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Philip Mansel
published in TLS, April 29, 2011

This book is a labour of love and finely-tuned scholarship, ornamented with such telling social detail and intimate knowledge of the urban and social landscape that it brings three hundred years of history to entertaining life. There are prurient strip searches by galley captains working for the Knights of St John, sorting out the circumcised (and enslavable) Jews and Muslims from the uncircumcised Christians. And a pompous Dutch Consul, complaining about homosexuality to Khedive Said, who is cut short by the regal advice that he should try it out first – in all its variant positions – before decrying it. In 1874 we hear about the decree of an Ottoman governor, banning the wearing of baggy trousers by peasants coming into town for the market, which unwittingly led to a new trade in renting out city-trousers by the day. The adventures of the grand horizontalle and double-agent, Princess Amal-al-Atrash, outdoes the most fervent Orientalistic fiction. But we are never merely entertained. Mansel slowly makes the reader aware that the grand theme of his history is a slow unfolding tragedy which remains absolutely relevant for today’s multi-cultural societies, engaged as they are in the delicate balancing act between political unity and cosmopolitan diversity.

The Levant charts the history of three cities that dominated the littoral of the Eastern Mediterranean in our recent past. It is the story of how first Smyrna (modern Izmir), then Alexandria and then Beirut emerged to prominence, and how they waxed in wealth, power, beauty and influence over the 19th and 20th centuries, before subsiding one by one, into degraded provincial outposts, filled with ennui, peopled by ghosts, their glory kept alive only in memoir, literature and peeling stucco balconies. In their glittering heyday they were visited by Kings, Sultans and Emperors, adorned with palaces, theatres, clubs, museums, harbour-front boulevards and bourse of imperial grandeur. They were also famous for their sexual and economic freedoms and for the pleasure-loving energy of their citizens armed with ‘furious desire to break with all prejudices, to taste every sensation.’ They were homelands to Onassis and Cafavy, to Omar al Sharif and Muhammad Ali. Cities which never slept, where a privileged visitor might be deluged with a near continuous round of annual entertainments: balls, picnics, concerts, festivals, processions, race-meetings, shoots and dances. Yet despite the social and intellectual animation, it was trade that took absolute precedence, and deal-making was an omnipresent part of life, as likely to be pursued in a bar or a café or the bedroom of a brothel as in the formal counting houses.

These cities were also famously open to men of talent - be they architects, pastry chefs, spies, poets or gangland bosses in a way that mirrored the emergence of the other great port metropoli of the late 19th-century, New York, London and Shanghai. Yet there was an important difference. The cities of the Levant were never a melting pot of peoples, rather a grid of self-governing communities, enforced by separate schools, places of worship, hospitals, burial grounds, clubs, charities, newspapers and libraries. Internal schisms - between Catholic and Orthodox, between Nestorian and Monophysite, between Sunni and Shia, between Ashkenazi and Sephardim further subdivided the urban tribes of Greeks, Jews, Syrians, Armenians, Turks, Franks and Egyptians. Trade, fame and the pursuit of pleasure alone brought the citizens together, and with it came a natural multi lingualism, so that it was not uncommon for a Levantine family to be fluent in half a dozen languages and scripts, or to use ‘farabish’ a slang-like fusion of Arabic, Italian, English and French. And because the divisions between the communities were so absolute there was a remarkable spirit of tolerance within a Levantine city. Noone felt that their children were in danger of being submerged by another culture and so there was a propensity for sharing, knowing and acknowledging the various festivals and rituals of the different faiths. This arose not out of any interest in a multi-faith fusion, but as neighbours with a taste for being amused by different dishes, street processions, dances and tunes.

Levantine loyalty stuctures started with family, then progressed out to enthnic community with a light gilding of urban pride before drifting on outwards via thin personal connections (however faint or imaginary) to other trading cities and the court of the ruling dynasty. Nationalism was startling absent from the 18th-century Levantine mindset, as was any concern, kinship or sense of responsibility for the parochial hinterland. The laboriously constructed contract of 19th-century nationalism - duty, obedience and sacrifice (duty to pay tax, obedience to the heirachy of state servants and readiness to fight for the fatherland) was in almost comic opposition to the Levantine mindset. For the Levantine was a natural free-trader, if not a smuggler, a deal-maker, a tipper of minor officials and a hoarder - who would migrate rather than fight for a distant state, but also perish rather than witness the break-up of family. Mansel creates a mantra to help us translate the smiles of welcome, the immaculate tailoring, the charm and the intoxicating scents of the Levantine: Deals before Ideals, City before State, Trade before Politics.

One of the invisible realities behind these cities was that banking was an activity strictly forbidden to the Muslim majority. Middle-men from the non-Muslim minorities, especially the Jews, Greeks and Armenians, profitably took on the stain of usury as confidential agents for Muslim governors and landowners, freeing up the flow of trade by providing loans, usually in the form of advance payments on future crops. They also performed this service for the Ottoman government and its officials, providing state revenue upfront, in return for the right to collect future taxes and customs. But being a creditor to an autocratic government brought its own very obvious dangers, which made the presence of legally independent foreign consuls one of the determining factors in the long term success of any Levantine community. The power of European consuls ( French and Venetians first, followed by British, Dutch and Russians) was defined by well-established treaties, the capitulations, which were renewed for the reign of each Sultan. The influence of the consuls directly related to the size of their merchant fleet and the fire-power of their naval squadrons, which kept Levantine ports safe for European trade. Equally vital was the system of protection, whereby a Levantine merchant could be co-opted as a citizen by a Foreign Consul: the ‘Europeanization’ of the Jewish Canetti family from Edirne (the ancestors of Elias Canetti) is a perfect example. Mansel reveals how this began with the purchase of a berat of immunity from a Dutch official. This underwrote the splendour of the foreign embassies, for an Ambassador in Istanbul, paternal head of all the various Oriental consulates and their courts of jurisdiction, could draw on an additional income of between 3 and 4,000 pounds a year as his share of the ‘protection’ money. There were of course still enormous risks within the commercial system from storms and piracy. In the year 1693 the Smyrna convoy of some 100 English and Dutch merchantmen was captured by the French. The scale of this commercial catastrophe threatened not just the Levant traders but the entire banking system, to the extent that it nearly brought down the Bank of England.

Yet other disasters, massacres and wars benefited the Levantine cities. The Greek national revolt of 1821, which began with the massacre of both Turks and Jews, led in turn to ever more savage state-directed counter measures, such as the infamous massacre of Chios in 1822. This so depleted the commercial networks and populations of Samos, Lesbos and Chios that Smyrna was confirmed in its primacy over Aegean-Anatolian trade. Tens of thousands of refugees poured into the comparative safety of the city, so that by 1840 the population had swelled to number 55,000 Greeks, 45,000 Turks, 13,000 Jews, 5,000 Armenians and 12,000 Franks.

In a similar way Alexandria benefited by the fall of such ancient trading partners as Aden (seized by the British in 1839) and Algiers (seized by the French in 1830). There was a trickle of Arab intellectuals taking refuge in Muslim Egypt. But it was the boom in cotton, fostered by the authoritarian regime of Muhammad Ali, that was responsible for transforming the sleepy fishing village of Alexandria (with a population of just 6,000 in 1805) to a city of over 100,000 by 1848.

It was the massacre of Syrian Christians in 1860 (begun by their Druze neighbours) and the subsequent burning of 200 of their villages in the mountain valleys that confirmed Beirut as the chief port of the Lebanon. 100,000 refugees transformed Beirut into a predominately Christian city for the first time and also provided it with its most consistent trading item – people. For if cotton was king in Alexandria, and dried figs and raisins underwrote the trading houses of Smyrna, it was the export of emigrants (to America and Africa) which fuelled the shipping houses of Beirut. Some 300,000 left between 1880 and 1914. The city fathers were helped by the divide and rule policy of Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid, who was so suspicious of the underlying currents of Syrian Arab nationalism in the late 19th-century that he often preferred to place his trust in magnates drawn from local minorities, especially the Melhames family – who though they were Lebanese Christian Maronites were also emphatically loyal to their Sultan.

Sometimes the vital protection afforded to the Levantine merchants by the Foreign Consuls and their offshore naval squadrons went horribly wrong, especially when European banks became concerned about the safety of their investments and their holdings of foreign government bonds. In 1881 such fears justified the French occupation of Tunisia. In 1882 it caused the bombardment and sacking of Alexandria by the Royal Navy, which ushered in the veiled Protectorate that Britain established over Egypt. The bombardment was denounced at the time as an atrocity, and compared with other instances of voracious British violence such the sack of the ancient capital cities of both Asia and China - Delhi in 1857 and Peking in 1860.

In the end it was this acute vulnerability to foreign influence that proved the undoing of the Levantine experiment, in combination with the growing nationalist conviction that the cosmopolitan culture of the ports harboured a potential fifth column. Whether it was the Greek community being driven out of Anatolia by the burning of Smyrna, or the Jews being expelled from Alexandria after the Suez War, Levantine loyalties were exposed as incompatible with 20th-century nationalism, particularly the “drab, puritanical militarism” that triumphed in Turkey, Syria and Egypt. Just as Soviet Moscow triumphed over Tsarist St Petersburg, so Ataturk’s Ankara was established to govern Turkey not Ottoman Istanbul, Nasser’s Cairo despoiled Khedival Alexandria and Assad’s Damascus is still locked in an attempt to dominate Beirut. The latter - bloodied, battered and bruised by civil war and various occupations - remains the last surviving outpost of the Levant, a place where a visiting economist (Paul van Zeelant) is credited with delivering this typically Levantine analysis, “ I don’t know what makes the economy work – but it is doing very well and I wouldn’t advise you to touch it.”

Mansel may be accused of celebrating the Levant, but he is never a mere apologist. His Near Eastern Eden is exposed to our admiration, but with its virtues honestly balanced by its many vices. Which makes The Levant not only an entertainment and a historical education, but also something of a political warning. For the great cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic trading cities that dominate the imagination of our times; Paris, New York, London, Los Angeles, Istanbul, Singapore, Shanghai or Dubai are the new Levant. They offer the same privileges and freedoms of the Old Levant, but also face many of the same challenges that ultimately brought their sisters to ruination.

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