectives. Also, especially during and immediately after Iceland’s 2008 financial meltdown, I was contacted and interviewed by a number of media outlets, primarily Italian. Thanks to these experiences, I can contribute to today’s discussion with an eminently personal yet qualitatively rich account of Iceland’s image among Italian and foreign academic circles. Above all, I believe the materials accumulated in the long life of Nordicum-Mediterraneum to be a truly interesting source of insight in the academics’ interest points, if not even the educated commonplaces, about Iceland.

Albeit in charge of the journal since its inception, I am not its real father, who is instead a scholar that has been working for many years at the University of Iceland in Reykjavík, Maurizio Tani. Eleven years ago, one year short of the title’s twelve, he approached me with the idea of a scholarly journal devoted to the many and diverse historical exchanges between the North and the South of Europe and, in particular, between Iceland and Italy. Nothing of the sort existed on the academic scene. Needless to say, his suggestion was taken aboard. Then, thanks to the small yet vital financial support of the University of Akureyri, plus the crucial help qua webmaster of Mr. Fabrizio Veneziano of Schiller International University in Paris and of Ms. Sigrún Magnúsdóttir qua Akureyri-based editorial assistant, the journal was officially born.

Foreign contributions about Iceland: Numbers and titles 

A true pioneer in open-access scholarly publishing in Iceland, the journal aimed primarily at serving as a forum and an archive for scholars interested in Nordic and Mediterranean mutual connections. Progressively, pressured by its growing readership, the journal expanded its scope to Nordic and Mediterranean matters at large, rather than remaining confined to the exchanges between the North and the South of Europe. At the same time, the journal continued to publish a variety of other contributions as well, ranging from reviews of recent literature to interviews and personal memoirs. The break-up of the publications listed below does not include the special issues 11(2-3), due this year and already in the pipes, editorially speaking, and reads as follows:

Regular issues: 11 (2006-2016)

Special issues: 12 (2006-2016 i.e. up to 10(3)/2016)

Of which:

Conference proceedings: 11 (2008-2016)

Other subjects: 1 (2006)

New articles: 42

Reflections on Iceland’s economic crisis: 13

Conference proceedings: 102

Conference-related notes: 11

Review essays: 5

Book reviews: 121

Interviews: 6

Memoirs: 6

Translations: 5

Republished books: 2

Degree theses: 1

Other contributions (short notes, reports, surveys, non-peer-reviewed articles, etc.): 19

Total publication: 333

Of all these published materials, 45 contributions can be said to deal with Iceland’s image in the eyes of foreign scholars, whether directly or indirectly, e.g. as reported in books reviewed for the journal (in the case of book reviews and review essays, I attribute each entry to either the reviewer’s nationality or the book author’s nationality, depending on who emphasises Iceland more). Longer pieces (e.g. articles, conference papers) amount to 21, while shorter ones (e.g. book reviews) to 24. Most of them are in legal studies (12), linguistics and/or literature (7) and history (5). Then we have contributions in philosophy (4), economics (4), geography (4), politics (3), psychology (2), art history (1) and personal memoirs (3). The countries of relative observation can be listed as follows:

  • Argentina: 1
  • Faroe Islands: 1
  • Finland: 1
  • Germany: 3
  • Ireland: 2
  • Italy: 25
  • The People’s Republic of China: 2
  • Romania: 1
  • Russia: 2
  • Scotland: 6
  • Spain: 1

True to the original spirit of the journal, publications by Italian scholars on Icelandic or Italian-Icelandic matters stand out as far more numerous than the others. This geographical predominance and the limited overall as well as specific number of published contributions make a quantitative analysis unlikely to provide valuable information. Their qualitative value as academic exploration of Iceland’s heritage and historical experiences persists, however.

The typology, depth and length of these 45 contributions varies enormously. I list them below in chronological order, specifying their category, in accordance with the journal’s internal system of classification. In the pages following the list below, I refer to the underlined authors and the relevant year of publication in the journal; when Icelandic-foreign collaborative projects are included, I underline and count for the country list above only the foreign specialists involved:



Antonio Casado da Rocha, “Narrative Ethics and the Ecology of Culture: Notes on New Italian-Icelandic Sagas”

Note on conference proceedings

Maurizio Tani, “Italo Balbo, Iceland and a Short Story by Halldór Laxness. Notes on the Conference ‘La trasvolata Italia-Islanda del 1933’ (Reykjavík, 7 June 2003)”

Interviews, memoirs and other contributions

Francesco Milazzo, “Teaching Roman Law in Iceland”



Maria Savi Lopez (1848-1940), “Akureyri”, Nei paesi del Nord, Torino: Paravia, 1893

Italo Balbo (1896-1940), “Nella terra dei Vichinghi”, La centuria alata, Milano: Mondadori, 1934



Emanuela Finocchietti & Luca Zarrilli, “Paesaggio naturale e politiche di sviluppo territoriale in Islanda”

Conference proceedings

Manuela S. Campanini, “Iceland as a Landscape Investigation Pattern”

Book reviews

By Antonio Calcagno: Paolo Borioni, Cesare Damiano & Tiziano TreuIl modello sociale scandnavo. Tra diritti e flessibilità (Roma: Nuova Iniziativa Editoriale, 2006)


Interviews, memoirs and other contributions

Federico Actite, Ancient Rome and Icelandic Culture – A Brief Overview



Diego Ferioli, “On the Oral-Formulaic Theory and its Application in the Poetic Edda: The Cases of Alvíssmál and Hávamál”

Manuela S. Campanini, “Imagine a Collective Landscape”

Viola Miglio, “Old Norse and Old English Language Contact: Scandinavian Legal Terminology in Anglo-Saxon Laws”

Reflections on the economic crisis

Giorgio Baruchello, “Eight Noble Opinions and the Economic Crisis: Four Literary-philosophical Sketches à la Eduardo Galeano”

Maria Pia Paganelli, “Learning from Bjartur About Today’s Icelandic Economic Crisis”

Interviews, memoirs and other contributions

Antonio Costanzo, “Fyrirlestur um bókina Hávamál. La voce di Odino”

Marinella Lorinczi, “Dracula in Iceland”



Adriana Di Stefano, “Northern Steps of EU Enlargement: The Impact of ‘Cohesion’ Policies on Iceland’s Accession Process”

Book reviews

By Rachael Lorna Johnstone: H. Beale et al., Cases, Materials and Texts on Contract Law, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Hart Publishing, 2010); and T. K. Graziano, Comparative Contract Law: Cases, Materials and Exercises (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2009)

By Rachael Lorna Johnstone, Natalia Loukacheva (ed.), Polar Law Textbook (Copenhagen: Nordic Council of Ministers, 2010)


Fabio Quartino, La Costituzione Islandese: storia ed evoluzione



Garrett Barden, “Responses to the contributors”



Birgir Guðmundsson & Markus Meckl, “’Karlson’ – A Stasi ‘Kontakt Person’. An episode of Iceland’s Cold War legacy”

Book reviews

By Andrea Hjálmsdóttir: Aðalheiður Ámundadóttir & Rachael Lorna Johnstone, Mannréttindi í þrengingum: Efnahagsleg og félagsleg réttindi í kreppunni (Akureyri-Reykjavík: Háskólinn á Akureyri og Mannréttindaskrifstofa Íslands, 2011)

By Anita Einarsdóttir & Tiantian Zhang: Herman Salton, Arctic Host, Icy Visit: China and Falun Gong Face Off in Iceland (Saarbrücken: LAP Lambert Academic Publishing, 2010)

Interviews, memoirs and other contributions

Jorge Mejía, “Some impressions after a quick visit to Iceland”



Hjálti Ómar Ágústsson & Rachael Lorna Johnstone, “Practising what they Preach: Did the IMF and Iceland Exercise Good Governance in their Relations 2008-2011?”

Irina Zhilina, “The Security Aspects in the Arctic: the Potential Role of NATO”

Review essay

By Carlo Penco: Juha Manninen & Friedrich Stadtler (eds.), The Vienna Circle and the Nordic Countries. Networks and Transformations of Logical Empiricism (Vienna: Vienna Circle Institute Yearbook vol.14, Springer, 2010)

Book reviews

By Gísli Aðalsteinsson: Maurizio Tani, La chiesa di Akureyri: Guida storico-artistica alla parrocchiale luterana della «capitale del nord» (Grafarvogur: Snorri Sturluson, 2010)

By Guðmundur Heiðar Frímansson: Brian Lucey, Charles Larkin & Constantin Gurdgiev (eds.), What if Ireland defaults? (Dublin: Orpen Press, 2012)

By Herman Salton, “‘Arctic Host, Icy Visit’: A Response” (cf. Tiantian Zhang)

By Rachael Lorna Johnstone: Jesús Ballesteros, Encarnación Fernández Ruiz-Gálvez & Pedro Talavera (eds.), Globalization and Human Rights: Challenges and Answers from a European Perspective (Ius Gentium: Comparative Perspectives of Law and Justice, Vol. 13, Leiden: Springer, 2012)

By Rachael Lorna Johnstone: T. Kue Young (senior ed.), Rajiv Rawat, Winifred Dallmann, Susan Chatwood & Peter Bjerregaard (eds.), Circumpolar Health Atlas (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012)

By Tero Mustonen, C. Raudvere & J.P. Schjödt (eds.), More Than Mythology – Narratives, Ritual Practices and Regional Distribution in Pre-Christian Scandinavian Religions (Lund: Nordic Academic Press, 2012)


Luana Giampiccolo, “Leiðarvísir, an Old Norse itinerarium: a proposal for a new partial translation and some notes about the place-names”



Matteo Tarsi, “On Loanwords of Latin Origin in Contemporary Icelandic”

Book reviews

By Federica Scarpa: Natalia Loukacheva (ed.), Polar Law Textbook II (Copenhagen: Nordic Council of Ministers, 2013)

By Giorgio Baruchello: Þorlákur Axel Jónsson, Dagur Austan. Ævintýramaðurinn Vernharður Eggertsson (Akureyri: Völuspá, 2009)

Interviews, memoirs and other contributions

Birgir Guðmundsson & Markus Meckl, “Regaining Iceland for the Catholic Church in the mid-19th Century”


Conference proceeding

Giorgio Baruchello, “The Picture—Small and Big: Iceland and the Crises”


Conference proceeding

Thomas Hören, “IMMI and Whistleblowing in Iceland – the new regulatory framework”

Book reviews

By Giorgio Baruchello: Sven-Olof Olsson (ed.), Managing Crises and De-globalization. Nordic foreign trade and exchange 1919-39 (New York: Routledge, 2014 pbk.)

By Giorgio Baruchello: Gaetano Roberto Buccola, Forme del centro. Percorsi analitici dal “Viaggio al centro della Terra” al nucleo dell’uomo (Palermo: Nuova Ipsa, 2013)

By Rachael Lorna Johnstone: Kári á Rógvi, West-Nordic Constitutional Judicial Review: A Comparative Study of Scandinavian Judicial Review and Judicial Reasoning (Copenhagen: Djøf Publishing, 2013)

Interviews, memoirs and other contributions

Roberto Buccola, “The Unconscious and the Island: Fragments of Research on the Self”


Conference proceeding

Giorgio Baruchello, “Enemies of Interculturalism: The Economic Crisis in Light of Xenophobia, Liberal Cruelties and Human Rights“


Foreign contributions about Iceland: Recurring themes

What sort of recurring themes can be found in this collection of diverse scholarly and scientific texts? I have identified four.

  1. Iceland as “the land of the Vikings”

This is the title given by the aviator Italo Balbo (2006) to the chapter on Iceland in his 1933 memoirs, who also recalls how the Vikings discovered America before Columbus himself. Spanish-Portuguese philosopher Casado da Rocha (2006) mentions too the Vikings’ “stories of warriors and wise men, poets and politicians of the golden age of settlement and commonwealth.” The marauding hordes, their adventures and their legacy are very much a focus-point for many commentators. They are a reason for distinctiveness, if not distinction. For instance, law professor Milazzo’s (2006) account of his teaching experience emphasises how Iceland is not as much part of the legal tradition based on Roman Law as most other European countries. Legal scholar Johnstone too, in her 2011 review essay on comparative law, mentions the enduring island-centric character of mainstream legal education in Iceland. This is not to say that classical culture did not reach or influence Iceland’s cultural development. Quite the opposite, Actite’s 2009 text offers a concise account of the deep, extensive and sometimes surprising impact of the Latin tradition on this island: “For instance, the Latin phrase Rustycus es, Corydon gave origin to the Icelandic words rusti [farmer] and dóni [rude people]”. Tarsi (2014) offers an even longer account. Even some elements of the later Catholic Christianitas endure, as noticed by Cardinal Mejía (2012) and Tani (2013). Still, the land of the Vikings is distinct and original, which is shown by the interest of foreign scholars, and Italian ones in particular, in the history, development and influence of Old Norse or ancient Icelandic, and its literary accomplishments in the Edda and the Sagas, e.g. Ferioli (2010), Miglio (2010), Costanzo (2010), Lorinczi (2010), Tani (2006), Barden (2011), Mustonen (2013), Giampiccolo (2013),

  1. Iceland as a Nordic State

Former Italian governmental ministers Damiano and Treu, together with the historian Borioni (2008), lump Iceland together with the other Scandinavian countries, as though Iceland had as strong a social-democratic tradition as Sweden, Denmark or Norway. However, Iceland does not have it. It was never a welfare State, in the sense and to the extent these other countries have historically exemplified. The right-wing Independence Party has marked its history much more than the various incarnations of democratic socialism in Iceland (cf. also Meckl’s 2012 article on Iceland’s Cold-War history and Baruchello’s 2014 book review), as also reflected by the largely unnoticed repression of Falun Gong demonstrators in Iceland in 2002 (cf. Tiantian Zhang, 2012 & 2013). Difference does not mean intransigence, however. Thus, Hören (2015) and Johnstone (2013a) reveal significant changes in a more Nordic direction led by the historically weaker left-wing forces of the country, in freedom of the press and in human rights provisions respectively. Perhaps, the most obvious manifestation of the “un-Nordicness” of Iceland was the neoliberal boom-and-bust hot-money cycle that led to the notorious kreppa of 2008, about which a number of contributions have been published, i.e. Baruchello (2010), Paganelli (2010), Johnstone (2013), Lucey, Larkin & Gurdgiev (2013), Johnstone (2013a & b), Baruchello (2014 & 2015b). Penco (2013) adds another layer of “un-Nordicness” by noticing how Iceland’s philosophical tradition owes more to Anglophone and Dutch academic traditions and establishments than to Scandinavian ones. Still, there exist clear connections with Scandinavian political experience, notably the Danish roots of Iceland’s constitution (cf. Quartino, 2011). In fact, in addition to its linguistic-literary roots and heritage, the legal tradition of Iceland seems to be, at large, the most Nordic feature of Iceland’s culture, at least according to Kári á Rógvi (2015). Baruchello (2015) adds another line of continuity, i.e. the cartelisation of strategic industries during the 1930s.

  1. Iceland as an Arctic State

Less controversial is this third commonplace notion. Iceland is located in the North Atlantic, after all, which is cold, dangerous to navigate upon, remote. This is the tone of the account by Savi-Lopez (2006), who pioneered the study and dissemination of Icelandic literature in Italy in the first half of the 20th century. As to later accounts, it would appear that being located in the North Atlantic is strategic. It is so for NATO (cf. Zhilina, 2013), for the EU (cf. Di Stefano, 2011), but above all for the Arctic nations and the governance of the region, as emphasised by Loukacheva (2011), Johnstone (2013c) and Scarpa (2014). Indeed, Meckl’s 2014 studies on the Catholic Arctic mission of the 19th century show the Catholic Church being the first international institution to conceive of the Arctic as a geographically, politically and culturally strategic region of the World. The number of submissions and publications pertaining to this third notion have been growingly steadily over the years, reflecting Iceland’s own growing institutional and intellectual self-characterisation as an Arctic State, not least as manifested by the developments within the University of Akureyri, which is part of the University of the Arctic consortium and hosts a most successful Master’s programme in Polar Law.

  1. Iceland as a dimension of the spirit

Iceland’s unique landscape, the result of equally unique and rather extreme geographic, geological and climatic conditions, lead to awe and deep existential reflection. Scientific observations are the beginning of more profound considerations about the relationship between humanity and the natural environment, the struggle for survival that we have fought throughout our journey on this planet, and the most disturbing question of all: why do we keep fighting? More or less explicitly, this is the tone of the contributions by literary scholar Finocchietti (2008) as well as geographers Zarrilli (2008) and Campanini (2008 & 2010). The same applies to those of Jungian psychologist Buccola (2015a & b). Numerically, we are not talking of a large number of contributions. However, and here the qualitative character of the present account comes to the forefront, the number of authors that have been interested in Iceland because of its mystique is conspicuous. Methodologically unlikely to reflect upon and disclose the motives for their own research, scholars and scientists have often discussed them with me qua editor and a southern European expatriate in the far north. The fascination with Iceland’s lunar vistas and its seemingly prohibitive inhospitality, combined with the sense of authenticity that such conditions inspire, are a frequent reason for Mediterranean minds to develop an interest in Nordic matters, even if these may have little to do with the island’s vistas, inhospitality or authenticity.

Concluding remarks

The literature by foreign experts published over the years in Nordicum-Mediterraneum pertains to many different disciplines. Prominent are literary, linguistic and legal studies. These disciplinary areas of emphasis are the result of many factors, not least the network of scholars and researchers who have found the journal a suitable venue for their work and that of experts willing to review the books that we receive from publishers. It is difficult, if not impossible, to gauge with certainty how representative they are of the stereotypes of, and commonplace conceptions about, Iceland. Nonetheless, I believe that they do offer considerable food for thought, which is an adequate and relevant aim for the present contribution.

Nükhet Varlik, Plague and Empire in the Early Modern Mediterranean World. The Ottoman Experience, 1347-1600 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015)

For the best part of the twentieth century, descriptions of the Black Death, 1346-1353, were a recurrent theme in almost all serious works on the general history of Europe and most European countries.

Continue reading Nükhet Varlik, Plague and Empire in the Early Modern Mediterranean World. The Ottoman Experience, 1347-1600 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015)

Paul Caruana Galizia, Mediterranean Labor Markets in the First Age of Globalization. An Economic History of Real Wages and Market Integration (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015)

Migratory flows, both legal and illegal, are rising day by day in the Mediterranean countries. This fine book by Caruana Galizia does not deal, however, with today’s recent phase of migration, but with migration of Mediterranean people both within the Mediterranean and beyond between 1820 and 1915.

Continue reading Paul Caruana Galizia, Mediterranean Labor Markets in the First Age of Globalization. An Economic History of Real Wages and Market Integration (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015)

Barbara Fuchs & Emily Weissbourd (eds.), Representing Imperial Rivalry in the Early Modern Mediterranean (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 2015)

This edited book charts the representations of identities of different kinds (religious, racial, cultural) through visual and written expressions in the context of a plural renovatio imperii. In the Mediterranean, the universalism of the empire leaves place for a pluralism of empires that clash in their pursuit for hegemony.

Continue reading Barbara Fuchs & Emily Weissbourd (eds.), Representing Imperial Rivalry in the Early Modern Mediterranean (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 2015)

Donald W. Jones, Economic Theory and the Ancient Mediterranean (Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2014)



Even if it is not as mathematical as a standard advanced textbook, it maintains the same rigor and complexity. The volume has a few introductory chapters, covering basic economic tools (production, costs and supply, consumption, industry structure and types of competition, and general equilibrium), and then it goes on developing all the traditional micro and macro theories (public economics, information and risk, capital, money and banking, labor, land and location, cities, natural resources, and growth).


It is not a book about ancient economies, meaning that if one hopes to learn about the economies of ancient civilizations, this is not the place to look. The abundant references though may be of help. The book is about economics. The theories are all modern theories explained in detail, even if those details are alien to ancient times. The justification for this is to see the difference between ancient and modern economies, but the focus of the theories is on the modern ones. I fear that this is a weakness in an otherwise impressive book. Using talents rather than dollars to explain the working of banks is fine, but one is left wishing for more direct and explicit use of the theories in ancient times, when, say, central banks’ policies are explained, as central banks, fiat money, and monetary policies are not institutions that resemble some past sort of equivalents. 


Despite its only sporadic information about ancient economies, the book is a powerful, even if advanced tool, to develop an understanding of economic theories.  A brand new novice to economics may find it daunting. But a non-economist with a solid background of economics may find the prose rigorous and informative. Not a book for everybody, but potentially a great manual for some. 

A note on the forthcoming volume “Romanian – Moroccan Forms of Manifestation in the European Space”




Both Romanian and Moroccan spaces resonate in an un-syncopated way, after more than half a century’s worth of diplomatic relations; as for the political, touristic and economic (inter)related connections, these are considered, without reservation, excellent (both by bilateral factors and at the level of international organisms – a reality confirmed by their Excellencies Ambassador Simona Corlan Ioan and Ambassador Faouz El Achchabi, and expressed as such in their Conference locutions).


Stimulating a re-appraisal of tradition and intensifying the political dialogue, with the explicit intention of amplifying economic-cultural ratios (with superior valences conferred by the position both states are assuming inside their respective regions: Romania, as member of the European Union, and the Kingdom of Morocco, as an EU privileged partner) is underlined by the exemplary status of architectural formulas describing an interchanging place/circulatory space (culturally-economic or politically-diplomatic).


All these aspects are offering a propensity for axial coordinates of European-ism and European(ity), while at the same time proposing solutions, openings and innovative strategies.


In this spiral one cannot ignore the even episodic-concerted action of (re)affirming multiculturalism and multilingualism, still maintained as an ego-political reality. Symbolic elements are reloaded and re-integrated by the “Maalouf Commission” amongst whose artisans one can recognize, as an inspiring/counseling factor of European strategy, both the political man, and the writer/artist/ cultural man as such.

Hence the non-incidental option, which banks upon political and cultural-artistic templates of manifestation inside European space, as a complementary mod(ality) of translating of/by texts/studies/interventions/ presentations (or virtual ones) which use both English language as a synchronizing formula for/in the idiomatic mode of global(izing) research, and French language, as a chance for harmonizing intercultural horizons/spaces.


Re-anchored inside European space, the conference’s main objective was to establish the tension impact of space upon place, received and interpreted as a complex and complete occurrence, propagated from/within (remnant) inherited connections, easy to understand through an acceptance of modernity’s crisis symptoms, manifested both inside the hard bench-marks of space and/in geography’s relativistic capacity to offering re-vitalize/recompose itself.


The interventions proposed an elucidation of the term space, perceived as an abstract entity (acknowledging variables in distance, direction, size, form, volume) detached from any material form/formula or cultural interpretation; and of the concept of place, seen as a space vector for unique assemblies of things, meanings, values, practices, people, objects and representations.


Connected to these constantly confirmed and affirmed ideas, the conference both illustrated and offered arguments for the same problems which diplomacy reiterates as an essential(izing) score recaptured in/through political stability- favorable climate- belonging to the Francophone space – by re-evaluating through actualization and/or data adjustment historically-verified elements/effects; a clarifying space/place relationship accenting political forms of manifestation within European space and cultural-artistic experiences/experiments.


The tri-phased arguments supporting the theme/texture of certain panels take into account the fact that Romanian – Moroccan relations can (also) offer a circuit/alternative for solving implicit spikes/pulses of the European crisis.


Interventions by Professors and Researchers – Ian Browne, François Bréda, Ana Maria Negoita, Abdelmjid Kettioui implicitly clarify the terminology of tradition as mode of constructing identities, where the locale is accepted/perceived as both an accompanying state and a possibility of transcending space, as a synapse through which Eliza Raduca comments upon the resonating mode status of place in/at Francophone space.


The analysis is completed by studies which narrow the modes of construction for place/space, accenting significances expressed by explanatory/clarifying terms of societas/ communitas architecture with reflections in concepts such as faith, myth, time, identity, urbanization or international community.


With the absolutely necessary mention that the multi-focal method was applied/approved in its entirety during the present endeavor – either by the approach, trans-focalization or even the apparent detachment needed for a (re)placing of the proposed themes within context – through a mechanism of relating.


Romania and Morocco maintain a common place of contacts and periodical-institutional meetings, specific for political-diplomatic relationships situated within traditional lines and continuously confirming their given title of best connections.


The specific subject was presented using both geo-political and geo-poetical instruments, by Researchers such as Željko Mirkov, Lucian Jora, Adina Burchiu, Cristina Arvatu Vohn, Henrieta Serban, Abdelaziz El Amrani, Marouane Zakhir, Layachi El Habbouch or Monaim El Azzouzi, who suggest new harmonizing perspectives while noting that such an approach repositions both Romania and Morocco within a place resonating with European space, with its stages and layers accepting of inventories/ shelved materials which can be used as reference points/strategies and intersecting modes, and also as political and cultural-diplomatic instances.


A space of experiments and Romanian – Moroccan cultural-artistic experiences resonates with a certain periodicity and accepts traditions which, reclaiming their perennial values from the directions traced by the Governmental Agreement for Cultural Collaboration (1969) is stimulated by new opinions, perspectives and approaches.


This sequencing only confirms that the angle of investigation/research is imposed by dynamic space bolsters, and impossible to separate from post-modern globalizing tendencies as translated in a new reading of Mohammed Al-Sadoun’s The Freedom Monument; unable not to maintain the relationship between images (Valentin Trifesco) – narrative/diarium/journey (Carmen Burcea) – or a symbology of the veil (Claudia Moscovici).


Such a dynamic ”trajectory” certifies all Michel Deguy-ian (Franta / România [France/ Romania], in Secolul 21, no. 1-6, 2009, pp. 316-318) assertions in the sense of a mediating association between two terms equally involved in a perspective-changing relationship (either volitional or involuntary, by referencing a changing World/Europe) and re-computing the horizon (with all its hesitatingly-skeptical or apocalyptic- favorable premonitions): the Romania-Morocco relationship positional handles any particularizing immediacy of an universally-mediated Europe.


On the basis of these opinions one can signal the tri-phase force effect already announced, with concluding notes in re-assessing a report which does not reclaim hierarchies and does not articulate the statute of any device.


Considering than any account implies a multiplication of dimensions accepting both essentialization and selection depending on certain intensified-effect building materials, any places of rest found when traveling through space determine their own transformation, by ensuring co-participation and offering a chance for an inventory of opportunities while at the same time indicating an act of establishment concerning their own selves (far from the traps of quantification or any pretensions of exhausting the theme).


Certainly, the Romanian – Moroccan project will be also materialized and finalized by the publication of a collective volume, thanks to the constantly-revived contact with a significantly-interesting part of the Moroccan scientific community (a relationship proved also by the presence of Moroccan community representatives in Romania during the Conference) with whom we have harmonically agreed upon inexhaustible thematic convergence nodes/places and kaleidoscopic formulas of attracting/bringing together subjects deploying from this common option.


Florian Vetsch (Tanger Trance, Bern, Sulgen, Zürich, 2010) geo-temporally comments upon the consequences of a tristesse européenne (in its nostalgia-filled, recovering mode) by appealing to a differentiated mode of partitioning time – the two-hour time-lag between Morocco and Europe. One can also consider a qsim – intensified relationship, in the sense in which any Moroccans doing business with Europe have to wake up very early in the summer, and presentified by the fact that, only in Tangier, ntina signifies an undifferentiated identity, in the sense of that societas/communitas; a cultural node, unraveled by the great story-teller Jilala- Mohammed Mrabet, whose identity was doubted by Tahar Ben Jelloun who considered him to be just a Bowles-ian fiction. Inside amplified/accompanying space considered to be the opening place of the book Sacred Night by Tahar Ben Jelloun (Noaptea sacra [The Sacred Night], Art Publishing House, Bucharest, 2008), the state of the place chapter traces, inside the commenced and abandoned story, a sliding state for a storyteller devoid of memory (but not of imagination) as a builder of central point’s aiming towards complete possession of the market, in the sense in which no one was allowed to leave Bushaib´s circle. The annotated place in the perspective of an apparently closed circle suffers from the immobile equivalents of a space where nothing changes, and everything stays (remains) as it was first created, being subjected only to outside assault, as a competitive chance of both meeting and conflict. “I had reached Marrakesh the previous night, determined to meet the storyteller who had been bankrupted by telling my story”.


Both the conference and the on-publishing volume aim to be an (inter)relational approach-investigation of the idea that place and space adjusting re-compute time, with harmonizing identities impossible to separate from the narrative formulations which exist and relate themselves to each other.


Transposed in the spirit of the common Romanian – Moroccan archi-text, within the score of multiculturalism and multilingualism (an objective achieved also through the implication of the Center for Philological and Intercultural Research of the Letters and Arts Faculty, “Lucian Blaga” University- Sibiu, through its director, Gheorghe Manolache) one can agree upon our collective involvement in launching a common idiom which propagates the idea that everyone has the possibility of acceding to the three dimensions of communication, through language: autochthonous (maternal), allogenous (paternal) and the third, as complementary as an European-izing intersection.


In the act of initiation, Christopher Columbus was showing his Master the Sea, which included the Earth from a Pole to another, the boundless space, the one which once was the Garden of the Hesperides. A possible compass would indicate the extreme Western of the Mediterranean Sea, in the nearby paternity of Atlas Mountains, maybe in Tangier, to the edge of the Ocean: it is a tempting invitation (operated both by the conference and volume) to sail into a space where apples of immortality are still growing!




* The present material is organized as an introduction to the forthcoming volume including the interventions presented at the International Conference “Romanian – Moroccan Forms of Manifestation in the European Space, organized by the Institute of Political Sciences and International Relations, Romanian Academy, Bucharest, 9-10 April 2014.


**As a director of the project and coordinator of the volume, I would like to address with deference, my gratitude for all the support to Professor and Researcher, Director of the Institute of Political Sciences and International Relations, Dan Dungaciu and to Historian and Researcher, Stelian Neagoe. Also my truly thanks for their effort, work and constant collaboration to Researcher Ana Maria Negoita and to Researcher and Translator Ian Browne. I would like also to mention the effective help and effort of Daniela Paul and Emilian Popa.

Viorella Manolache (ed.), Centru si margine la Marea Mediterana. Filosofie politica si realitate internationala (Bucharest: Editura ISPRI, 2009)

This journal has proven a wide opening to a great diversity of recurrent themes present now within political sciences. Certain “marginal” areas of interdisciplinary investigation are also present, included in this same broad philosophical view. The volume maintains precisely this type of innovative ambitions and the manner of relating to contemporary tendencies as the journal, hence approaching through its several original studies select newer theoretical concepts adequate to the complexities associated with the research of the chosen theme. These studies are coming from different scientific areas. Estimating the present geo-political research of the Mediterranean community, it endeavours to enter into a dialogue within the Mediterranean scientific community. Center-Margin at the Mediterranean Sea (Political Philosophy and International Reality) accesses scientific contributions from seven countries (Romania, Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey, Brazil, USA, Italy) providing a rich mix of theoretical and philosophical comparative, international and transnational issues, addressed to all who are interested in the contemporary political Mediterranean phenomena. The three constant investigated dimensions are placed into a dynamic formula described by the three parts of the volume: Political philosophy of Mediterranean Centre and Margin; Cultural approaches on the Mediterranean Margin and International Reality at the Mediterranean Sea.


The volume is integrated within a theoretical landscape and is justified by the anticipative answer offered by the authors to a series of variables with which the imperative of the current European politics operates, of the “maps projecting the macro regions” – a decentralized space of cooperation. The volume anticipates the conclusions of the European Council (June 24, 2011) which counts especially on the coincidence of culture and creative industries, on the capitalization of historical, linguistic and, in general, cultural diversity, and also on the application of a macro-regional strategy. All these dimensions illustrate the potential of catalyst of the “Union for the Mediterranean area”.


The volume’s approach indicates significant insights, pre-figurations of the European imperatives correlated with the analysed theme, with a double effect: the analysis of the international implications of the Mediterranean space and of the considerations concerning soft power; and a withdrawal within the philosophical, theoretical and political framework that configure the dimensions of this profile. The approach is explained in the introductory chapter – Political Philosophy of Mediterranean Centre and Margin.


According to Abderrazzak Essrhir, the idea of the centre is the indicative of the systematic invention of a peripheral space – racial, geographical, religious, cultural – resulting in a binary opposition that is the outcome of reciprocal experiences between the centre and its assumed periphery. It is in this very context that the relations between the East and the West can rightly be appreciated to have always been conducted, marked by conquest, demystification, subjection, or colonial confinement. The centre assumes in this perspective a position wherein it perceives itself as the nucleus of authority and power, the source of emanation of knowledge, the cradle of high culture and civilisation. The margin, as a consequence, turns out to be a mere indication of that “positioning is best defined in terms of the limitations of a subject’s access to power.” It is, in this respect, perceived, and indeed made to be, as the consumer, the dependent, the subaltern, or the anarchic space. This type of centre-margin binary opposition is multi-dimensional in the sense that the centre, conscious of its identity, systematically locates and confines its margin by devising a set of strategic practices such as othering, ethnic categorisation, subjugation, and discrimination (Abderrazzak Essrhir).


For Abdenbi Sarroukh, the question that arises is whether the new U.N partnership will contribute to the blossoming of at least a positive Mediterranean pluralism that goes beyond the borders of the nationalism that is still recast in ethnic identities, so as to reshape them to conform to the new cultural exigencies. The author refers to the universal values that tend to homogenise specificities and the spirit of communities that are irreducible and resist being explained away by the power of discourse from the point of view of the dominating centre.


The historical registration appears as architecture and even as a film of the Mediterranean space diving into the discourse of postmodernity as post-tradition, either rebuilding the cultural referential of the marginal discourse of the Mediterranean space – a system of indexes, emblems, constituents of a typical language that asks for deciphering, first and foremost politically speaking, in order to deserve to be termed of a Mediterranean polis  (Viorella Manolache), or the investigation of the communicational ethical and political implications of this fascination of the interlocutor via Richard Rorty, Jean Baudrillard or Simon Critchley (Henrieta ?erban).


The chapter Cultural Approaches on the Mediterranean Margin reaffirms the dependence of the imaginary on the mise-en-place of a very special Mediterranean syntax. The relationships between the “full and signifying forms” and the “determinations” of symbolical images, conferring them a “particularizing function” are emphasized (Gheorghe Manolache), within an analysis that employs essential (proto)types (present in the works of Eugen Lovinescu, Anton Naum – e.g. the Don Juanic character, Ulysses –, or Vasco da Gama). These profiles express the metaphoric idea that the waters of the Mediterranean space have a vocation of refrain: they are always the ones which bring boats, and invite the analyst to imagine Ulysses abandoned on the rocky shores of Portugal in distress; one sees Vasco da Gama directing his ships and people on the warm and quiet waters of the Mediterranean Sea, with an impact on the symbolic-cultural map of the countries washed by the Mediterranean waters. What remains behind is precisely what should happen: a silent revolt of the water and then, the numerous endless tides, the tides which charmed the sovereigns and awarded gold and glory, the waters of the bereaved bride named melancholy (Diana Adamek).


The philosophical and metaphorical level is completed by a more investigative and practical level in International Reality at the Mediterranean Sea that assesses the Mediterranean space as one of the important geopolitical and geostrategic pivots in world history. The geopolitical and geostrategic significance of the Mediterranean realm is not quite constant along the entire history of the region. For a while, the geopolitical and geostrategic significance of the Mediterranean decreased, because the “center” of the world gradually glided to the Atlantic. But, starting with the opening stages of the Cold War, the geostrategic importance of the Mediterranean realm grew again, a trend which is still maintained to a certain extent nowadays as well, in the context of the so-called ‘clash of civilizations’ and of the global war against terror. Other important events, connected with the war in the Caucasus region, prove again – similarly to the era of the Cold War – how important is for the West to control the Mediterranean Sea, and how ambitious post-communist Russia already is on the international arena (Florin Diaconu).


In this analytical key, the international realities operating in the Mediterranean space raise the question of how culture and identity contribute to the lasting peace, facing the geopolitical context and the efforts of a generation of intellectuals who have implemented this idea by building a unique and successful structure such as the European Union. It is thus important to examine the possibility of designing a community of security in the Mediterranean region through economic growth, with the contribution of this regional culture, without which any construction will be only short-lived and deprived of depth (Lucian Jora).


Beyond this snapshot of the main dimensions of the volume Center-Margin at the Mediterranean Sea (Political Philosophy and International Reality), one can easily identify the need to re-evaluate in a more complex light the Mediterranean space, accepting a cultural and reconciliatory mental map – a matrix where the Mediterranean space does not cease to provide to an equal extent, both philosophies and realities.


Johann P. Arnason & Kurt A. Raaflaub, The Roman Empire in Context: Historical and Comparative Perspectives (Chichester: Wiley & Sons, 2011)

The Editor argues that while much has been written about Rome, relatively less has attempted to analyze Rome comparatively. As a sociologist and not a historian, this reviewer cannot comment on this claim, but I do appreciate the comparative methodology. In fact, Arnason, the primary editor and author of the “Introduction” is a historical sociologist, who discusses the implications of Greco-Roman analyses on sociological and social theory. While the comparative perspective may be useful for drawing out separate variables between civilizations, there is the inverse danger of redefining variables broadly enough to make those comparisons – but at some cost of precision of the terms. There need to be nuances on all sides which weaken the overarching comparisons. It is essentially the qualitative problem of a small “n,” familiar to the social sciences. This methodological problem is noted several times, but does not stifle the writings.

The first section analyzes Rome’s growth through three essays. Raaflaub looks at Rome’s growth from city state to Mediterranean empire, through a thorough discussion of the particular components of the axial age in Rome. Flaig argues that the ruling elite in Rome eventually become powerful and detached enough that traditional forms of accountability and control waned, and with it their legitimacy among the ruled. The sets up the revolutionary crisis Flaig discusses in relation to other Roman scholars. Cohen and Lendon discuss the relationship of communication and authority between the center and the periphery in Rome. Their comparator is medieval kingships and the authors are seeking to understand the strength or weakness of the political structure as evidenced through these communications.

The volume then traces through the transformation and “decline” of Rome. Ziolowski’s chapter discusses the final crisis faced by Rome – the “Total Crisis.” His argument is that the crisis was more a catalyst to longer building internal problems, individually which would be mere nuisances. These internal problems fell under the rubric of an institutional trap created by the specifically Roman interpretation of ruling legitimacy. Stroumsa argues that among the cultural transformations at the end of the Roman era, the very concept of religion changed. Not simply from pagan to Christian or from poly- to monotheism, but also the rise of religious intolerance which melded violence with state power which made imperial tolerance impossible. Fowden draws an illustration of the larger world of late Rome, showing how Islam as well fits into the picture. His argument contextualizes not just the world of late Rome, but also of contemporary academic understandings of the era, not the least of which is the discussion of “transformation” versus “decline.”

The following section focuses on three of Rome’s successor civilizations. Becher discusses the Franks, Haldon the Eastern Empire, and Robinson Islam. The chapter analyzing Islam makes the argument that at least some of Rome’s developments such as urbanization, epistemologies, and philosophical reflection, were adopted by the growing Islamic civilization. An interesting comparison also exists with the role of religion and politics in the growth of civilization.

The Fourth section includes explicit comparisons with Assyria, China, and Iran. Liverani discusses the Assyrian case to contrast the relationship of the urban center to the empire. Lowe looks to China for the role of its internal administration and penal policies, with some focus on the higher prevalence of bureaucracy in the Chinese case. McDonough studies the Sassanid Empire as a comparator despite being a contemporary rival to Rome. Similarities include rule over several centuries and over a disparate variety of geographies. Fibiger-Bang makes the final comparisons to the Ottoman Empire and the Mughals seeks to discuss vast empires underneath a single ruler – but in distinct contrast to the European examples which were all much smaller states. There may have been a ruler in the European cases, but these were all much more local monarchies.

The final section discusses theoretical implications of the volume, trying to sort out the elements of state, empire, and civilization in Rome. Arnason argues that these three elements form a unique constellation in the Roman case, but the singular uniqueness of Rome is exactly what methodologically requires a comparative perspective. Without a comparative perspective, these variables are not going to be adequately isolated. The Wagner essay that closes the volume addresses the question of whether there is sufficient connection between ancient Rome and modern Europe to draw a continuous line of civilization from the former to the latter.

The appeal of the volume for this reviewer lies in the breadth of the chapters included and with the attempt to include sociologically relevant comparative methodologies. These chapters start with Rome’s transition from city state to empire and its expansion, through its decline, and into its successor regimes, with comparative and theoretical discussions finishing the volume. As a work of comparative sociology, it is interesting to see rigorous sociological methodologies applied to a historical case so easily popularized. As a work of sociology, it is refreshing to go beyond the identity politics which comprise so much of the discipline as of late. It may be the case that this comparative methodology will be less interesting to traditional historians, and it is most definitely the case that this volume is too advanced for anything like an introduction to Roman history.

Our 2011 regular issue

As the contents of this issue are concerned, we must highlight first of all two language-specific contributions, authored respectively by Egill Arnarson and Fabio Quartino. The former is an introduction to the thought of Giambattista Vico for the Icelandic readership of our journal. The latter is a complete degree thesis outlining the constitutional history of Iceland for our Italian readers. Together, these two contributions fulfill our journal’s goal of facilitating cultural exchanges between Italy and Iceland. The remaining new articles selected for publication deal with legal (Adriana Di Stefano [delayed for technical reasons], Giovanni Damele), political (Monica Quirico) and ethical topics (Øjvind Larsen, Matthias Kettner), thus furthering our previous publications in these areas of inquiry.

It should be noted that the contributions by Larsen and Kettner stem from papers presented last January at the first meeting of the new study group established under the aegis of a longtime partner of our journal, i.e. the Nordic Summer University. Four conference papers (Siipi & Ahteensuu; Rendtorff; Räikkä & Weyermann; Peterková) delivered upon the same occasion are also included in this issue of Nordicum-Mediterraneum. An introduction to the group itself and the materials published in our journal is provided on the front page of this issue by the group’s coordinator, Dr Jacob Dahl Rendtorff, whom we congratulate and to whom we express our gratitude.

As customary for Nordicum-Mediterraneum, the current issue carries a review essay and several reviews of volumes that were submitted by various publishers to our journal. Please make sure that you check regularly the “news” on our homepage in order to be informed about any new books that become available for review.

This issue concludes with a follow-up to the special section on the international economic crisis that was included in last year’s regular issue. Specifically, Nordicum-Mediterraneum interviewed Huginn Freyr Þorsteinsson, Political Advisor to the current Icelandic Minister of Finance, so as to assess the ways in which Iceland has responded to the crash of 2008, to which pundits and analysts have recently begun to refer as the “Icelandic model” of economic recovery.

Felice Vinci, The Baltic Origins of Homer’s Epic Tales; The Iliad, They Odyssey, and the Migration of Myth (Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 2006)

For a similar instance, in his linguistic argument suggesting Ogygia lies in the Faroe Islands, he points out that Hogoyggj, the name of the mountain, is very similar to Ogygia as referenced in the story. Finally, while walking through his geographic and linguistic arguments that these epics are of Baltic origin, Vinci refers to the many times the weather is cold, misty, freezing, foggy, and with deep velvet colored seas, pointing out that this bears little resemblance to our warm, sunny, and blue understandings of the Mediterranean. This is but one series of examples in a few pages, with the book explicating many more throughout its length.

I found Vinci’s arguments compelling, although scholars more familiar with the epics will want to review the evidence for themselves. As this was new information for me, it set my imagination alight, and I found myself looking into other similar scholarship. This is a burgeoning literature, including Vinci’s other writings, and stretching back to Olof Rudbeck’s discussion of Atlantis as Sweden. It is worth noting that Vinci also gives a treatment of Atlantis in this work – but the reader can find out for him or herself where Vinci stands. Vinci’s work comes across as competent, separating it from some of the pseudo-scientific work which was propagandized by the Nazis. But this is where familiar scholars will be able to more quickly separate the legitimate and paradigm-challenging work from the rest.

As a sociologist with an interest in cultures, the follow-up question is intriguing. If these epic tales took place in the Baltic region, then how did they eventually take on a Mediterranean home? By what mechanism does a piece of culture move from one corner of the globe to another, but forgetting key such key elements as Sweden = Ithaca? Vinci addresses this in the 4th part of the book, appropriately titled “The Migration of Myth.”

A key component to the migration of myth here is the role of climate. Vinci locates much of the narrative in the climactic optimum (4000-3000 BCE) when a warmer climate made regions near the arctic much more pleasant and habitable. With the ending of this warm and favorable period, at least some of the northern people migrated southward. He argues that in the mythologies of many cultures, there are remnants of climatic collapse, and provides several examples of cultures that were disrupted or dislocated by the negatively changing climate. For examples of these possible migrations he draws from several northern Europe locations for sources of Indo-European cultures. He provides numerous cultural and mythic references creating potential links. These include possible cultural origins of several peoples in the Scandinavian or Russian Arctic, Aryan migrations southward and potential northern links to Egypt and Rome. Much of this argument is built on similarities between mythologies, biblical tales, and place names.

This part of Vinci’s work is much more speculative in my opinion, and creates something of a “kitchen sink” feel by throwing in all the possible connections. In looking for the potential northern origins of mythologies and peoples, Vinci brings in enough possibilities that it feels much more exploratory than the first half of the book. In all fairness, the research may only be at the exploratory level at this point. Nevertheless it is not as convincing as the argument that the origins of the epics themselves are Nordic – regardless of how those tales ended up in the Mediterranean.

The base outline of Vinci’s argument is as follows (p 327)

  • The Iliad and the Odyssey are properly situated in northern Europe
  • The original sagas on which the epics are based on Baltic regions
  • The tales travelled from Scandinavia to Greece at the end of the climactic optimum by blond seafaring Mycenaeans
  • In rebuilding their world in the Mediterranean, familiar place names and mythological events were reused
  • Through the epics, the tales of their ancestors were preserved, although their homeland was lost

He finishes his work by suggesting several lines of archaeology to investigate this line of reasoning, and provide physical evidence reinforcing the mythological and linguistic evidence.

This work is broad in scope and presents an utterly fascinating reordering of the epic sagas of the western world. As such, the realm of possibilities for new research and analysis is deeply exciting.