Levant: Splendour and Catastrophe on the Mediterranean, by Philip Mansel, John Murray RRP£25 470 page

The Levant, writes Philip Mansel, “is an area, a dialogue and a quest ... a western name for an eastern area, the Levant is also a dialogue between east and west.” In his history of three Levantine cities – Smyrna, Alexandria and Beirut – Mansel analyses the “soft power of cities” as much as the “hard power of states” in a quest for “that elixir of co-existence between Muslims, Christians and Jews for which the world yearns”.

The book celebrates tolerance and delights in cosmopolitanism; but it is also highly realistic as it charts the region from the 17th century to today. Mansel, the author of a fine history of Istanbul, which this book complements, gives us an accessible history of the Middle East that explains much of what is happening now. Today only Beirut can make any claim to be Levantine. Smyrna was spectacularly destroyed by fire and rapine in 1922; Alexandria has been systematically bleached of all of its ancient colour and variety; Beirut alone precariously survives, always on the verge of disaster.

The Levant as a concept began in the 16th century when the Ottoman Sultans began to grant trading and diplomatic privileges to the French and other Christian kingdoms, which were allowed to station consuls and traders in Istanbul and other major Ottoman cities. Merchants trading between east and west made Smyrna the so-called “pearl of the Levant” with its huge Greek population and a reputation for libertinism. But the Levant really reaches its climax during the rule of Muhammad Ali, Khedive of Egypt (1769-1849). This extraordinary, brilliant but ruthless Albanian adventurer modernised Egypt, conquered Sudan, created a modern westernised army, promoted tolerance and openness (to gain French and British support) and then decided that he would overthrow the great Ottoman dynasty and become the sultan himself. He created both Levantine Alexandria and Beirut too.

This charming but dangerous character would have conquered Istanbul but for the British gunboats of Lord Palmerston. The defeat of these ambitions marked the rise of British power in the Middle East but Muhammad Ali ruled on in a thriving Alexandria where Arabs, Albanians, Turks, Jews, French and English merged together in a Mediterranean boomtown that was effectively grabbed by the British in 1882 after a brutal bombardment. This Levantine capital lasted until a coup in 1952.

The rising nationalisms of Arabs and Slavs, as well as the imperial fragility and Turkic nationalism of the Ottoman empire itself, threatened the relations between the religions and ethnic groups in the Levantine cities. After the first world war, the UK’s backing for a wider Greek empire encouraged a disastrous war that culminated in the fire and massacre of Smyrna, on the orders, or at least with the acquiescence, of Turkish nationalist leader Kemal Atatürk himself. The Greeks were either murdered or escaped. The city was then Turkised as Izmir. That left Alexandria and Beirut. Mansel tells the story of French Mandate over Syria and Lebanon: the separation of the small coastal area around Beirut as the new state of Lebanon created an unworkable ethnic balance that led to civil war in the 1970s. Here we meet the famous Lebanese dynasties – Sursok and Salaam and Shihabi, as well as the Druze Jumblatts and other warlords, many of them still prominent today.

The old Alexandria was overwhelmed by the intolerant nationalism of the postwar world. In 1952, the last king of Egypt, the obese and buffoonish Farouk, was expelled. Mansel notes that on the last night of his reign, the King’s “beautiful sister Princess Faiaz danced in the Romance nightclub with the American ambassador’s secretary” and then went fishing. When they returned at dawn, the coup was in progress.

I could scarcely put down this magnificent book, with its galloping narrative, its worldly analysis, sparkling anecdotes and its unforgettable cast of the decadent, the cosmopolitan and the cruel. But it ends with a sober warning in today’s age of Islamic fundamentalism and hyper-nationalism: Beirut must choose either Levantisation or tribalisation.

Simon Sebag Montefiore’s ‘Jerusalem: A Biography’ (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) will be published in January

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