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Splendour and catastrophe in the Mediterranean: book review

26 December 2012

Levant: Splendour and Catastrophe on the MediterraneanLevant: Splendour and Catastrophe on the Mediterranean by Philip Mansel

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is tale of three cities — Smyrna, Alexandria and Beirut. But it is a great deal more than that, as it is also the history of the region of the world in which the three cities are located, the region known to the French as the Levant, which is equivalent of the Latin “Orient”, and means the land of the rising sun. More specifically, it refers to the lands bordering the Eastern Mediterranean which, from the 16th century to the 20th, were part of the Ottoman Empire.

The three cities that feature in the story (to which can be added a fourth, Salonica), were trading ports in this period, and were subject to a great deal of foreign influence, and in some periods the consuls of the trading nations, mainly West European, had more influence than the Ottoman government, or even its local representatives.

One result of this was that these cities became cosmopolitan, with a great variety of races, religions, languages and cultures represented in them.

Western Europeans were known as Franks, and the ones who were most active at the beginning of the period were Venetians and Genoans, and a kind of piggin Italian, known as Lingua Franca (the language of the Franks) became the de facto language of business in the Levant. In later times French and British influence overshadowed the Italian, but the concept of a Lingua Franca as a language of trade remained.

Much of the trade was in the hands of dynasties of foreign merchants, families who lived in the Levant for generations, yet never became assimilated into the local culture. In the 19th century, however, there were forces of change and modernisation. In Egypt Muhammed Ali, the Albanian-born Ottoman governor, aided by the foreign consuls in Alexandria, made Egypt virtually independent. The foreign communities had their own schools, and even universities, using their own languages rather than Arabic or Turkish.

In the 19th century there was also growing nationalism, both in the local regions becoming aware of themselves as distinct nationalitities as opposed to the Ottoman Empire, and also the powers behind the foreign communities, such as Britain and France, and later Greece.

Mansel presents the history of the Levant as a struggle between cosmopolitanism (good) and nationalism (bad). Nationalism could not tolerate cosmopolitan cities, except where nationalists perceived trade as advantageous to their cause, and in the 20th century the cosmopolitan cities were nationalised, and made homogeneous, some more violently than others. Cosmopolitan Salonica became Greek Thessaloniki. Cosmopolitan Smyrna became Turkish Izmir. Alexandria expelled the foreign communities in the 1960s (even those whose members were Egyptian-born), and Beirut was torn apart by civil war in the 1970s.

I was aware of some of these events, from reading about them in other histories, or, in the case of more recent ones, in newspapers, but Mansel manages to weave the different threads into a tapestry to create a coherent picture.

Mansel’s sympathies lie strongly with the cosmopolitan side, and at times I think he paints too rosy a picture of it. For one thing, the “cosmopolitan” side of these cities was the preserve of a wealthy elite, and did not affect most of the local people at all, or at least not in any advantageous way. And though I am sure that Mansel is correct in his assessment of the harm done by nationalism (much of the present tension in the region is the result of competing Arab and Jewish nationalism), the cosmopolitan paradise is, I suspect, overrated. In Lebanon before the civil war of 1975, for example, Mansel points out that deals were more important than ideals, and seems to regard this as a desirable state of affairs. But I wonder who prospered, and though those who prospered as a result of the war were an even smaller minority, I suspect that it was the very obsession with money that increased the dissatisfaction that led to the civil war in the first place.

In spite of this, however, the book is useful in helping to untangle some of the threads of mechantilism, captialism, nationalism and imperialism that affected and continue to affect the region once known as the Levant.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. 26 December 2012 10:47 am

    Looks an interesting read, thanks for the review. Added to my ‘to read’ list.

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