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Cities of the Levant: the Past for the Future?

Lecture by Dr Philip Mansel

January 23, 2014
Thursday 4pm
Free admission

Stevenson Lecture Theatre, Clore Education Centre, British Museum, London WC1H 0XG

Cities have their own dynamism. Location, population, and wealth can give them the power to defy or ignore states. They subvert received ideas about national identity. Dr Philip Mansel, author of Levant: Splendour and Catastrophe on the Mediterranean, will speak about the cities of the Levant, particularly Smyrna, Alexandria and Beirut. Under the Ottoman Empire and its successors they were inhabited by Muslims, Christians and Jews. The alliance between France and the Ottoman Empire – called by one French ambassador ‘the union between the lily and the crescent’ - and the capitulations enabled foreigners to live, trade, and establish schools there. For a time dialogue trumped conflict, deals came before ideals.

Smyrna was described as a light-house illuminating every corner of the Ottoman Empire. ‘If Smyrna is the eye of Asia’, it was said, ‘the quay is the pupil of the eye’. Norman Douglas called it ‘the most enjoyable place on earth’. Alexandria, ‘the Queen of the Mediterranean’, was compared to a European ship moored off the coast of Egypt; Beirut was called the Paris of the Middle East. Philip Mansel asks how these cities functioned and explores their shared characteristics - diplomacy, trade, hybridity, pleasure, modernity and vulnerability. In the end Smyrna was burnt, Alexandria Egyptianised, Beirut ravaged by civil war. What is the message of the cities of the Levant for today’s mixed cities, such as London, Paris, and Dubai?

Philip Mansel is a historian of France and the Middle East. His latest book is Levant: Splendour and Catastrophe on the Mediterranean (John Murray UK 2010, Yale US and Everest Turkey 2011, Oceanida Greece 2012), a history of modern Smyrna, Alexandria and Beirut. Previous books include Constantinople: City of the World’s Desire (1995) and Paris between Empires (2001). He is a founding Trustee of the Levantine Heritage Foundation and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and the Institute of Historical Research. In 2012 he won the London Library Life in Literature award.

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