‘A man may find Naples or Palermo merely pretty,’ James Elroy Flecker, one-time British vice-consul in Beirut, wrote in October 1914, ‘but the deeper violet, the splendour and desolation of the Levant waters, is something that drives into the soul.’ A month later, Russia, Britain and France declared war on the Ottoman Empire in response to the Turkish fleet’s foolhardy bombardment of Odessa and Sevastopol. Throughout Ottoman lands, where they had for centuries exercised considerable influence, consular staff from the Allied states departed their posts. Flecker died of tuberculosis barely a year later, aged 30, in the Swiss Alps, leaving behind a few dreamy letters and poems like ‘The Golden Journey to Samarkand’. François Georges-Picot, a French consular officer in Beirut, also withdrew after war was declared. His legacy was a packet of letters implicating local notables in a conspiracy to detach Syria from the Ottoman Empire. Georges-Picot had lodged his papers at the American consulate and a dragoman there turned the evidence over to the new Turkish military governor, Jemal Pasha. Jemal had the 25 Christian and Muslim plotters tried for treason, found guilty, and hanged, some in Damascus and the rest in Beirut on the site of what would subsequently be called, in their honour, Martyrs’ Square.
The sultan’s subjects who conspired with the French consul were naive in colluding with a power that had no intention of granting independence. Their own conceptions of what constituted the nation and its frontiers varied. Some believed in a Lebanese nation made up of Mount Lebanon and, possibly, the coastal cities and the Bekaa Valley. Others were Syrian nationalists, whose patrimony was Greater Syria, which meant all the territory south of Antioch as far as the Red Sea, including the future mini-states of Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Transjordan. Most of the rest were Pan-Arabists, who sought the unity and independence of Arabic-speaking peoples from Morocco to Iraq. Between 1914 and 1918 all these nationalists united against the Ottomans, in opposition to the majority of their fellow subjects, who were either loyal to the empire or indifferent to nationalism’s appeal. These differences would play themselves out in the decades following the Ottoman retreat. It’s hard, however, to dispute the notion that the subjects of the empire were better off under the Ottomans than under the British, the French or the later regimes in Damascus, Beirut and Tel Aviv.
After his return to the Quai d’Orsay, Georges-Picot bequeathed another document to the Levant. He and Sir Mark Sykes, representing Great Britain, gave their names to an accord that would parcel out the Ottomans’ Arab dominions into European protectorates, or mandates, as the League of Nations euphemism had it, which eventually became states – or, as the Egyptian diplomat Tahseen Basheer called them, tribes with flags. The Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 violated commitments by both the British and the French that those who took up arms against their Turkish sovereign would be rewarded with independence. The new borders fragmented the region without settling the contradictions among competing nationalisms, and in 1917 Britain’s Balfour Declaration added the complication of European Zionism.
In the major trading ports of the eastern Mediterranean – primarily Smyrna, Alexandria and Beirut, but also Constantinople, Chios, Alexandretta and Salonica – the noble enterprise of making money had always served to connect peoples in spite of political divisions. But the cohabitation that allowed cultures and languages to flourish beside the quays did not survive the onslaught of nation, race and sect. Diversity and simple self-interest were replaced by demagoguery, tribalism and nationalism and islands of diversity and mutual tolerance began to disappear. Philip Mansel documents the rise and inexorable crash of the great Levantine entrepôts as four centuries of relative stability under the Ottomans gave way to a century of ethnic expulsion, tyranny and war.
‘The Levant is an area, a dialogue and a quest,’ Mansel writes, trying to explain the seductive hold these tawdry, vibrant and bewildering places have on the memories of those who fled them and on those who wish they had been born early enough to have known them. ‘Levant’ is a Western term: only from a western perspective does the rising sun appear over the eastern Mediterranean shore. The littoral from Constantinople south along the coast to Alexandria belonged to Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Arab and Ottoman civilisations, with occasional incursions from Persia, Mesopotamia, Egypt and the crusading West. Smyrna, Alexandria and Beirut, Mansel writes, ‘could be escapes from the prisons of nationality and religion. In these cities between worlds, people switched identities as easily as they switched languages.’
Gaston Zananiri, whose family were traders originating in Syria, wrote that early 20th-century Alexandria, before everything changed, ‘was brilliant, rich and superficial, open to the Mediterranean while closed to Egypt’. His Dictionnaire de la Francophonie defined a Levantine as ‘a rootless individual who takes root wherever he finds himself’. The Levantine cosmopolises, with commercial traditions dating back at least to the seafaring Phoenicians, attracted Greeks, Arabs, Jews, Italians, Turks, Armenians and Europeans. The peasant from Mount Lebanon in Beirut, the caravaneer from central Anatolia in Smyrna and the Nile Delta fellah in Alexandria: all had their eyes opened, senses aroused, prejudices questioned and curiosity satiated. Adventurous souls from further afield found homes and purpose among the Levantine mélange of peoples, languages, faiths and cultures.
The ‘Baltazzi family of Smyrna, which was at once Greek, Ottoman and European’ takes its place in Mansel’s story alongside the English Barkers, who lived in Alexandria for two hundred years, and similar dynasties of Genoese, French and Dutch origin. Local – mainly Lebanese – families, like the Zoghebs in Alexandria and the Salams and Bustroses of Beirut, lived in splendour as great as any enjoyed by their European commercial partners and rivals. The great families collected art and created lavish gardens, where they entertained, arranged beneficial marriages and conspired with foreign consuls to achieve greater wealth and privilege. Beneath the surface toleration, however, communal tension always lurked. The Baltazzi family evicted peasants near Smyrna from their smallholdings, causing lasting resentment. Greek anti-semitism erupted in pogroms in Smyrna and Salonica. (Ottoman Jews, whom David Ben-Gurion despaired of converting to Zionism, were thus natural allies of the Turks.) In Alexandria under the Ottomans and from 1882 under the British, Europeans considered it acceptable to give Arabs a good hiding from time to time.
The blending of peoples, then, did not dilute the original ingredients. English traders, whose families had lived in Smyrna or Alexandria for generations, sent their children to schools in Britain and served in the British Army. The Ottomans were so tolerant of foreign loyalties, or so weak, that Greek volunteers marched off unhindered to join the Greek campaign against Turkey in the Balkans. Cities never inspired the patriotic loyalty that the 19th-century nation-state did, and race, blood and religion often triumphed over common sense. Greece, England, France, Armenia, Syria and Egypt tugged at the seams of Levantine harmony, ultimately tearing it apart. If the Levantine ports had been able to form a Hanseatic League for mutual protection, their fate might have been different. They were too competitive for that. Indeed, the destruction of one city usually benefited another.
The first to fall, in 1822, was the Turkish-ruled Greek island of Chios, a casualty of the Greek war for independence, for which there was no enthusiasm among Greek traders whose livelihoods depended on imperial connections and tranquillity. In March 1821, the Greek archbishop of Patras had staged a revolt and his followers had massacred twenty thousand Muslims and Jews. ‘The Levantine synthesis broke down,’ Mansel writes, ‘and Muslims were encouraged to take arms. Greeks were killed in the streets of Constantinople simply for being Greek.’ Sultan Mahmud II ordered wealthy Greeks to be hanged and others sold into slavery. In response, 1500 Greek soldiers invaded Chios on 25 March 1822, killing Turks as they forced their way across the island. The reaction was as swift as it was thorough. ‘On 11 April,’ Mansel writes,
Turkish troops, some in a state of near mutiny, landed and massacred or burned alive as many as 25,000 Chiots, including hospital inmates, and enslaved 50,000 others, mainly women and children … Chios was the first Levantine paradise to be destroyed. The Greek island which least wanted independence suffered most because of it. A pattern had been established, which would be repeated in Smyrna in 1922: initial Greek attack; Turkish hyper-retaliation, to the detriment of long-term Turkish interests.
Many Chiot survivors escaped to Smyrna, which became the leading emporium of the Levant. After Britain, France and Russia forced the Ottomans to grant Greek independence in 1832, the chaos prevailing in the new state sent many Jews, as well as Greeks, to the relative safety, tolerance and wealth of Ottoman Alexandria, Smyrna, Constantinople and Beirut. More Greeks lived under the sultan than under King Otto, and the Ottoman ports prospered.
But eventually every important Levantine port would meet the fate of Chios. Smyrna too was destroyed by the Turks; Alexandria was abandoned; Beirut – the last Levantine city to ascend and plummet – destroyed itself. Outwardly the most modern city of the eastern Mediterranean by the time French troops left in 1946, Beirut retained its Ottoman substructure. Democratic elections were rituals without substance, and the city was governed by hereditary communal leaders. A coterie of old men, some of whom still wore the red tarbush or fez when I moved to Beirut in 1972, made all the decisions that mattered. If they tolerated young firebrands who challenged the system, it was in the belief that these men would eventually take their place in the traditional hierarchy without demur. As they did.
Beirut owed its pre-eminence from the 1960s until it descended into civil war in 1975 to the elimination of its rivals – first Smyrna, then Haifa, which fell to Israel in 1948 – and, finally, to Alexandria’s decline. After the revolution of 1952 that brought the Egyptian army to power as protectors of the poor and adherents of a kind of socialism, Alexandria slowly lost its place as a mercantile hub. Nasser nationalised the properties of Greeks and other non-nationals, whose loyalty to their old homelands outweighed their commitment to his United Arab Republic, and the city simply decayed, as if overtaken by some inexorable form of natural destruction, leaving a void that could be filled only by freewheeling Beirut. That Beirut’s ethos may have been too lax was evident in its toleration of foreign government subsidies to its journalists, politicians who never balked at a bribe, and the easy importation of weapons for any group that called itself an army of liberation. In his monumental study, Samir Kassir charts the city’s extended death throes:
The war began as a battle of neighbourhood against neighbourhood, then of city against city, and then spread throughout the country under the influence of a viral dynamic of proximity. Confessional polarisation gave way to face-to-face combat. The adjacent neighbourhood abruptly became terra incognita, into which no one could venture without exposing himself to the risk of kidnapping and murder. Nor were its residents any longer the only threat: major military operations in an urban environment, exchanges of artillery fire between residential districts, and isolated rifle fire from the qann¯a s – the ‘sniper’ who lay in wait on high ground, determined to bring death at close range – now laid down a clear, if not yet completely drawn, line of separation between ‘them’ and ‘us’.
Kassir embodied Beirut’s variant of the polyglot Levantine ideal. The child of a Palestinian father and a Syrian mother, he was nominally a Christian and technically a foreigner in Lebanon; but he was a genuine Beiruti of the city’s last golden age: an intellectual, writer, historian, journalist, Communist, radical, firebrand, sometime exponent of American policy, explorer of meaning and archaeologist of ideas. His biography of the city of which he was a vital constituent is unlikely to be surpassed. It begins with the Palaeolithic habitation of six million years BC on the promontory later known as Beirut and ends, many transformations later, with the city’s attempted recovery from civil war and the foreign occupation of August 2003. Two years after the book’s original publication in French, those who feared Kassir’s eloquence on the subject of Beirut’s independence and its role as a free cosmopolis assassinated him as they had so many others.
Since the civil war, no city along the Mediterranean shore has laid claim to the title once held by Smyrna, Alexandria and Beirut. A nasty fate seems to await whichever is the Levant’s foremost city. Kassir and Mansel view the Levantine tragedy from different perspectives. Mansel sees it in the context of the cosmopolitan succumbing to the national or sectarian; Kassir takes a longer view in which Beirut’s achievements as a multiracial, polyglot and religiously diverse cosmopolis, including its brief but spectacular auto-da-fé between 1975 and 1991, are only stages in a saga that began in prehistory and is still unfolding. Mansel’s portraits of Salonica, Alexandria, Smyrna and Beirut all follow the same cycle of birth, growth and tragic death: his history has a Spenglerian feel of the preordained. Kassir charts in intricate detail the damage done to Beirut through architectural crimes that portended the greater destruction to come. Both Mansel and Kassir delight in describing evolving tastes in music, fashion, casinos, theatres, cafés, avenues, newspapers and cinema; both histories are as social as they are political. While social progress made the Levantine ports glorious, politics were their undoing.
Eleftherios Venizelos’s campaign to impose Greek rule on the Turks in 1922, exactly a century after Greek massacres destroyed Chios, brought about the inferno that destroyed Smyrna. After Venizelos’s mass murder of Turks in Smyrna, Atatürk’s army arrived, and enraged Turkish soldiers and civilians took revenge, not on the Greek army, but on the city’s inhabitants. As many Europeans, Greeks and Armenians as were able fled to Allied ships in the harbour. The rest were abandoned to their fate. ‘On the Cordon,’ the quay that was the lifeblood of Smyrna’s prosperity, Mansel writes
Smyrniots were robbed, set on fire, clubbed to death, or pushed into the sea by soldiers and irregulars. So many corpses clogged the sea that if you fell in you might not sink. Some sailors tried shooting at corpses to make them sink. Boys swam among them, scarves tied round their noses so they would not faint from the smell, and removed valuables, or cut off fingers for the sake of the rings on them. Some women gave birth on the quay and had to consign their stillborn babies to the water.
More than sixty years after Smyrna’s obliteration, a militiaman called Samir Geagea attempted to establish Maronite Christian dominion over the Lebanese Druze. His policy of kidnapping and murdering Druze, to which Maronites living in the Shouf hills above Beirut were opposed, produced a Druze backlash every bit as ruthless as the Turkish destruction of Smyrna. ‘Where Samir Geagea steps, no Christian remains,’ Lebanon’s Maronites said of him. The same could have been said of Venizelos. This cycle of massacre, counter-massacre and elimination sometimes seems to constitute the whole history of the Levant. Yet that, as Kassir and Mansel show, isn’t true.