Mediterranean Sea


Mediterranean Sea [Lat.,=in the midst of lands], the world’s largest inland sea, c.965,000 sq mi (2,499,350 sq km), surrounded by Europe, Asia, and Africa.


The Mediterranean is c.2,400 mi (3,900 km) long with a maximum width of c.1,000 mi (1,600 km); its greatest depth is c.14,450 ft (4,400 m), off Cape Matapan, Greece. It connects with the Atlantic Ocean through the Strait of Gibraltar; with the Black Sea through the Dardanelles, the Sea of Marmara, and the Bosporus; and with the Red Sea through the Suez Canal. Its chief divisions are the Tyrrhenian, Adriatic, Ionian, and Aegean seas; its chief islands are Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica, Crete, Cyprus, Malta, Rhodes, the Dodecanese, the Cyclades, the Sporades, the Balearic Islands, and the Ionian Islands. Shallows (Adventure Bank) between Sicily and Cape Bon, Tunisia, divide the Mediterranean into two main basins.

The sea is of higher salinity than the Atlantic and has little variation in tides. The largest rivers that flow into it are the Po, Rhône, Ebro, and Nile. The shores are chiefly mountainous. Earthquakes and volcanic disturbances are frequent. The region around the sea has a warm, dry climate characterized by abundant sunshine. Strong local winds, such as the hot, dry sirocco from the south and the cold, dry mistral and bora from the north, blow across the sea. Fish (about 400 species), sponges, and corals are plentiful. In addition, oil and natural gas have been found in several sections of the sea. The overuse of the sea’s natural and marine resources continues to be a problem.


Some of the most ancient civilizations (see Aegean civilization) flourished around the Mediterranean. It was opened as a highway for commerce by merchants trading from Phoenicia. Carthage, Greece, Sicily, and Rome were rivals for dominance of its shores and trade; under the Roman Empire it became virtually a Roman lake and was called Mare Nostrum [our sea]. Later, the Byzantine Empire and the Arabs dominated the Mediterranean. Between the 11th and 14th cent., Italian city trading states such as Genoa, Venice, and Barcelona dominated the region; they struggled with the Ottomans for naval supremacy, particularly in the E Mediterranean. Products of Asia passed to Europe over Mediterranean trade routes until the establishment of a route around the Cape of Good Hope (late 15th cent.).

With the opening of the Suez Canal (1869) the Mediterranean resumed its importance as a link on the route to the East. The development of the northern regions of Africa and of oil fields in the Middle East has increased its trade. Its importance as a trade link and as a route for attacks on Europe resulted in European rivalry for control of its coasts and islands and led to campaigns in the region during both world wars. Since World War II the Mediterranean region has been of strategic importance to both the United States and, until its dissolution, the Soviet Union. In 1995 countries bordering the Mediterranean signed a pact agreeing to protect it by eliminating toxic waste disposal there over a 10-year period.

The Mediterranean Sea is about 2,400 miles long, covers an area of about 965,000 square miles, and is ringed by a winding coastline of peninsulas and mountains. The sea opens to the Atlantic Ocean through the Strait of Gibraltar, to the Black Sea through the Dardanelles, and to the Red Sea through the Suez Canal.

Since antiquity, the Mediterranean has been an important waterway for trade and has fostered great civilizations on its shores. The sea’s strategic significance declined after the sixteenth century as trade routes shifted to the Atlantic but increased again with the 1869 opening of the Suez Canal and its subsequent use for oil shipping. The 1995 Declaration of Barcelona marked the beginning of political and economic collaboration between the European Union and countries on all shores of the Mediterranean.

The pollution of the sea remains a cause of concern for governments in the region, as reflected in the signing of two protocols for the protection of the Mediterranean Sea against pollution in 1980 and 1982. Land-based sources of pollution account for 80 percent of the total pollution. Participant countries in the convention for the protection of the Mediterranean Sea have made periodic commitments to reducing pollution, with mixed results.