Levant: Spendour and Catastrophe on the Mediterranean, By Philip Mansel

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The Independent Culture

During my youth in Turkey, I would often hear my father and his Levantine friends, all survivors of the great fire of 1922 that destroyed much of Izmir – Smyrna by her European appellation – end their reminiscences by suspiring: "History is Izmir! Izmir is history!"

The abiding sorrow of this lament serves as a leitmotif in Philip Mansel's Levant. This is a masterly work: by focusing on the see-sawing fortunes of Smyrna, Alexandria and Beirut – extolled as "queens" of the Levant – Mansel exposes the problems of achieving coexistence in a world fragmented by disunion. Although most cities can epitomise humanity's existential struggles, Smyrna, Alexandria and Beirut stand as unique symbols of achievable utopias.

For these cities where East and West met, and engaged in free trade, constantly endeavoured, often in competition, to serve as crucibles where people of different ethnicity, nationality and faith could restrain the conflicts deriving from their otherness. Despite factional hostilities, they did manage to attain levels of cosmopolitanism unknown, let alone tolerated, in Christian Europe.

Since, until the demise of the Ottoman Empire, these cities were still imbued with its spirit, much of their ethos of cosmopolitanism derived from the predisposition of the early, progressive Sultans to forge alliances with Christian powers. When France's François I was captured by the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, Suleiman the Magnificent not only secured his release, but instituted an accord. This Franco-Ottoman alliance led to a set of concessions from the Ottomans, known as capitulations, that would prove a boon to Christendom. In time, capitulations were granted to other European powers, including England, and formulated "the legal basis of European presence in the Levant". They permitted Christian foreigners to live and trade outside Ottoman sharia law and allowed them "freedom of dress and worship", freedom from Ottoman taxation and, most importantly, the freedom, except in cases of murder, "to be judged by their own laws in their consul's courts".

These consuls were swiftly installed by European powers in Smyrna, Alexandria and Beirut. All three were favoured for the potential of their port facilities and, not least, for their strategic locations. The consuls often wielded greater power than Ottoman officials. They benefited from their subjects' wealth, and served their countries' ambitions.

Utopias, assuming they exist, never enjoy longevity. Programmed to impose strict conformity, which leads to monolithic idealism, they can never accommodate the aspirations of a pluralist society that are prerequisite for cosmopolitanism. Consequently, all three Levantine "pearls" erupted with factional conflicts. Their indigenous peoples, condemned to poverty and serfdom by imperious foreigners, remained in perpetual agitation. Not surprisingly, they finally found the answer to their tribulations in the seventh heaven promised by nationalism.

Thus Egypt, freed from Ottoman rule only to be yoked by the British, attained full sovereignty under Nasser. Alexandria was denuded of her foreigners, particularly Jews, and Egyptianised. Smyrna/Izmir, for centuries a beacon of cosmopolitanism, lost most of her Greeks and Armenians in 1922, during the great fire that consumed the city days after its relief by Turks. She became truly Turkified when Greece and Turkey agreed to a population exchange.

Today, Beirut – "the Paris of the Orient" – remains the only Levantine cosmopolis. However, since Lebanon's independence she too, stricken with ethnocentricity, has emerged as the capital of Arab nationalism. Today, still reeling from the civil war between Muslims and Christians and equally devastating attacks by Israel, her Christian half has dwindled as a result of emigration. Whether she will survive as a cosmopolis is anybody's guess.

Between the lines of Mansel's prodigious book, that uncertainty poses a cardinal riddle. Might future strategies in pursuit of wealth through free trade – modified so that the conditions are equitable – lead toward coexistence and peace? If so, would we be able to engender the spiritual maturity through which all our "others" will be welcome around our hearths? As the Levantines would say: one never loses hope.