Charles Glass

  • Levant: Splendour and Catastrophe on the Mediterranean by Philip Mansel
    John Murray, 480 pp, £10.99, September 2011, ISBN 978 0 7195 6708 7
  • Beirut by Samir Kassir, translated by M.B. Debevoise
    California, 656 pp, £19.95, December 2011, ISBN 978 0 520 27126 5

‘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 full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in