Beyond borders and under the sea, a British-led team of scientists and archaeologists discovered 12 shipwrecks in the Levant Basin in the Mediterranean Sea in 2015. Now, amidst a halt on the movement of people and goods forced on the world by the coronavirus, the first findings from what promises to be one of the most rewarding archaeological sites are being published. And the Enigma Shipwrecks Project (ESP) is already changing ideas of “civilisation” and “sophistication”.
The dozen ships span a large swathe of history — spanning Hellenistic, Roman, early Islamic and Ottoman vessels. The largest among these is a 17th-century Ottoman merchant ship, “an absolute colossus”, at least twice the size of the other vessels. Its cargo from 14 civilisations ranges from ancient Chinese artefacts and includes cups repurposed for drinking coffee and spices from India. According to the ESP, this ship reveals a previously unknown “silk route” and also goes some way in establishing the degree of cosmopolitanism in Islamic societies at the time, and how much of what the West values as its civilisational heritage is owed to Asia and Africa.
“Europe may think it invented notions of civility, but the wrecked coffee cups and pots prove the ‘barbarian Orient’ was a trailblazer rather than a backwater,” according to Sean Kingsley, director, ESP. The fact that much of what is seen as “western civilisation” is a result of contact with the Islamic, Asian and African worlds is not a part of public knowledge, even over 70 years after decolonisation. In fact, much of the contemporary criticisms of globalisation and openness to trade stem from a fear of that cultural and economic asymmetry. On the cultural front at least, boats from 2,000 metres under the sea can address these insecurities. It turns out, openness and internationalism create and nurture civilisations — they do not threaten them.