Levant: Splendour and Catastrophe on the Mediterranean, by Philip Mansel.
London, John Murray, 2010. 480 pp, ISBN 978-0-7195-6707-0. £25.
Philip Mansel’s other fans—who must be legion and certainly include many ASTENE members— ought to find his latest book as thrilling as I do. The fruit of several decades of research, a substantial part of which was necessarily conducted during residences in the places about which he writes, Levant concentrates on the histories of three cities of the eastern Mediterranean—Smyrna, Alexandria and Beirut, with an incidental glance at Salonica: their wealth and cosmopolitanism, and their similar fates as victims of nationalism, sectarian strife, or Euro- American colonialism and imperialism.
Brilliantly organized along both chronological and geographical lines, Mansel’s narrative thus also becomes an incidental exploration of the century-long dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire. Stretching at its greatest extent from Budapest and Tunis to Baku and Baghdad, from Polish Galicia and Podolia to the Yemen and the Sudan, the Empire likewise dominated both the eastern and the western Mediterranean, the famous defeat at Lepanto in 1571 most certainly notwithstanding.
More importantly, however, Levant is a social history of the folk we could most conveniently call metics—the long-term-resident foreigners, generally engaged in business, who typified the populace of the great ports of the Eastern Mediterranean between the sixteenth century and the present day. (NB: The word ‘metic’ is equally neutral in English and in its ancient Greek root. As a result of decades of propaganda issuing from Charles Maurras and Action française, however, it has taken a pejorative turn in France, where the word métèque now generally suggests a shiftless foreign resident of tawny hue. Too bad on several counts.)
From 1535 or thereabouts until 1798, the Empire was closely allied with France. Both realms face the unremitting hostility of the Habsburgs, who threatened the Empire along the entirety of its long western and northwestern frontier, and France from both the north and the south. It was therefore natural, as Mansel points out, that the merchants of France should have pioneered the mercantilist connections that created the wealth of Smyrna and thus made it, until 1922, a great cosmopolitan city. They were to be followed by the Dutch, the British, the Venetians and, less officially, miscellaneous Greeks and Spanish speaking Sephardic Jews.
After a brief introduction centred on Pera and the first ‘capitulations’, Mansel devotes the next two chapters to Smyrna, where the pattern he sees in the history of other eastern Mediterranean mercantile cities emerged early and strikingly. The pair of chapters following is devoted to Alexandria, which eventually will claim, quite rightly, primary attention throughout a third of the book. The sixth chapter introduces Beirut, which has somehow survived its trials—at least for the moment—better than either Smyrna or Alexandria and which, likewise, accounts for a third of the book. A final chapter brings the histories of Beirut and Alexandria up to date and offers reflections on the ideas they
necessarily generate. Mansel’s conclusions are drawn from myriad facts. Every sentence bristles with them. His generalizations are few and thoroughly earned.
History of this kind hangs on the trajectories of scores of eminent families and the lives of a multitude of individuals within them. Especially in the Middle East, moreover, the fastest and most reliable medium of information has always been gossip, which is transmitted, of course, among people. It is, therefore, of particular importance for a serious historian of the region to know people and to name names. The broad extent to which Philip Mansel has made use of interviews and his generous understanding of identity fulfil this requirement amply. I am delighted, for example, that the story of the Baltazzi clan is allowed to include that of poor Marie Vetsera, and that my old Alexandrian friend Bernard de Zogheb is given something like his due. And on the story of the breathtakingly beautiful Asmahan, who broke many hearts and whose recordings of sixty years ago are still played with joy, Mansel is surely now the world expert.
Probably the only relevant and significant Egyptian name omitted by Mansel is that of Huda Shaarawi (1879–1947), the feminist leader most famous for removing her veil at a Cairo railway station in 1923, thus initiating a new norm. Photographs of the anti-British marches of 1919 record the fact that until that gesture both Muslim and Christian women wore the face veil, which was understood as an indicator of social status, not religion. A definitive biography by Huda Shaarawi’s granddaughter, Sania Shaarawi-Lanfranchi, will be published next year by I.B. Tauris.
This book is a major achievement by a social historian who knows his ground thoroughly and has already proven his mettle in two splendid biographies and half a dozen other important studies. What gives it special virtue, to my mind, are the author’s verve and his attention to detail, to the personal dimension. Likewise to be commended are the illustrations, all but one of which are photographs and all of which make their points succinctly and poetically.