“We’re facing south, looking toward Africa, Algeria, so as not to see Paris,” Alexandre Sorrentino said with a smile. Sorrentino, born in Marseille, is one of the executives of the Euroméditerranée urban renewal and economic project, whose focus is revitalizing the city’s complex ties with the Mediterranean. “Opening the city to the sea” is one of his oft-repeated phrases.
Much like its twin city Haifa, the ancient port of Marseille divides the city from the sea. But unlike Haifa, the Marseille port’s main operations have long since moved northward, outside the city. Only cruise ships still anchor close to the city center, and the port that serves local fishermen there is relatively small. Its long quays, giant warehouses and old commercial buildings cry out for renovation.
In the last 20 years, more than one billion euros – from the Marseille municipality and the European Union – have been invested in buying properties along the coastline, especially north of the Marseille port, and preparing them for residential and commercial use.
The most prominent new link between the city and the sea is the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations, or MuCEM for short, which was inaugurated in 2013 at the entrance to the old port. It has won acclaim and roused interest worldwide ever subce.
“It’s a banal, well-known fact that every city in the world wants two things today: a museum that will be talked about and a string of cafes that are fun to sit at,” Sorrentino said. “It doesn’t always succeed, but here, it looks like it’s working fairly well at the moment.”
The museum of Mediterranean cultures, which attracts more than 300,000 visitors a year, is proof of Marseille’s great tourist potential, he added: “Even today, tourists from abroad tell us how beautiful the city is. The French are much more reserved. Marseille is still carrying stigmas that are very hard to get rid of, but our identity is Mediterranean. Our climate and culture more closely resemble Algiers than Stockholm."
“We’re more Mediterranean than European,” he continued. “We live outdoors, in the street. In Hamburg, they don’t sit in outdoor cafes. That’s all you need to know about Mediterranean characteristics.”
Marseille has 12 neighborhoods and, according to Sorrentino, 90 percent of its residents remain in the neighborhoods in which they were born. Local patriotism is apparently one of the city’s salient characteristics.
In light of Sorrentino’s comments, I arrived at MuCEM, adjacent to the old port of Marseille, with high expectations. After all, we all live on the Mediterranean coast – Israelis, Lebanese, Greeks, Turks, Italians, Egyptians, French, Syrians, Libyans, Algerians, Tunisians, Spaniards and various other peoples who for thousands of years have crowded around this body of water. And finally there’s a museum, the first of its kind, devoted to the cultures of the Mediterranean Basin and the region’s wide-ranging common denominators, which are examined through historical, archaeological, anthropological and cultural prisms.
After all, I think to myself, Marseille and Tel Aviv are similar in so many ways. I hoped that someone would finally be able to explain who we all are, that someone would connect us with the inhabitants of Genoa, Algiers, Athens and Tunis.
But expectations are one thing; reality is another. Though the museum is fascinating, Israel’s port cities are not represented in any way there. Bizarrely, Israel’s Mediterranean coast simply doesn’t exist in this place.
By the time my visit ended a few hours later, it was clear to me that we haven’t been accepted. We may think of ourselves as Mediterranean, as longtime residents of the neighborhood, perhaps even among the first, going as far back as thousands of years ago. But at the Mediterranean museum in Marseille, that’s simply not the case. We aren’t there.
MuCEM was founded when Marseille was the European Capital of Culture six years ago, it is the first national museum in France located outside Paris and it is credited with helping to turn its host city around. It operates in a new building erected for it in the old port, next to Fort Saint Jean, which dates to the 17th century. Once a lighthouse, the fort is separated from the museum by a canal.
Planned by architect Rudy Ricciotti, the Algerian-born son of an Italian family who has lived in Marseille since age 3, MuCEM resembles a black cube; its wings connected by a 130-meter pedestrian bridge. While the museum is considered to be a big success, in February 2015 France's state comptroller began criticizing its construction for having run over-budget: The original budget had been 160 million euros. The final cost ran to 350 million euros.
The ground floor features a permanent collection showcasing the cultures of the Mediterranean. Other floors have rotating exhibits focusing on art, history, anthropology, music, dance and so on. At present there are exhibits on the revolution in Tunisia, French dance, cultural ties between France and Romania, etc. The roof features a restaurant, café and balcony overlooking the bay.
The museum’s stated intent is promising: to impart a broader understanding of the Mediterranean Basin, to promote its heritage and to forge regional ties during our turbulent times – for here, it promises, is where the foundations of the Mediterranean of tomorrow will be laid. According to its website, the museum "recounts, analyses and sheds light on the ancient foundations of this cradle of civilization and the tensions running through it since that time, all in the same place and with the same passion."
I spent hours wandering around the permanent collection, which especially intrigued me. Above it floats the image of French historian Fernand Braudel (1902-1985), who dealt extensively with the Mediterranean and the cultures that developed around it. His main thesis relates to how the region's economic system was divided into a number of territories surrounding a hub. He created a multifaceted history with the Mediterranean at its center, as an area that should not be treated in regional terms but rather spatial and conceptual ones.
At the heart of the system Braudel envisioned is a city in which stormy economic activities take place. Locales of this sort today are called “cities of the world,” and MuCEM lists a number of them, around which the permanent exhibit is based. They include Marseille itself, Istanbul, Genoa, Algiers, Seville, Tunisia, Venice, Cairo, Casablanca and Lisbon. Yes, the latter two are situated on the Atlantic Ocean, not the Mediterranean, but they make the prestigious list. All of them developed thanks to their ports. The seeds of globalization were planted in these realms back in the 16th century, as historians explain in a film in the hall. It focuses on their historical and cultural development, and their role as gateways to the world and as loci of regional commercial activity.
Another hall houses a permanent display that focuses on agricultural as it developed in the Mediterranean Basin. Its exhibits are organized according to subject and almost completely ignore geography. The explanation about ancient olive oil production doesn't mention where it took place. Moreover, the map showing the distribution of olive trees in the Mediterranean region shows only Israel’s northern part as an olive-growing area. Jerusalem and other relevant hilly areas, for instance, aren’t there.
From mountain to coast
Historian Irad Malkin, who teaches at Tel Aviv University and at Oxford, has studied the Mediterranean extensively and says he is not surprised by the museum’s choices.
“In the ancient world, we weren’t even Mediterranean,” he told me, during a conversation at a seaside café in Jaffa. “The Greeks knew the world from the deck of a ship. In our culture, it wasn’t like that. The book of Jonah says, for instance, that he was swallowed by a big fish that isn’t even named. Seafaring people would have described things differently."
In ancient times, said Malkin, the Jewish people "settled in the mountains while the Phoenicians and Philistines were on the coast. In modern times, Zionism settled the Jews along the coast but kept a constant eye on the mountains, where Palestinians continued to dwell.
Today, the professor continued, "the demographic map is the negative of the ancient map,” and the viewpoint in Marseille is historic: "There were no Jews on the coast and later it didn’t really matter because Rome controlled the whole empire."
Malkin did, however, question some of the decisions made by MuCEM's curators and Israel’s absence from its permanent exhibits.
The ratio between the size of Israel’s population and the length of its coastline is the highest among the countries of the Mediterranean Basin, he noted. Also, the work of German-Jewish historian Shelomo Dov Goitein, one of the great scholars of Jewish history in Islamic nations and of the Cairo Geniza, should not have been ignored, Malkin said. Goitein described how trade relations in the Mediterranean had always been conducted by minority communities, mainly Armenians and Jews. The latter were known for developing commercial enterprises wherever they went and proved crucial in cities such as Livorno, Italy, which had been a duchy until the Jews arrived and later became an economic superpower.
About four hours into my visit to MuCEM, I was drinking coffee on the roof. The fading light and architectural complexity of its building created strange shapes, like a giant puzzle slowly moving across the floor. A fishing boat crossed the bay to the old port. The air was clear and people at the tables around me spoke French, Arabic, Italian, Greek and some other languages, maybe Albanian or Moroccan. In a few years, I comforted myself, we will become a member of the club and will win recognition as being Mediterranean too.
Requests for comment from MuCEM to this article went unanswered, as did a proposal to interview one of the museum executives.