Seductive Levant

Philip Mansel’s lecture at the British Museum

By Victoria Khroundina | February 27, 2014

This November the first-ever Conference on Levantine History will take place in Istanbul. Last month I attended an interesting – and timely – lecture by the historian Dr Philip Mansel on this very subject at the British Museum. Dr Mansel focused on the three Levant cities he covers in his book Levant: Splendour and Catastrophe on the Mediterranean – Smyrna, Alexandria and Beirut. (Jason Goodwin reviews the book in Cornucopia 45.)

These three cities, Dr Mansel told us, have the same appeal for the inhabitants of the Middle East as pre-1930 Berlin had for Berliners: ‘They symbolise the lost paradise… friendly to minorities, devoted to pleasure, which flourished before they were gutted by nationalism.’ People from Beirut and Alexandria, said Dr Mansel, have described those cities to him in ways that chime with a quote from Christopher Isherwood about Berlin: ‘Always in the background was Berlin. It was calling me very night and its voice was the harsh, sexy voice of the gramophone records.’ Smyrna was described as ‘a lighthouse 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.’ Alexandria was ‘the Queen of the Mediterranean’, compared to a European ship moored off the coast of Egypt. And Beirut was ‘the Paris of the Middle East’.

Dr Mansel framed his lecture on the eight important characteristics shared by these cities: geography, diplomacy, trade, multilingualism, hybridity, pleasure, modernity and vulnerability. Fascinating titbits of information were accompanied by paintings and photographs of key places and faces.

The name Levant, he told us, means ‘where the sun rises’ – that is, the Eastern Mediterranean. ‘It is a geographical word, free from associations with race or religion. It is defined not by frontiers but by the sea.’ The main image above shows the Gulf of Smyrna, seen from the northwest, painted by A Wilmore in 1855.

The above anonymous painting from the late 17th or early 18th century is a clear example of diplomacy that existed between the cities and their European counterparts. It depicts the presentation of the Dutch consul Jan Baron Daniel de Hochepied in Smyrna. The Netherlands was one of many countries who developed positive diplomatic relationships with the Ottoman Empire, alongside Italy, Poland, Sweden, Britain, Germany and especially France.

Was it any wonder then that French was so widely spoken in all three cities? The Alexandrines preferred French to Arabic, while Beirut was thoroughly French – not just in its language; and some 5,000 words were accepted into the Turkish language way before Atatürk came long. Turks and Arabs learnt French as well as other European languages in order to communicate with Europeans, and Smyrna had more than ten common languages. Multilingualism was good for business and diplomacy.

The above image shows Jean-Baptiste Vanmour’s 1724 painting of the reception of the French Ambassador, Comte d’Andrezel, by Sultan Ahmed III, at a dinner hosted by the grand vizier, Ibrahim Pasha. This was at the height of the Ottoman-France alliance, when the grand vizier himself said that ‘the only difference between Turkey and France is religion’.

Trade was perhaps the most important characteristic of the Levant cities – providing the link between Europe and Asia. ‘Alexandria exported cotton, Beirut immigrants and Smyrna opium and dried fruit,’ Dr Mansel explained. While Smyrna was the most important of the Levant ports, Alexandria also boomed, and the Alexandria Stock Exchange was the largest outside Europe and North America. Beirut was once known as the ‘republic of merchants’.

The above image shows the Bourse, formerly the house of the Greek Consul, home to Alexandria’s Stock Exchange which thrived in the late 1800s the early 1900s. The writer Ian Foster famously described walking past the Bourse and hearing a sound ‘like devils screaming in hell’.

Where there is business, there is pleasure. All three cities had many after-hours haunts. Theatres, hotels, dance and sporting clubs, cafés, watering holes – the choices were endless. Norman Douglas described Smyrna as the ‘most enjoyable city the world’. Few people know it, Dr Mansel told us, but Smyrna was the place where rembetiko (urban folk music) was born. The music of rebels and ‘toughs’, its lyrics talked of the ‘torments of love and the pleasures of hashish’. All the action happened on Vue Principal du Quais (above image). Especially popular was the Café de Paris. The great Cairo novelist Naguib Mahfouz, who like many spent his summers in Alexandria, described the city as thoroughly European before 1936. ‘The city was beautiful and so clean that one could have eaten off the streets.’ Similarly, evebody who knew Beirut before 1975 always used the same phrase to describe it: ‘the best years of my life…absolute paradise!’ 

Dr Mansel also discussed the characteristic of hybridity. There were no ghettos in the Levant cities and tourists were attracted by the ‘variety of dress and costumes’, and the juxtaposition of mosques, synagogues and churches – inconceivable in any European city at the time. While Beirut’s population was half-Christian, half-Muslim, Alexandria was about three-quarters Muslim, the rest Christian and Jewish, and Smyrna was about 60 percent Muslim, 20 percent Greek and the rest a mix of European, Jewish and Armenian. People not only had the ability quickly to learn new languages, but also to switch between identities. Houses and families, as well as cities, were hybrids.

The above painting shows Mrs George Baldwin (Jane Maltass, 1763–1839), painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1782, wearing the smart Greek dress of Smyrna and Constantinople. Maltass was the daughter of a merchant of the Levant Company. Born in Smyrna, she married George Baldwin, a merchant of Alexandria who later became the British consul there. Maltass epitomises the way Europeans would adopt local dress and local customs, including languages and even accents.

Dr Mansel moved on to the characteristics of modernity, mostly evident in the growing number of international schools in these cities, usually run by French or US missionaries. The above photo shows Latife Hanım, wife of Mustafa Kemal, one of the first, if not the first, Turkish woman to appear unveiled in public. She began her education at a French high school in Smyrna, then moved to a boarding school in London and later attended the Sorbonne in Paris, where she studied political science and law.

Despite such seemingly positive characteristics, the Levant cities were also highly vulnerable, with ‘looting and burning… race and religious hatred ready to erupt’. Some saw them, Dr Mansel says, as ‘urban Titanics, doomed for disaster’. None had a real municipality, with a real national guard or an effective police force which could resist disorder. There was dissatisfaction coming from the hinterland over the wealth of the cities, and kidnappings of merchants’ sons in return for ransom were rife.

Things did not end well for any of the three cities: Smyrna was burnt, Alexandria was Egyptianised and Beirut was ravaged by civil war. The above photo shows how Alexandria looked after the Royal Navy ‘had done its work’ in its 1882 bombardment.

Dr Mansel rounded off his lecture by pondering on what kind of message the Levant cities might have for today's mixed cities – repeating the pattern of the Levant cities – such as London, Paris, New York and Dubai. They too are ‘putting deals before ideals’ and welcoming people from every corner of the world.

The above photograph shows Alec Issigonis from Smyrna, creator of the British Mini, whose family had British passports and could leave when they chose. ‘If the cities of the Levant have a warning for us,’ Dr Mansel concluded somewhat pessimistically, ‘it is perhaps that even the richest cities depend on armed forces.’  

Watch the entire lecture below:

Those who wish to make a presentation at the First Conference on Levantine History are asked to submit the title and a brief synopsis of their intended papers by March 31, 2014. Click here for more information.

Posted in History, Talks and Lectures
More Reading
Current Events