Levant: Splendour and Catastrophe on the Mediterranean

Patrick Seale reviews a moving history of the cosmopolitan cities in the Levant that came to grief in the 20th century

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Reviewed by: Patrick Seale
Author: Philip Mansel
Publisher: John Murray
Price (RRP): £25

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Philip Mansel has written an eloquent and moving book which will bring tears to the eyes of anyone connected, however remotely, with the Levant.

It is a song of lamentation for a lost cosmopolitan world which flourished in the eastern Mediterranean before the First World War, only to fall victim to local conflicts, nationalist fanaticism and the meddling of foreign powers. Colourfully told, it is a story of societal change, human misery and blood-letting on a grand scale.

The great port cities of Alexandria, Beirut and Smyrna spring boisterously to life on Mansel’s pages. Bustling centres of commerce, culture, political intrigue and pleasure, they were mixed cities.

A babble of a dozen languages rose from crowded quays, markets, salons and coffee houses. Arabs and Jews, Greeks, Turks and Italians, Armenians and Kurds, as well as a thin upper crust of British and French consuls and wealthy notables of all races lived, if not in total harmony, then at least in a measure of mutual tolerance – until the final, bloody collapse.

Levantine society was at once Mediterranean and Middle Eastern, Ottoman as well as European. Mosques, churches and synagogues were built side by side. On the front line between east and west, these cities were the first to suffer as power shifted and empires rose and fell. 

Beirut alone today, with its seemingly irrepressible spirit and its mixture of languages, religions and customs, has retained some of the flavour of that alluring past.

Mansel suggests, however, that Beirut’s rich diversity – the very essence of the Levant – may be threatened by religious polarisation including the rise of Hizballah, a Shi‘ite resistance movement that emerged in the wake of Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon.

Although the author does not say so, his book conveys a warning for today. It shows the essential fragility of mixed-race societies at a time when, because of large-scale immigration, western cities are increasingly multiracial. Unless carefully handled, this can result in explosions, as have occurred in French suburbs recently.

There are magnificent set pieces in this book, such as the portrait of Muhammad Ali of Egypt and his grandiose Alexandrian palace of Ras el-Tin; the British bombardment and occupation of the city in 1882; the torching of Smyrna when it fell to Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal in 1922, and many more.

Although fascinating, Mansel’s account of the rise, fall and rise of Beirut is perhaps the least satisfactory because it lacks a firm underpinning of political narrative. One senses that he is reluctant to omit a single gem from the treasure-trove his researches have unearthed.

His strength indeed lies in his exhaustive research. Mansel has not only read and plundered all the standard works, but has cast his net wide. His bibliography lists over 750 titles. Almost every sentence carries a footnote. But the story he weaves of a lost Levant is compelling.

Mansel made his reputation as a historian of 19th-century France and then with a dazzling book about Constantinople. His latest work will earn him a permanent place among historians of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern society.  

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Patrick Seale is the author of The Struggle for Arab Independence: Riad el-Solh and the Makers of the Modern Middle East (CUP, 2010)