The Messinian salinity crisis is widely regarded as one of the most dramatic episodes of oceanic change of the past 20 or so million years (refs 1-3). Earliest explanations were that extremely thick evaporites were deposited in a deep and desiccated Mediterranean basin that had been repeatedly isolated from the Atlantic Ocean,, but elucidation of the causes of the isolation - whether driven largely by glacio-eustatic or tectonic processes - have been hampered by the absence of an accurate time frame. Here we present an astronomically calibrated chronology for the Mediterranean Messinian age based on an integrated high-resolution stratigraphy and `tuning' of sedimentary cycle patterns to variations in the Earth's orbital parameters. We show that the onset of the Messinian salinity crisis is synchronous over the entire Mediterranean basin, dated at 5.96 +/- 0.02 million years ago. Isolation from the Atlantic Ocean was established between 5.59 and 5.33 million years ago, causing a large fall in Mediterranean water level followed by erosion (5.59-5.50 million years ago) and deposition (5.50-5.33 million years ago) of non-marine sediments in a large `Lago Mare' (Lake Sea) basin. Cyclic evaporite deposition is almost entirely related to circum-Mediterranean climate changes driven by changes in the Earth's precession, and not to obliquity-induced glacio-eustatic sea-level changes. We argue in favour of a dominantly tectonic origin for the Messinian salinity crisis, although its exact timing may well have been controlled by the ~400-kyr component of the Earth's eccentricity cycle.