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See Sea


Image (1): The Starling Inlet border between Hong Kong and mainland China. The photo is taken from land (hence land-based perspective). Taken in February 2021.

Seeing sea – a mysterious space largely uncharted, it is a library of knowledge, a galaxy fueled with marine lives, and a surprisingly reliable storehouse of cumulative cultures. We see the sea differently depending on our cognition, experience, and cultural exposure. We theorize about the sea, it could be our sea, your sea, my sea, their sea, the sea, and it is a process of theorization that stresses human ownership to the sea from a land-based perspective.
 
Across time, people started venturing off to the sea for reasons of curiosity, economy, diplomacy, and military actions. Often, we reckon the sea as a space fill with uncertainties, and that it separates, both conceptually and physically, humans from various parts of the world. Does the sea connect or disconnect? 

One Sea, Different Names

Since the time of Socrates, people maintain the habit of name-giving, and we orchestrate various names over the sea to show our knowledge over different seas. For example, in the case of the Mediterranean Sea, we have ‘Our Sea’ for the Romans, the ‘White Sea’ (Akdeniz) for the Turks, the ‘Great Sea’(Yam gadol) for the Jews, the ‘Middle Sea’ (Mittelmeer) for the Germans, and the ‘Great Green’ of the ancient Egyptians.
 
Greek philosopher Anaximandros’ depiction of the Mediterranean Sea as being the largest sea followed by the Black Sea in his envisaged world map has drawn interest in the role played by the Mediterranean Sea. This plenitude of configuration on the Mediterranean Sea is also discussed in Horden and Purcell’s The Corrupting Sea: A Study of Mediterranean History, where the authors decide that scholars should, like themselves, gradually adapt both an interactionist approac(one that sees the sea as a space for variegated interactions) and an ecologizing approach (one that sees the sea as a space that decentralizes human and emphasizes environmental connectedness) in order to retrieve the full range of distinctiveness of Seas.

Image (2):Locating Mediterranean in Anaximandros’ world map. An Introduction to Early Greek Philosophy, Houghton and Mifflin, 1968.

Selectiveness on Sea

Where exactly do people mean when they talk of the Mediterranean Sea, and why does one Mediterranean Pizza on a food menu could arguably represent the arrays of food cultures around the Mediterranean Sea? And why just the Mediterranean Sea? What makes the Mediterranean Sea worth of more attention than any other seas in our world?
 
In both Horden and Purcell’s book, as well as Broodbank’s The Making of the Mediterranean Sea (2015), they reveal that there has been some degree of scholarly preference since the late 19th and 20th centuries to study only certain parts of the Mediterranean Sea. They added that these selective foci over the Sea are mostly oriented towards major archaeological sites in the Northwest Mediterranean. The smaller islands and rivers, or the regions near the Levant and North Africa, were heavily under-researched, if not tacitly omitted, from their conception and reconfiguration of the Mediterranean cultures. This, by extension, is also applicable when considering the more frequented topic of the Mediterranean Sea over other Seas in the world throughout academia. 

Seas Connect the Lands

Those who know me well know that I like to decentralize the land and recentralize the water. What is of interest in our understanding of the sea, at last, is the configuration of the sea-scape. Land is often the point of view taken by most when considering landscape, and the surrounding sea is just something ‘around the land’. Though in the ancient geographical tradition, as recounted by Horden and Purcell, ‘the sea shapes the land, not the other way about’.
 
A visualized example of such configuration is seen in cartography too, such as the Map of Europe as a Queen, printed by Sebastian Munster in Basel in 1570. where the land is personified as a humanistic character, whereas the sea is just substance at the side, often not playing an active role. The sea has been incorporated into schemes of interpretation that consider the sea as a ‘backdrop’ to land-based activities.

Image (3): Map of Europe as a queen, printed by Sebastian Munster in Basel in 1570. Notice Africa, Asia and Scandinavia at the side, hinted for a narrative that promulgates centricity of western European lands. But the sea is even more side-lined, a ‘backdrop’ to land-based activities/ narratives.

This land-based viewpoint is also seen in the practical approach taken by archaeologist – an example will be the identification of the long and round cairn stones, from the Ayrshire burial sites to the local Tibetan lakes - they are seen in many parts of the world with a certain degree of visual nuances, but they are mostly observed and recorded from a land-side view. There have been some field projects showing that sea-side monuments are visually different from that of the land-side-view when viewing from the sea.

Image (4): A photograph showing Sijinlacho (transliterated: the ‘Lake of Wealth’) in Shigatse, Tibet. The Tibetans often call their lake ‘Sea’, and those who own a business tend to pray to this ‘sea’ for a profitable earning in the future. Photo was taken in October 2018 by the author.

There is always a danger when archaeologists and theorists adopt land-centric approach because it relegates the sea; the author believes that the sea is very much alive and dynamic, and people in these coastal areas coexisted and interacted with the sea on a day-to-day basis.
 
In other words, the sea does connect with people. The sea need not have been something that was totally “other”, but a facet of the natural world with which people had an intimate relationship.
 
More importantly, the sea is not just a separated stand-alone space; it links to other lands and seas in a form of a cultural landscape.
 
Feel free to read:       
Horden and Purcell’s The Corrupting Sea: A Study of Mediterranean History
Broodbank’s The Making of the Mediterranean Sea


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