Levant: Splendour and Catastrphe on the Mediterranean - Philip Mansel, publisher: John Murray 2010
Levant is a book of cities. In Levant: Splendour and Catastrophe on the Mediterranean (John Murray 2010), Philip Mansel, historian of France and the Ottoman Empire, tells the story of cities which were, by 1900, syntheses of the two: Smyrna, Alexandria and Beirut. For four centuries these cities provided a window between East and West, bringing together races and religions in a collision of people and minds. Only in these cities could mosques, churches and synagogues be seen side by side. Philip Mansel shows the importance of foreign consuls and merchants, the French language and French schools, in transforming them from minor ports into dynamic cosmopolises. Their mixtures of races, religions, manners and costumes astonished travellers. The novelist Norman Douglas called Smyrna the most enjoyable place on earth, as does anyone who lived in Beirut before the outbreak of civil war in 1975 .
The cities’ hybridity appealed to those who found nation states, in the words of William Haddad President of the American University of Beirut, ‘prisons of the mind’. Smyrna, Alexandria and Beirut challenge stereotypes. They were both cosmopolitan cities and incubators of nationalism: the ‘first shot’ in the Turkish war of libration was fired in Smyrna. Using unpublished family papers, Philip Mansel describes their colourful, contradictory history from the beginning of the French-Ottoman alliance in the sixteenth century, to their decline in the twentieth. Smyrna was burnt, Alexandria Egyptianised, Beirut lacerated by civil war. Levant is the first history of these cities in English in the modern age.
They were more modern than the cities of the hinterland. ‘Smyrna illuminates like a beacon all the other provinces of the Ottoman Empire’ wrote the Austrian consul-general Charles de Scherzer. Alexandria was a dynamo of the Egyptian economy, with the country’s most modern schools, and women. In Beirut before 1975, wrote Edward Said, ‘Everything seemed possible, every idea, every identity. ‘Since other Arab cities were run by police states, Beirut became for Arabs a synonym of freedom ‘the lady of the world’, ‘our only star’. It still is. ‘Beirut is total and absolute freedom’, writes Zeena al Khalil.
Levant is a challenge from history. It shows how Muslims, Christians and Jews have lived together in the past. Modern London , Paris and New York, with their varieties of races, religions and languages, are the new Levantine cities: moreover they have welcomed people from Smyrna, Beirut and Alexandria like Alec Issigonis the designer of the Mini, Omar Sharif, Edouard Balladur, bankers, restaurateurs and decorators. National cities were a twentieth century aberration. We are all Levantines now.
LIST OF CHAPTERS
1 The Vineyards of Pera
2 Smyrna: the Eye of Asia
3 Smyrna: Massacres and Merriment
4 Alexandria: the Key to Egypt
5 Alexandria: Bid for Empire
6 Beirut: the Republic of Merchants
7 Alexandria: Khedives an Consuls
8 Alexandria: British Years
9 Beirut: the Jewel in the crown of the Padishah
10 Smyrna: Greeks and Turks
11 Drifting Cities
12 Catastrophe and Liberation
13 Alexandria: Queen of the Mediterranean
15 Beirut: Birth of a Capital
16 The Paris of the Middle East
17 The Dance of Death
18 New Levants for Old
Copies available from Amazon etc. or by phoning bookpoint, 01235 400 400
Transcript of an interview conducted by Craig Encer, March 2010
When did you first start writing?
Immediately after I finished my thesis (‘The Court of France 1814-1830’ - 1974-78) because I like the period of early 19th century in France. This was an understudied period when all power and regimes and conventions and ideas were being challenged. My first book (published 1981) was a biography on Louis the 18th. It has been translated in to French and is still available in print in that language. As a boy I loved reading historical novels, prompting my later interest. My favourite authors of the time were Rosemary Sutcliffe, Margaret Irwin and Alfred Duggan. I loved the subjects of the Crusades, the French Court and Monarchy. Later I moved from fiction to factual books on these subjects aged 16 to 17. Diaries, memoirs and letters concerning the French court are some of the best literature about power and its exercise.
There seems to be a shift of your research and writing from the history of the French Royal Court to the heritage of the Ottoman Empire. Was this a natural transition for you and what strikes you as the contrasting ways these two old centres of power operated.
I didn’t want to spend all my life on one subject. Because French history is absolutely fascinating and rewarding but it is too much. And I have always loved the Middle East since travelling there between school and university (1969-1970, Israel, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria and Egypt). And when I started the Ottoman Empire was still a dark hole as far as research and books went. So it was a voyage of discovery for me. And I was very interested in these old dynasties and I published a book of old photographs of all the old royal families of the Middle East in 1988, of which the most interesting and central model was the Ottoman dynasty. And I really had the time of my life doing it, for example meeting the grandson of Abdulhamit and old ladies who had danced with King Farouk. And a publisher wanted a history of Istanbul and of course the other great subject which fascinates me is cosmopolitanism – how do and did different races, cultures and religions lived together.
How long did the research on the book, ‘Constantinople: City of the World’s Desire’ last?
About 5 years, 1990-95. It included interviews, working in libraries in Istanbul and London and Paris. The reason it lasted so long was because however oppressive Ottoman rule might be, it provided a buffer between peoples, except on the occasions when the system broke down, like 1821, 1895. You could live your life without being too oppressed. It was fascinating seeing how different periods reacted to the challenges of co-existence and survival.
How long have you been researching your upcoming book?
For about 6 years but with many other projects going on at the same time. For example introductions to books, such as a new book on Photographs of Constantinple through the lens of Achilleas Samandji and Eugene Dalleggio (Umberto Allemandi & C. – 2007).
How did you set the limits on geography and time on these city comparisons. Was it difficult to exclude Odessa, Salonica and Constantinople?
It seemed to me that the whole history of the Levant began with the alliance between François I and Suleyman the Magnificent. The capitulations that followed, the role of the French Ambassador and Consuls throughout the Empire in time and space. There were French Consuls in all the main ports such as Smyrna, Alexandria etc. The French Ottoman alliance is one of the most important and long lasting in European history. It brought together the ‘eldest son of the Church’ and the Caliph of the Moslems. It had a huge diplomatic, military, commercial and cultural impact. There are still great French language schools and now universities in Istanbul, Beirut and Alexandria. And after Italian faded out in the mid 19th century, French became the language of the Levant. I left other ports you mentioned for reasons of space, though I mention Salonica during the Young Turk Revolution as this was the location. The book which waits to be written is one which sees Mustafa Kemal, Enver and Talaat Pashas as from the point of view of Salonica and the Balkans, where they were all born. It was these people who were able to crush the counter revolution of April 1909 with the help of non-Turkish irregular troops. Odessa was a wonderful city, but too complex to include in this study, though it had trade links with all of these, as did Trieste. The foundation of Odessa was by Catherine the Great and the first great governor was the great and good Duke de Richelieu, French émigré of the revolution, great nephew of the famous cardinal and future prime minister of France.
Is there a danger of persistent romanticisation of relationships between the various ethnic groups within these trading ports.
Yes, that is all true. Unfortunately poorer people write less. But I am not convinced it was necessarily less mixed amongst the poor than among the rich. The music of the cafes of Izmir for example is a mix of many different influences, Turkish, Greek, Jewish, Balkan, Italian. Many poor Greeks when they left Alexandria after 1945 and arrived in Cyprus etc. also spoke some Arabic. Streets and schools of London today show that mixing and partnerships are not specific to any one income bracket or area.
Are there lessons the region could learn from its past. Could you foresee any of these ports achieving again a degree of their pre-conflict ethnic diversity and commercial vibrancy?
It certainly is happening in Odessa. The world is changing, cities may become more important that states. The biggest port in the world is Singapore which is a city state. There is a Greek owned cafe on the Cordon of Izmir for the first time since 1922. And regular flights between Izmir and Athens. The modern Alexandria library has given Alexandria an international institution again. Beirut is struggling to become again the great international city it was between 1956 and 1975. Although with neighbours like Syria and Israel it will always be a difficult task.
Who are your favourite authors?
No one beats Cavafy, I also like Seferis. I also like Lawrence Durell as it overwhelmed me as a boy. Many new Lebanese historians and novelists like the books of Samir Khalaf: Heart of Beirut – Reclaiming the Bourj, Saqi 2006; Alexander Najjar: School of War, Telegram 1999; Mai Ghoussoub: Leaving Beirut – Women and the Wars within, Saqi, 1998; Robert Fisk – Pity the Nation, Lebanon at war, Oxford University Press, 1990. On the international authors’ front the list includes, Anthony Cross: St. Petersburg and the British – The city through the eyes of British Visitors and Residents, Francis Lincoln Ltd, 2008; Olivia Manning: The Levant Trilogy, Penguin, 1982, Elia Kazan: Beyond the Aegean, Alfred A. Knoff, 1994; Roland Storrs – Orientations, Nicholson and Watson, London, 1943; Leon Sciaky: Farewell to Ottoman Salonica, the Isis Press, 2000; Edgar Mori: Vidal et les siens, editions du Seuil, 1989, Patricia Herlihy: Tales from Odessa and the novels of such as the book on Alexandria by Michael Haag. On the field of Egypt origin authors are Gaston Zananiri O.P., Entre Mer et Desert – Memoirs, Editions du Cerf, Paris, 1996 and Bright Levant, an autobiography by Laurence Grafftey-Smith, John Murray, 1970. From Turkey, Orhan Pamuk: Memories of a city, Leon Kontente: Smyrne et l’Occident de l’Antiquite, Yvelinedition, 2005.
If you could be transported in time and space where would you like to be transported to?
The list is endless. I would like as a privileged foreigner the great capitals of Europe before 1914. I think we are possibly returning to the geography of that time when Constantinople, Vienna and St Petersburg were great international meeting places.
Do you think books can bring an understanding between communities? Do you feel the weight of historical responsibility sometimes?
I wish they could. I think events, economics or more important in this task than books. Its not books that caused the fall of the Iron Curtain, but I feel all nations need to de-nationalise their history books. Not only for example, Greece and Turkey, but also France and England. The influence of France and the Low Countries on English history and culture has been systematically marginalized.
What are your future projects?
I want to write a short book on French as a world language, how important it was from 1640 to 1940. It was for example the second language of all of Latin America, as well as the Levant and Russia. And I may write the life of Louis the 14th, a great friend of the Ottoman Empire.
Can history ever be purely objective and neutral?
No. We all find the history we want. All books reflect the period in which they were written. And the interests of the writer and his or her background. However we can find new facts and documents and present new and different points of view. Certainly one should distrust history written by governments.
Your books seem to grow in ambition and scope with time. The upcoming one deals with the Levantine heritage of 3 ports all with their own micro-histories, and no doubt involving 100s of interviews and written sources consulted. Is there a secret of sifting and eliminating this mass of information to condense to a single volume?
Yes this is an ambitious book. It seemed to me that you learnt more about a city’s specific character by comparisons with similar cities. The same would apply to nations. What do they know of England, or Smyrna, who only England, or Smyrna, know? Usually each interview has one striking phrase, or fact, and no more. I hoped by making a lot of interviews, to get a feel for the background and the problems and attitudes of each city.
Anything you want to add?
You cannot understand the importance of Paris until you read the memoirs, poems and novels of Turks, Egyptians and Lebanese. Their escape from their national and religious cages was often helped by the freedom and literature and ideas of France. This includes Taha Hussein of Egypt, Adonis and Amin Maalouf from Lebanon and young Turk writers and politicians. As has been said Mustafa Kemal was not just a republican but a Third Republican, deeply influenced by the French social and political theories of his time. He visited France and read French. What you find in Izmir, Alexandria is a tremendous hunger for the old cosmopolitan city which many Turks and Egyptians romanticize just as much as Greeks.
One thing that strikes me is that many of the political leaders of the 20th century came from frontier areas, as if they became nationalistic as an emotional compensation. This was no different in the Levant. Nasser came from Alexandria (the half-European city of Egypt), Kemal Ataturk came from Salonica where the first language was Judeo-Espagnol, a form of Castilian Spanish brought over by the majority Jewish population of the city.
To visit Philip Mansel’s own web site, please visit here: and to purchase any of his books, please refer to Amazon etc. Further information on this book viewable here: - Turkish version
To read a review of this book by Görkem Daşkan, click here:
To view archive views of cities, click for Smyrna, Beirut and Alexandria:
To listen to an interview of Philip Mansel broadcast on the BBC World Service arts and culture programme “The Strand” on 20th December 2010, click here: (mp3 format) or the full programme available here: A follow on radio interview was aired on “Excess Baggage”, on the 8th January 2011.
An article penned by Philip Mansel on the theme of the book entitled: ‘We are all Levantines now’, published in the English edition of the magazine ‘Le Monde Diplomatique’, April 2012.
In May 2012 Philip Mansel was awarded the London Library Life in Literature Award, in the presence of the Duchess of Cornwall - details:
Philip Mansel interviewed by Craig Encer, post publication of his book, January 2012
Click to read the interview conducted with Philip Mansel concerning his earlier book ‘Constantinople: City of World’s Desire, 1453-1924’.
Click to read the interview conducted with Philip Mansel concerning his earlier book ‘Sultans in Splendour: Monarchs of the Middle East 1869-1945’.
Articles by Philip Mansel: ‘The Rise and Fall of Royal Alexandria: From Mohammed Ali to Farouk’, ‘Was Salonica a Levantine City?’