Allen Lane, £30, 783pp. £27 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean, By David Abulafia

The Arabs invaded Mediterranean Italy in the ninth century, leaving behind mosques and pink-domed cupolas. The Saracen influence remains strongest in the Mafia-dominated west of Sicily, where the sirocco blows hot from Tunisia. A joke told in the north of Italy (though scarcely a funny one) is that Sicily is the only Arab country not at war with Israel. For many northern Italians, Sicily is where Europe ends; beyond is an African darkness. The term "Mafia" probably derives from the Arab mahias, meaning bully or braggart. Yet, wonderfully, Sicily is the only place in Europe where they make jasmine ice cream. It was the Arabs who brought ices and sherbets to this part of the Mediterranean, and jasmine is surely a Saracen touch.

The Great Sea, Professor David Abulafia's magnificent new history of the Mediterranean, celebrates sea-faring nationalities of bewildering mixed bloods and ethnicities. Arab, Greek, Etruscan, Roman, Hittite, Assyrian and Phoenician have all intertwined to form an indecipherable blend of peoples. How to write a history of this fabulous pasticcio? The Mediterranean itself – a "sea between the lands" – defies easy definition. Rather than write a history of empires and nation-states, Abulafia has chosen to concentrate on the peoples who crossed this great sea and lived along its shores. Accordingly, his emphasis is on networks of commerce, on merchants, on human migration and conquest.

This is a quite an undertaking, and Abulafia's is not surprisingly an Everest of a book, running to almost 800 pages. Brocaded with studious observation and finely-tuned scholarship, The Great Sea is hard going at times, yet overall the effect is mesmerising, as detail accumulates meticulously.

Much of the book is taken up with Sicily. The vanished island-city of Motya, situated in a shallow lagoon off its western tip, was founded by Phoenicians in the eight century BC. Excavations began on the eve of the First World War and revealed a sacrificial burial ground, along with both Corinthian and Attic black-and-red figure vases. Scarab rings from Pharaonic Egpyt remind us that Sicily was on the Mediterranean trade route to Africa, says Abulafia.

Motya is just four kilometres square, yet only five per cent has been excavated to date. Archaeological investigations collapsed in 1987 owing to Mafia complicity in pilfering antiquities. In the nearby Sicilian town of Marsala (famous for its fortified wine) a small museum nevertheless displays artefacts. Marsla is incidentally named after the Arab Mars al Allah, "Harbour of God", after the Saracen invasion of the western Mediterranean in 831.

Most likely, the Phoenician people came from what is today Lebanon. In search of precious metals they sailed as far west as Cornwall, and may have circumnavigated Africa. For Homer they were a "shifty" trader people – in some ways, the Jews of antiquity – and not to be trusted. In 397BC, invading Greeks destroyed Motya and massacred its 15,000 inhabitants. Heinrich Schliemann, the German archaeologist who located Troy, held a fruitless dig in Motya in 1875. Silence fell, and the Phoenician outpost became a haven for migratory birds to Gaddafi's Libya.

Only with the fall of Troy in the 12th century BC did the ancient Greeks began to "wander" the Mediterranean. No other work conjures their wanderings better than Homer's Odyssey. The poem has come down to us from the dawn of Mediterranean literature, and passed from generation to generation, always enriched. Homer applies two words to Odysseus – "pollà plantke" - which explain why his sea-faring hero feels close to us today. They mean "much erring", or "driven to wander far and wide". In his homesick exile, separated from his wife Penelope after destroying Troy, Odysseus bears the hardest trials and solitude before finally returning home to Ithaka in present-day Greece.

It is tempting, says Abulafia, to see the Odyssey as a Baedeker guide for "early Greek sailors". Many of the places mentioned by Homer have been identified in Mediterranean waters. In Calabria on the toe of the Italian boot is a fishing village called Scilla, putative site of the giant rock Scylla and the ensnaring whirlpool Charybdis.

Hellenic trade in the Mediterranean is evident today in the Sicilian temple-cities of Segesta and Selinunte, whose uprooted columns and fallen capitals lie in fields of wild celery and saxifrage. Selinunte, on the trade route to Carthage, was once a bustling metropolis with a population of Berbers from North Africa ("Libyans"), as well as Greeks.

Trans-Mediterranean commerce was often as mysterious as it was far-reaching. Sardinia, settled by Carthaginians, as well as by Romans, Saracens, Genovese and Pisans, imported quantities of amber, which travelled by some "unknown route" all the way down from present-day Latvia.

Strikingly, Latin survives in the dialect of Sardinia, an island which DH Lawrence described as "outside the circuit of civilization". Shepherds use the archaism domus instead of the Italian casa and, bizarrely, yanna for "door", which may derive from the Roman god Janus. The terrain, says Abulafia, is scattered with Neolithic monuments shaped like truncated cones, called nuraghi, erected by Phoenician settlers as granaries or temples (or perhaps built by Canaanites expelled from Palestine). Scoured by African winds, Sardinia remains an "enigmatic" part of the Mediterranean.

With the ascendancy of imperial Rome after the Punic Wars, the Mediterranean became mare nostrum, "our sea". In Puteoli (site of the present-day Neapolitan suburb of Pozzuoli, birthplace of Sophia Loren), the Romans established a huge granary which traded with all points of their maritime empire from the Straits of Gibraltar to the coasts of Egypt, Syria and Asia Minor. The ruins of a macellum or city market attest to Puteoli's commercial importance.

Amalfi, near Naples, remains "one of the great mysteries of Mediterranean history". During the seventh century it became a maritime republic to rival Genoa, trading right across the Byzantine Aegean. The Emperor of Constantinople even established a court there.

Yet, intriguingly, Amalfi was a town without any past history; it grew up in medieval times around a lone watch-tower. With Islamic hegemony in the Mediterranean, Amalfi declined irrevocably. Muslim sailors came in the "unappetizing" form of slave-raiders, and pirates marauded in formerly Amalfitan waters.

In the Sicilian capital of Palermo, Arab rule was generally tolerant, its dolce far niente (sweet languor) evocative of sultans, minarets and the Arabian nights. Walking round parts of Palermo today, you are transported to a world of jasmine-scented delights. Sicily's closeness to the Muslim Mediterranean has not been without danger, though. In 1986, by way of retaliation for the US bombardment of Tripoli, a Libyan motor-launch fired rockets at the remote Sicilian island of Lampedusa, 90 miles from Tunisia. Muammar Gaddafi, Ronald Reagan's "mad dog of the Middle East", was aiming at a US Coast Guard station, but the projectiles fell harmlessly short of the beach.

Giuseppe di Lampedusa, author of the great Sicilian novel The Leopard, had aristocratic claims on the island. Today, according to Abulafia, Lampedusa is a main entry point for Muslim Africans seeking a better life in western Europe. Thus the Mediterranean continues to be criss-crossed by migrations and mixed bloods.

Ian Thomson's 'The Dead Yard: A Story of Modern Jamaica' won the 2010 Ondaatje Prize

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