Between the classifications ‘global’ and ‘local’ are a wide variety of ‘cultural spheres’ of different sizes, defined through geographical, political, economic, legal, religious, cultural, linguistic and artistic characteristics. A sphere might not respect traditional geographical or political borders, but might exist across continents — with its internal structure being the subject of scientific discourse, as well as whether it is defined from within or without.
Globalization has led to a re-evaluation of the term cultural sphere, created by anthropologists and ethnographers in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Its attractiveness — complexities notwithstanding — lies in the opportunity to employ research practices of various scientific disciplines, many of which go beyond those used to describe nation states and their interrelations. In the process, the myths of nation building are put under scrutiny.
Cultural spheres cannot be described using a single criterion: they dodge clear def-initions. The terms ‘Christian Occident’ or ‘Islam’ miss the mark, as their constituent elements are coherent yet heterogeneous. Since Braudel’s seminal 1949 study, the Mediterranean (Med) — reaching into three continents — has been the classic example of a cultural sphere1–3. Despite not being homogeneous in terms of religions or ethnicities, intensive contact and exchange among the coastal regions since the Bronze Age shaped the geographical and cultural perception of its inhabitants, while falling short of constituting a common identity. The Med is dominated by a network of harbour cities and, since Late Antiquity, a common imperial past. The infrastructure, architecture and artistic languages of the Roman Empire have been taken up and transformed by its Christian and Islamic successors.