The Mediterranean Sea - Facts & History

Some Facts

Mediterranean Sea

Languedoc takes up half of France's Mediterranean coast with four of the five Departements of the region bordering the Mediterranean Sea. There is 177km (110 miles) of coastline and 42 beaches to choose from and includes some of the most beautiful beaches in the south of France; as the tides are very small they are generally safe for swimming. The beaches tend to be long, wide and sandy with the low, flat plain behind. Only at Séte and Cap d'Agde do the mountains extend to the coast and create cliffs.

The Mediterranean Sea covers an approximate area of 2.5 million km² (965 000 miles²). It is almost completely enclosed: on the north by Europe, on the south by Africa, and on the east by Asia. It has an average depth of around 1,500 m. The deepest known point is 5267 meters (about 3.27 miles) in the Ionian Sea. The coastline extends for 46,000 km. A shallow submarine ridge between Sicily and Tunisia divides the Mediterranean into two, the Western Mediterranean (0.85 million km²) and the larger Eastern Mediterranean (1.65 million km².).

There are lagoons and salt marshes and occasional rocky outcrops. Salt lakes (called étangs) are common. The most notable salt marsh area at the mouth of the River Rhône is known as the Camargue and is famous for its white horses and black bulls.

Mediterranean Sea

The Mediterranean Sea is connected to the Red Sea by the Suez Canal in the south-east and to the Atlantic Ocean by two different waterways. One is the Strait of Gibraltar in the west - a natural straight some 14 km (9 miles) wide. The other is the Canal du Midi which enters the Mediterranean at the port of Sète in the Languedoc-Roussillon. Completed in 1666 the canal is still an astonishing piece of engineering and now a world heritage site.

The Mediterranean climate is generally one of mild winters and hot, dry summers. Typical crops of the area include sunflowers, olives, grapes, oranges, tangerines,melons, peaches, cherries, apricots and lavender to name but a few.

In the last couple of generations the tourist industry has taken off, largely along the littoral and concentrated around picturesque villages and sandy beaches.

The Mediterranean fishing industry is largely based on hake, sea bream, sea bass, mullet, mackerel, sardines, cuttlefish and flat fish such as sole, turbot and brill. Farming of oysters, mussels and other shellfish in the open sea is practised.

Another coastal industry is salt making, for example in the Camargue and at Gruissan, as salt extracted from Mediterranean sea water is highly prized.

Some History

In ancient times the Mediterranean Sea was a transport superhighway, allowing for trade and cultural exchange between the peoples of the region. It was critical to the development of Western Civilisation and brought, among others, the Greeks, Phoenicians, Carthaginians and the Romans to the area.

Mediterranean Sea

Arenas and theatres in the Gulf of Lyon are identical to those all around the Mediterranean - Modern Turkey, the Levant, Italy and North Africa all share a common history with the Languedoc-Roussillon and Provence.

To the Romans the Mediterranean was Mare Nostrum (meaning Our Sea in Latin). The name Mediterranean also derives from Latin mediterraneus, (medius, 'middle' and terra, 'earth') - for Romans as for other Mediterranean peoples it was literally the centre of the world. In Catalan it is the Mar Mediterrània. Food and wine also travelled across the Mediterranean. The Languedoc was the largest vineyard in the world in Roman times as it still is today. A spicy sausage called merguez is as popular in the Languedoc as it is in North Africa - its place of origin.

Mediterranean Sea

Ancient Mediterranean practices remain today such as the Spanish and Languedocienne bull fighting which is clearly a perfectly preserved hangover of Roman games. Bull leaping in the Languedoc may well be older - an echo of Minoan religious practices. Sea-water jousting (Joutes Nautiques), still practised in the Languedoc at Sète, Agde, Béziers and other towns, was first recorded in ancient Egypt.

Control of the Mediterranean was key to military success from ancient times to the present day.

Around 6 million years ago the Mediterranean dried up and around a million years later it flooded again presumably via the Strait of Gibraltar. As a result, the modern marine biology of the Mediterranean is derived primarily from the Atlantic Ocean.

Today, 22 modern states have a coastline on the Mediterranean Sea including France. In medieval times France had no Mediterranean coast until it annexed the territories of the Counts of Toulouse and the Viscounts of Carcassonne and Béziers following the Roman Church's barbarous war against the Cathars of the Languedoc.