NLI Exclusive Interview: Philip Mansel’s Levant and its relevance today

“The Levant is the Eastern Mediterranean where the sun rises, from the French ‘le soleil levant.’ So it is a geographical term, nothing racial or national. Or religious. It is where Asia meets Europe,” says Philip Mansel, historian and author, as he looks at the Acropolis from the southern slopes of Mount Lycabettus.

“I think the Levantines are anyone who lives there — that is the definition for me and for the early 17th century dictionaries that define the Levantines as the people in the Eastern Mediterranean, anybody who lives there. It is my definition, it is very subjective and very flexible. I like that it is flexible and not organized — nothing like Turkish or English identity.”

He adds, “So it is the Eastern Mediterranean and the people who live there and those who think of themselves as Levantine. It is a self-identity.”

This is a more liberal, idealized definition than many others. At the 3rd International Conference of the Levantine Heritage Foundation, titled “The Levantines: Identities and Heritage,” in Athens on Nov. 2-3, 2018, Rinaldo Marmara, the official historian of the Apostolic Vicariate of Istanbul, insists that Levantines are the Roman Catholics who were the foreign subjects of the Ottoman Empire, categorically excluding Orthodox Greeks and Armenians and Anglican British from the group. At the same conference, Nagihan Haliloglu, an academic who holds a master’s degree in Oriental Studies from the University of Oxford, ironically quotes British author Eric Ambler, who defined “the Levanter” as “a native or inhabitant of the Levant” or “one who absconds, especially one who does so after losing bets.”

“In the 19th century, the term Levantine became rather pejorative, but it was just a period,” Mansel explains. “In the 17th century, it meant anybody who lived in the Eastern Mediterranean. In fact, in travel documents it was just shorthand for the Ottoman Empire really.”

Speaking to Mansel about the Levant is like reading one of his books — “Constantinople: City of the World’s Desire,” “Levant: Splendour and Catastrophe on the Mediterranean” or “Aleppo. The Rise and Fall of Syria’s Great Merchant City.” You just wish that a time machine would transport you back to the golden days of the Levant, when different nationalities mingled in port cities, spoke different languages, celebrated each other’s holidays and put “deals before ideals,” as Mansel famously said in his book “Levant.”

“If there is an identity, a common identity, it was because all those places were ruled by one sovereign for so long — the extraordinary Ottoman Empire. That’s why you do not have the common identity of the Western Mediterranean — it was all under different states,” Mansel notes.

Asked about the defining characteristics of the Levant, Mansel does not hesitate and says, “Geography — the Eastern Mediterranean — and closeness to the sea [and therefore, trade routes]. The cities inland were less open to the influence of trade.  These were cities with a strong dose of polyglotism — people spoke Arabic, Ottoman,  bad Italian, just enough to carry out trade, and French. Mustapha Kemal [Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey] spoke French, the poet [George] Seferis spoke French. People in Alexandria, Beirut and Athens spoke French. The French influence was very strong in the region, not only through the French state but the different Catholic orders.”

But Turkish was also the intercommunal language, Mansel says, adding, “Armenian and Greek musicians composed music for the Ottoman court in Turkish in the 18th century. Muhammad Ali, the khedive of Egypt, spoke no Arabic, but spoke in Turkish with the Greek in Alexandria, who originally came from northern Anatolia or Smyrna.”

The Levant, in Mansel’s vivid descriptions, was a magic chessboard where different pieces came together to reach a balance of power and influence — the consuls, foreign businessmen, rich locals and intellectuals who sardonically observed the life in the key cities.

“All the citizens of Beirut, whatever their religions are, live well together,” wrote Laurent d’Arvieux, a merchant in Smyrna who later became French consul in Aleppo, “They are polite, visit each other and organize parties of pleasure. Even the people are not as wicked as in Sidon.”

D’Arvieux is one of the favorite characters of Mansel in the history of the Levant, along with Abdulmejid, “a reformist sultan whom nobody talks about”; Ataturk, “a leader who emerged from Salonica, the least Muslim-populated city of the whole region”; and the poet Konstantinos Kavafis, “an Alexandrian Greek whose poems were all about vulnerability.”

“D’Arvieux was a true cosmopolitan man and a brilliant consul,” Mansel adds, jumping from there to the key role of the consuls in the Levant. Often members of the same family who carried out the same role in different cities, the consuls were one of the driving forces of dynamism and modernity in the Levant cities. They brought trade, internationalism and often had a twofold task: to convey the policies of their governments to the host state — the Ottoman Empire — and to protect their local country men’s safety and wealth.

“Deals were important, deals before ideals,” Mansel says. “This was hopefully more flexible and less hypocrite. People had to put aside their mistrust and prejudices and work together on a daily basis.”

Cosmopolitanism brought modernity. Alexandria had a modern bourse, Smyrna/Izmir had modern schools and a soccer team as well as the first printing press in the Ottoman Empire.

And what role did religion play? “The Ottoman Empire had a ‘practical tolerance’ toward religions,” Mansel notes. “But neither should we exaggerate that tolerance. There were moments of contempt and persecution, usually at the time of war with a foreign power.”

He adds, “The Ottoman Empire was something very strange because although it had terrible moments of cruelty, at times it could be very tolerant, partly because it needed foreign help. It had to be tolerant, because in the 19th century, its grasp of technical things such as printing and clocks and shipping often needed foreign helps. They needed foreign technicians.”

He also points at the French influence in particular, the joining of forces between Francois I and Suleiman the Magnificent. “There were always the encounters between Venice and Genoa before that, lots of Venetians and Genoese in Istanbul and Aleppo. But the French capitulations — soon followed by the English and Dutch — created a huge cultural influence of France from the 1750s — first on the local Christians and then on the Ottoman army, navy and the government. Finally, the Galatasaray [Lycee, a French high school] was established, which celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2018,” he says.

French words, such as rendezvous, salon and divan entered the Turkish language as well as French ideas such as nationalism. The Jeunes Turks who have looked at Paris for their inspiration, saying in their letters that Paris was more important to them than Mecca, were also seduced by French nationalism, a development that would help the end of the ailing Ottoman Empire.

Asked about the end of the Levant, Mansel sighs and says, “Nationalism, socialism and World War I.”

But the spirit of the Levant, with its diversity and languages, is still alive in some of the modern cities. Mansel adds in this regard, “Marseille, Gibraltar, Tangier … and of course Beirut, which has done no worse than Damascus despite its civil wars and foreign intervention. Beirut — a multifaith city — a trilingual, more than trilingual city.”

What might be a good lesson of the Levantine identity for the modern world? “A really strong and successful state loves, protects and honors its minorities because diversity is power,” Mansel concludes.

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