You have no idea how ironic this picture is and why Johnny Cash ought to be in it.
Let me explain. Mark and I recently visited Mallorca. Famous as the playground of the rich, this lovely island has it all: beaches, mountains, castles, and sweeping views of the Mediterranean. But what Mallorca, and specifically this place, got me thinking about was the contrast between the walls we build and the sea surrounding us.
I began musing on this topic when we visited Bellver Castle, situated on a mountain near Palma. To be sure, visiting a castle in Spain is kind of like going to a Starbucks in the USA – the buildings are everywhere, and what’s for sale inside is generally overpriced. Bellver commands gorgeous views of Palma and the sea, as the picture above shows. The castle was built in the 1300s as a defensive position and a residence for King James II of Mallorca. But the buildings have a darker side as well. Political prisoners deemed too seditious to be let loose in society were held there. These prisoners were to be found as late as the 20th century, when two Catalan leaders were imprisoned there before they were shot.
And what did those shut up in the castle look on, day and night? The sea. The beautiful, ever-moving sea, where for thousands of years human movement from one place to another has been going on, day and night. And much of that movement has been about politics.
Many the journeys across Mare Nostrum, as the Romans called the Med, were, of course, commercial in nature. Traders have sailed these waters for thousands of years, carrying cargo in everything from wine skins and amphora full of of olive oil to modern shipping containers stuffed with TVs from China and designer clothing stitched up in Vietnam. If you ever visit us, we will take you to Cartagena to see the renowned Museum of Underwater Archaeology. This gem of a museum will give you a good look at commerce in our sea.
But many Mediterranean voyages involved politics. Certainly these were sometimes cast as exploration or pilgrimage. For example, Phoenicians sailed to Cadiz to recreate their fine cities on its hooked peninsula. Cleopatra sailed her exotic painted ships to Rome to visit Julius Caesar. (That went well.) Saint Paul sailed in the Mediterranean, sometimes voluntarily and sometimes not. Later, Crusaders climbed aboard ships and set their eyes on the Holy Land, where they hoped to carve out territory for themselves in this life and the next. And many political voyages were more overt. The Greeks sailed for Troy, Hannibal ferried his elephants from Africa, Roman galleys moved troops and governors across the waves, Napoleon and the English battled up and down the coasts, Germans and the Allies struggled for supremacy. The list is almost endless, but you get the idea.
It’s worth noting the cost of these voyages. Most of them succeeded, but many others did not. Innumerable shipwrecks, ranging in age from prehistory to the present day, litter the sea floor.
Perhaps the most compelling sea stories of all, though, are about the refugees who’ve sailed this sea. We teach some of these stories in literature classes. When Troy fell (more walls), Virgil tells us that brave Aeneas and a tiny remnant of his family sailed for Italy to try to start over. Much more recently, on the sun-drenched beaches of Mallorca, Spanish Republicans escaping from Franco launched every boat they could find and headed to relative safety in France. A few years later, many in France would sail to neutral Spain or Africa to flee from the Nazis. And in our own times, desperate refugees from Africa and the Middle East clamber into leaky, overcrowded watercraft to escape war and poverty and, perhaps, find a better life in the EU or, ultimately, other parts of the world. The sea has always offered a way to move, to escape, to evade the strictures of the walls people construct.
Which brings us back to irony and Johnny Cash. Cue the Man in Black and his classic “Folsom Prison Blues,” where the prisoner in his cell hears a train whistle and laments, “But those people keep on movin’, and that’s what tortures me.” So here we are. Hello walls – and the sea beyond.