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The best books on The Levant

recommended by Philip Mansel

Levant by Philip Mansel

by Philip Mansel


Before the era of nation states, the great Levantine cities of Beirut, Alexandria and Smyrna experienced a golden age, as the author of Levant, Philip Mansel, explains

Levant by Philip Mansel

by Philip Mansel

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Let’s start with the basics. The Levant is the stretch of land between Anatolia and Egypt, including Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Where did the term come from?

Levant was a very common word, used from the 16th century, meaning le soleil se levant [the rising sun]. It was used by French travellers and diplomats to refer to the east Mediterranean, where the sun rises from the French perspective. You also find the word in Italian – levante. So it’s a geographical word. There is nothing racial or religious about it, and indeed that’s what drew me to it.

In your book, you chart the history of Alexandria, Beirut and Smyrna. What were the common characteristics of those great Levantine cities?

Levant, for the French, was really short hand for the Ottoman Empire, which ruled the whole of the eastern Mediterranean after 1517. Part of the heritage of the Levant is the Ottoman way of governing through religious communities. People were itemised as Catholic, Greek Orthodox or Protestant and so on, rather than by nationality.

These cities were based on trade and were linked to a world outside of the Ottoman Empire. They were multi-lingual, and you would have synagogues next to churches next to mosques – which was unique to the Levant. They were also the haunts of pleasure, something which shows in many travellers’ stories. You could easily find women for hire. There was even a legal system called mariage à la cabine whereby you could hire a woman from her parents by the month. But the cities were also very vulnerable, and riots could occur at any time. They were completely transformed in the 20th century.

The Capitulation agreements gave Europeans the right to live in the great cities of the Levant under their own legal system. Was this symptomatic of the decline of the Ottoman Empire in the face of an encroaching West?

Not entirely. The Ottomans had a long tradition of allowing foreigners to live relatively freely within the Empire. Mehmed the Conqueror – who took Constantinople in 1453 – allowed the Genoese and Italians to carry on living there. Even when the Empire was very strong, in the 1670s, the western consuls in Smyrna were powerful. It was a convenient way of dealing with the outside world. Of course, later the system was terribly abused. By 1900 foreigners behaved as if they owned the Ottoman Empire, and when the Capitulations were abolished in 1914 it was a very popular move.

With the creation of nation states after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the Levant as a name was lost. Is the term not used today with a sense of nostalgia, especially among the region’s Christians?

There is a widespread nostalgia for it. There was a Levantine conference in Izmir [formerly known as Smyrna] in 2010 which was attended by both Christians and Muslims. Many Alexandrian Muslims are also nostalgic for the old days, so it’s not only based on religion. There is perhaps a general disillusionment with the nation state and with political Islam, so some people are looking back to what now seems like a golden age. There is even a Levant Heritage Foundation in Izmir, which has generated a lot of interest in Turkey.

Is there a feeling in Izmir of wanting to distance itself from the modern Turkish state?

Absolutely. They are aware that the golden age of Izmir was before 1922, when it was the Hong Kong of the Mediterranean. They are fed up with the AKP [Justice and Development Party] government in Turkey, which is increasingly religious and dictatorial. They are also genuinely interested in the past and are aware that the Kemalist, nationalist version of history doesn’t explain everything.

Let’s start on your books. Your first takes us back to the mid-18th century, and the nine years Lord Charlemont spent travelling the eastern Mediterranean.

Some of the best introductions to the realities and mentalities of this area are by English and French travellers of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. That was before the Ottoman Empire began to weaken, so they had to respect its power and influence. Their observations are in many ways more refreshing than those writing in the 19th and 20th centuries, who often show western condescension towards the local inhabitants.

Lord Charlemont travels all around the eastern Mediterranean. He was a great observer, and very keen on women. He has an amorous adventure on the Greek island of Mykonos, writing about “the peculiar charms and irresistible attractions of the ladies of this island. Fifteen times I entered into the holy bonds of matrimony.” He also talks about brothels in Constantinople.

He gives vivid accounts of meeting pashas at the Sublime Porte, the Ottoman Empire’s government offices in Constantinople, and being received with “a cordial unaffected politeness”. They are accounts of an upper class person from Britain speaking to another upper class person from the Ottoman Empire. People often forget that France and England were for centuries allies of the Ottomans. It wasn’t East versus West. They were all united in their opposition to Russia, in an alliance that culminated in the Crimean War.

This series of his essays was first published only 30 years ago.

Yes, but it’s only a selection of his essays. A complete edition would be wonderful. He was one of a number of great writers about the Ottoman Empire at this time, including the French botanist Joseph Pitton de Tournefort and British prelate and anthropologist Richard Pococke, who described how easy it was to travel to Baalbek and Aleppo in the 1740s. It was also easier to go to Damascus then than it is now. The pace of travel then was so different. You had to spend several weeks or months in each place, which gave a very different view on a society and its people.

In addition to brothels in Mykonos and Constantinople, Lord Charlemont was also interested in antiquities and epigraphy.

The goal of many travellers at this time was to look at Greek remains and Roman temples. They wanted to get hold of antiquities they could show off to their friends back home.

How difficult was it to travel within the Ottoman Empire at this time?

There weren’t many restrictions. As long as you had money and bought a ferman [official permit] from the government or local governor, you could travel quite easily. Many travellers, including Byron, said they felt safer within the Ottoman Empire than in many other parts of Europe, as there were fewer bandits. In the 1740s there were even highwaymen in Kensington, London.

One reviewer said that Bright Levant “gives a unique insight into a vanished world”. Can you tell us more about the author and his book.

Laurence Grafftey-Smith was an Arabist, and a member of the British government’s Levant Consular Service from 1916 to 1947. He lived in Egypt, really knew it and obviously loved it. This book tells us of the inner workings of the British government, by somebody on the spot who could manipulate people and events more easily than Whitehall or in some cases the ambassador. This is a consular view, not an ambassadorial view – it’s less pompous and more realistic. It paints a very good picture of both the luxury of Alexandria and the realities of Egypt at that time. It’s a very humorous and human account of Egypt.

Is it a diary?

It’s a very well written memoir – an inside account. He has many wonderful Egyptian friends. He describes a lost Egypt which was destroyed by [Gamal Abdel] Nasser but which still has relevance today as the country comes out of the military rule it has suffered since 1952.

The period it covers, 1916 to 1947, is when Britain ruled Egypt and much of the Near East. Was the author sympathetic to the people he was governing?

Yes, he was. He was an imperialist in the sense that he believed Egypt benefited from British rule, but he was very sympathetic towards Arabs. That said, he was happy to use force to suppress riots in Alexandria.

Your next choice is a collection of Greek poetry by Constantine Cavafy.

Cavafy is a typical Levantine. He came from Constantinople and Liverpool, where his family was in the cotton trade. So he had an international background and was very familiar with English literature. His family eventually settled in Alexandria. They suffered financial decline and he took a lowly job in an Egyptian ministry. His Arabic wasn’t actually very good – he was culturally and intellectually Greek.

His poems express universal themes of love, desire, longing and loss but also a particular Levantine vulnerability – a sense of always being on the edge, and an awareness that things might end or change. I particularly like his historical poems, which are largely about the Hellenistic kings about to be gobbled up by the Roman Empire, or Byzantine rulers about to fall to the barbarians. He wrote a famous poem called “Waiting for the Barbarians”, which is about senators of Rome all dressed up for a barbarian delegation that never comes. It has the famous line: “And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians? They were, those people, a kind of solution.”

There are also lots of poems about suspect tavernas, about his boyfriends and glances exchanged through windows. Written in about 1907, these were very daring for the time. Another feature of the Levantine cities is that they were historically very modern – more modern than their hinterlands. Although Alexandria could be quite stuffy and bourgeois, it somehow allowed this at the same time that EM Forster couldn’t write openly about homosexuality in England. People pointed a finger at Cavafy, but he was still printed and published. He’s a brilliant and very human poet, and his fame is growing.

Cavafy was meticulous – almost obsessive – about each line of poetry that he wrote. Do we all have to learn Greek to appreciate his greatness?

I’m sure something gets lost in translation, but many brilliant English and Greek scholars have done versions that are very haunting. It is a reminder that even at the height of Alexandrian prosperity people were aware that it could all disappear. Cavafy was in Smyrna in 1922, when it suffered fire and massacres. He made the famous and rather cruel comment that he particularly regretted those events because Smyrna had been a very good market for Greek books. But he was aware that it had a message for Alexandria.

That segues nicely to your fourth book, Michael Haag’s Alexandria: City of Memory, which portrays the city through Cavafy as well as EM Forster and the English writer Lawrence Durrell. What does this book tell us about Alexandria?

It tells us about the huge variety of life there. This is a brilliant and highly intellectual portrait of a city between 1900 and 1947. It shows you how modern and cultivated it was, introduces you to the Greek and Jewish families that lived there and ultimately tells you why people started to leave.

Modern Alexandria was essentially created by the Egyptian ruler Muhammad Ali at the start of the 19th century.

Muhammad Ali is one of the central characters in my own book on the Levant. He is such an interesting character, who burst through boundaries of race and religion. He was born in Kavala in northeastern Greece, lived in Europe and then came to Egypt in 1801 as part of the Ottoman army, which re-occupied the country after a brief French occupation. There was a power vacuum and he seized his opportunity, installing a ruthless military and police state and gradually modernising the country. He created a modern navy based in Alexandria and built a palace there, where he regularly met consuls and traders from all over Europe and Asia. He created a modern health system and built roads and railways. Egypt was dragged out of chaos and backwardness and into the 19th century. His descendants, who ruled Egypt until 1952, always kept a palace in Alexandria.

Why did he focus on developing Alexandria so much?

He needed a single port to link the economy of Egypt with Europe, and Alexandria was already used to the presence of foreign merchants and consuls.

So Alexandria’s golden period was ushered in by an Egyptian, but also brought to an end by an Egyptian, when Nasser pushed out the foreigners.

Yes, but in some ways Anthony Eden, Guy Mollet and David Ben-Gurion – the leaders of Britain, France and Israel who attacked Egypt in the Suez War of 1956 – were more to blame. Suez encouraged Nasser to pass various laws, for example penalising foreign owners of bank accounts in the country. So foreigners, as well as talented Egyptians, gradually left Alexandria and Egypt. This had seemed unthinkable in the early 1950s. When Nasser came to power in 1952 he was pro-western and pro-business.

This book also looks at EM Forster and Lawrence Durrell’s experiences of the city.

EM Forster fell in love with a tram conductor. He found the city sexually liberating in much the same way as travellers found Smyrna to be in the 18th century. Forster also wrote a brilliant history of Alexandria, which tries to be critical of the official British version.

And Durrell?

I reread The Alexandria Quartet and I didn’t like it as much as I did when I was a boy. Durrell found a lot of girlfriends in Alexandria, and made a lot of friends there. He found it inspiring for his poetry. But the novels are extremely lush and also quite anti-Egyptian. I prefer his letters from Alexandria to Henry Miller.

Let’s turn to your final pick, a historical account of a disaster which was to be instrumental in shaping modern Greek politics and society.

Smyrna, or Izmir as it’s now called, is a large port city on the western coast of Anatolia. It was a natural export outlet for figs, carpets and all the other products of Anatolia and beyond. It was a huge commercial city from about 1650, full of Greek, Turkish and foreign merchants. Although there were terrible riots and massacres in 1770 and in 1821, on the whole the different communities got on pretty well. After Greek independence in 1830, lots of Greeks moved to Smyrna because business and life was so much better there.

In addition to being a commercial city, it was also a centre for Greek culture and learning. It was the city the Onassis [shipping] family came from, as well as the designer of the Mini car, Alec Issigonis. It had amazing French and American schools where Turks went, including a future prime minister, acclaimed writers and Atatürk’s wife. The disaster that befell the city shows what can happen when people only think in terms of their own nationality, their own race and their own needs. In 1919, encouraged by British Prime Minster Lloyd George, Greece landed an army in the city.

Greeks referred to that as “the Great Idea” at the time, didn’t they?

Yes – inspired by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the Great Idea was to revive the Byzantine Empire not just in Constantinople but also in northeast Turkey and along the western coast of Anatolia. It was not based on geographical or military reality. They were in control of Smyrna for three years. It began badly with a massacre of Turks, and then Britain withdrew its support for Greece. It’s an object lesson in the danger of relying on a foreign ally.

Turkey produced a military genius in the form of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who from within Anatolia drove back the Greek armies and took Smyrna in September 1922. It was a warning sign of the horrors that were to come in the 20th century, when nationalism goes mad.

How many Greeks were forced to flee Smyrna?

It’s very hard to tell, but from Smyrna itself about 100,000 people. The Greek army fled, and abandoned the Greek civilians in the city. After the Turkish soldiers took control, the Greek and Armenian quarters were set on fire. Lots of men were massacred. Women and children were allowed to leave. Again about 100,000 are estimated to have died. The great city with its clubs, cinemas, commercial offices and consulates burned for three days. It was said that you could see the wall of fire from the other side of the Aegean.

Looking back at the three great Levantine cities, there seems to be an almost complete historical disconnect between Alexandria today and what it was 100 years ago. Beirut has been ravaged by many years of war. Yet, despite the dreadful events of 1922, Smyrna – or Izmir – seems to have thrived the most. It is commercially buoyant and has a very independent outlook.

It certainly has an independent outlook. It’s one of the last major cities in Turkey not to be controlled by a religious mayor. But it is no longer the commercial heart of Turkey – that’s Istanbul now. Ambitious young Izmiris move to Istanbul, and Izmir’s share of the export and import trade is going down.

Izmir lost most of its finest buildings in the fire. Alexandria has kept most of its buildings but has become a stronghold of the Muslim [Islamist] parties. It is now far less cosmopolitan than Cairo, and you can hear the Quran being chanted in shops and taxis. But it has lovely architecture, and a new library where people are trying to keep alive interest in the city’s history.

July 3, 2012

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Philip Mansel

Philip Mansel

Philip Mansel is an author and historian.

Philip Mansel

Philip Mansel

Philip Mansel is an author and historian.