Mediterranean Sea, the sea between Europe, Africa, and southwestern Asia. For centuries it was the center of Western civilization. Its name, from the Latin mediusand terra,means “middle of the world.” The Romans sometimes called it Mare Nostrum (“Our Sea”).
The Mediterranean is connected with the Atlantic Ocean by the Strait of Gibraltar; with the Black Sea by the Dardanelles. Sea of Marmara, and Bosporus; and with the Red Sea by the Suez Canal and Gulf of Suez. The sea covers some 970,000 square miles (2,500,000 km2). Its greatest width (north-south) is 800 miles (1,300 km); greatest length, 2,700 miles (4,350 km). The maximum depth (off southwestern Greece) is 16,800 feet (5,121 m).
The Mediterranean has an irregular, deeply indented coastline, especially in the north, where the Italian and Balkan peninsulas jut southward from the main body of Europe. Narrow plains backed by mountains or steep, rocky cliffs mark much of the coast. Between Tunisia and Turkey, however, the coast has relatively few indentations and is bordered mainly by low-lying desert.
The sea is divided into two main basins by a submarine ridge extending from the island of Sicily to Cape Bon, Tunisia. Within the main basins are lesser ones, some of which are recognized as separate seas. These include the Ligurian and Tyrrhenian seas in the western basin; and the Adriatic, Ionian, and Aegean in the eastern basin.
Numerous islands dot the Mediterranean, especially in the north. Some are the summits of submarine ridges; some are of volcanic origin. Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica, Cyprus, and Crete are the largest islands. Island groups include the Balearics, off the coast of Spain, and the Ionian, Cyclades, and Dodecanese islands of Greece.
Among the rivers emptying into the sea are the Ebro (Spain), the Rhone (France), the Po (Italy), and the Nile (Egypt). The Mediterranean also receives the entire outflow of the Black Sea, which is fed by such rivers as the Danube and the Dnieper.
The water of the Mediterranean is warm and salty and in some places distinctively blue. Depending on location and time of year, surface temperatures vary from 50° to 80° F. (10° to 27° C). Through heavy evaporation, the sea loses more water than it receives from precipitation and river runoff and is saltier than the Atlantic Ocean. Its level is maintained, however, by a great volume of Atlantic surface water flowing inward through the Strait of Gibraltar, while lesser amounts of saltier water flow outward beneath it.
The Mediterranean is crisscrossed by major trade routes, linking Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, and is one of the most heavily traveled seas in the world. Fisheries in the Mediterranean, though relatively small, yield significant catches of sardines, anchovies, and tuna. A sunny climate, magnificent scenery, and many historic attractions make some sections of the Mediterranean coast major resort areas. Among the most prominent are the Costa Brava and Costa del Sol in Spain, the Riviera in France and Italy, and the Dalmatian coast in Croatia. Pollution is a serious problem in many of the heavily populated and industrialized regions along the coast.
Many Stone Age tools have been found along the shores of the Mediterranean. Egyptian ships sailed the sea by 3000 B.C. Later it became the center of the Minoan, Mycenaean, Phoenician, Greek, Carthaginian, and Roman civilizations. After the fall of Rome in the fifth century A.D., large portions of the surrounding region were ruled successively by the Byzantines, Arabs, and Ottoman Turks.
The Mediterranean's importance declined after the discovery of an all-water route to India in the late 1400's, but revived with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. Thereafter the sea took on great strategic value, with Great Britain, France, and a few other nations establishing colonies and naval bases in the region.