John Murray £10.99 (470pp) £9.89 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Levant, By Philip Mansel
Boyd Tonkin is Literary Editor at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Social Policy Editor of the New Statesman and has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes. He has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize for a lifetime's achievement in literature.
Friday 07 October 2011
Mansel has few equals as a historian of the Ottoman empire. Here, he turns all his gift for atmosphere and exposition on three cities that embodied the tolerant charm of the eastern Med before the shutters - nationalist and sectarian - fell.
Via sumptuous portraits of Smyrna, Alexandria and Beirut, he fixes the Levant as a mindset more than a location, a cosmopolitan sphere of "deals not ideals".
Smart bargaining and gracious living counted for more than cult or race. This was, as he shows, an imperial dream, which throve under watchful Ottomans as foreign traders – many British – won concessions in the Sultan's lands.
A new age of strident faith, political or religious, has wrecked that old order. This book savours its "fragrance of freedom".
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