The Role of the Mediterranean Sea

Contributor: Nathan Murphy. Lesson ID: 13589

To understand the rise of any western civilizations, like the Greeks and Romans, we must first understand what role the Mediterranean Sea played in making this desert land hospitable.


World, World

learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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  • Did you know that over 5 million years ago the Mediterranean Sea did not exist?

Mediterranean Basin

Image by Conservationlntl, via Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under the CC By-SA 4.0 license.

Spain and North Africa were still connected as one large continent until, one day, the Atlantic Ocean eroded the rock away and flooded in.

  • How long do you think it took to fill the sea?
  • 10 years? 100 years? 1,000 years?

It only took two years to fill up the entire Mediterranean Sea!

  • What effect would a sudden and massive body of water have on the ecosystem?

Let's find out!

The gap that separates North Africa from Spain is only a few miles wide.

In fact, the two continents are so close that an architect once suggested a dam be built between the two in order to drain the Mediterranean Sea!

Watch The Bizarre Plan to Drain the Mediterranean: Atlantropa from Tom Scott:

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People who lived along the Mediterranean Sea hated this idea.

  • Can you blame them?

Take a look at these beautiful locations along the Mediterranean coast and imagine them replaced with infertile land:

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The people who lived in this area certainly had superficial reasons for wanting to throw out this plan altogether; however, the presence of the Mediterranean Sea has much more far-reaching effects than creating a beautiful coastal city.

Characteristics of a Mediterranean Climate

The presence of the Mediterranean Sea creates a regional climate on its coast that is different than simply being on the coast of an ocean.

ocean coast

The coasts of Italy, Spain, Greece, and Lebanon are not usual coastlines.

The space that was filled in by the Atlantic Ocean was once an enormous valley bordered by mountains over 15,000 feet tall. Once the water came in, the only pieces of land that survived were the tops of these mountain ranges.

sea basin diagram

Image [cropped] by Verisimilus, via Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under the CC BY 3.0 license.

This means that cities like Barcelona, Rome, and Athens are at the top of former mountains!

  • What effect does this unique flooding have on the climate?

Look at this satellite image of Lebanon showing the Mediterranean Sea on the left and the mountain range in white:

North Lebanon

Image by NASA, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

Lebanon is located at the eastern reach of the Mediterranean and is a prime example of the movement of moisture on this sea. The westward side of its mountains are capturing the moisture coming off the water, and this fertilizes the entire western portion of the country. You can see the green in the image.

  • What does the eastern side of the mountains look like?

It rapidly becomes a desert.

It is this effect that contributes to the wet winters and dry summers of the Mediterranean climate. Because temperatures rarely get very cold, agriculture in this area has been incredibly easy.

Unlike other fertile lands, such as the Nile or Tigris and Euphrates Valley, the annual flooding of a river was never a factor people had to worry about here. For example, it took the Chinese centuries to develop a canal system to manage the flooding of their land.

This type of taming of nature was not necessary here because the rivers in the Mediterranean were not massive waterways and the lifeblood of the cities; the sea was.


Because the coastline was formerly the top of a mountain range, there are very few resources for civilizations to harvest. The Greeks, Romans, and later European nations coveted gold so much because the region is heavily void of precious metals.

  • What resources are present?

A primary resource in the Mediterranean has always been salt. Salt was an incredibly useful resource before refrigeration became prevalent in the 20th century because salt is the only other way to preserve food.

Using salt, an entire fish can be reduced down to just this:

salt-preserved fish

Image by Karl Ragnar Gjertsen, via Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

While it may not look appetizing, this allowed people to store fish they caught instead of having to eat it immediately.

Much of this salt was found in the Dead Sea:

map of the Dead Sea

  • What role did the Mediterranean Sea have in the formation of the Dead Sea?
  • Why might this area have been valuable to growing civilizations?

Watch Why is the Dead Sea so salty?, from AGU, for the answers:

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This lake has provided a constant supply of salt since Greek and Roman times.

 Madaba Map, circa 542

Image by Berthold Werner, via Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

For centuries, the salt trade was the primary economic activity in this region and is a major reason Greeks and Romans alike eventually sought to control the entire supply.

Modern Times

While salt has been one of the few large-scale resources from this area for centuries, natural gas - the fuel of the modern world - has been discovered in huge quantities. Just as salt brought food supply stability to growing civilizations in this area, the discover of natural gas brings a more stable power supply.

Natural gas is a fossil fuel which releases 50% to 60% less emissions when burned in a power plant than other fossil fuels such as coal. Knowing this, it is much easier for companies to sell natural gas as a better alternative to oil and coal.

Continue on to the Got It? section to learn what the Mediterranean Sea had to do with the creation of this fuel of the future.

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