From the heights of Gibraltar you can see Africa about nine miles to the south and gaze eastward on the seemingly endless Mediterranean that stretches 1,500 miles to Asia beyond. The Romans called it Mare Nostrum, "our sea," and these deep blue waters allowed Rome to unite Asia, Africa, and Europe for half a millennium under a single prosperous, globalized civilization.
But the Mediterranean has not always proved to be history's incubator of great civilizations -- Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, Florentine, and Venetian. Sometimes the ancient "Pillars of Hercules" at Gibraltar's narrow mouth of the Mediterranean marked not so much a gateway to progress and prosperity as a cultural and commercial cul-de-sac.
Between the rise of the Ottoman Empire and the construction of the Suez Canal, the classical city-state powerhouses in Italy and Greece faded from history, and the Mediterranean became more a museum than a catalyst of global change. In contrast, the Reformation and Enlightenment energized Northern European culture, safely distant from the exhausting Mediterranean wars with Islam.
By the early 17th century, Northern Europeans could more easily and safely reach the rich eastern markets of China and India by maritime routes around Africa. The discovery of the New World further shifted wealth and cultural dynamism out of the Mediterranean.
After World War II, the Mediterranean seemed to roar back. Huge deposits of petroleum and natural gas were found in North Africa. The Suez Canal was a shortcut to the newly opulent and strategically vital Persian Gulf. With the unification of Europe and the ongoing decolonization of Africa and the Middle East, there was the promise of a resource-rich, democratic, and commercially interconnected Mediterranean.
Not now. The Arab Spring has brought chaos to almost all of North Africa. The bloodbath in Syria threatens to escalate into something like the Spanish Civil War -- sucking in Lebanese militias, Iranian mercenaries, Turkey, the Sunni sheikdoms, Israel, and the Palestinians, along with surrogate arms suppliers like China, Europe, Russia, and the United States.
The economies of the Islamic rim of the Mediterranean are in shambles, but so is the southern flank of the European Union, as Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Spain haggle for subsidies and loans from an increasingly fed-up Northern Europe. New oil and gas finds in North America, China, and Africa may soon make both Mediterranean supplies and Suez passage to the Persian Gulf irrelevant for a billion energy consumers.