Levant is a book of cities. It describes Smyrna, Alexandria and Beirut when they were windows on the world, escapes from nationality and tradition, centres of wealth, pleasure and freedom.
Smyrna, Alexandria and Beirut challenge stereotypes. They were both cosmopolitan cities and centres of nationalism. Using unpublished family papers, the author describes their colourful, contradictory history, from the beginning of the French alliance with the Ottoman Empire in the sixteenth century to their decline in the mid twentieth century: Smyrna was burnt; Alexandria Egyptianised; Beirut lacerated by civil war.
Levant is the first history in English of these cities in the modern age. It is also a challenge from history. It is about ourselves; it shows how Muslims, Christians and Jews have lived together in cities. Levantine compromises, putting deals before ideals, pragmatism before ideology, made these cities work, until states reclaimed them for nationalism. Smyrna, Alexandria and Beirut have a message for today.
‘ … the strengths of the book are colossal. Philip Mansel’s knowledge of the history and culture of these places is encyclopedic; he has walked their streets, met the scions of their famous families and penetrated their private archives. His eye for detail is sharp; telling anecdotes are culled from memoirs of all kinds, and the sights and smells of each city are vividly conjured up. At the same time, major developments in political history are explained with clarity and precision.’ Noel Malcolm (Daily Telegraph)
‘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.’ Simon Sebag Montefiore (Financial Times)
‘Philip Mansel’s “Levant” comes from the pen which, more sharply than any other, has delineated Istanbul. Here, with evocations of Smyrna, Alexandria and Beirut, all of which he knows well, Mansel gives us history, travel-writing and evocation of place with spare lack of sentimentality, but passionate intensity. The chapters on Beirut, in the light of what is continuing there to this sad hour, are especially poignant. Highly recommended.’ A. N. Wilson (New Statesman)
‘Philip Mansel’s highly enjoyable and intricately-worked account of three great Mediterranean ports: Alexandria, Smyrna and Beirut … With a sharp eye for detail and a deep understanding of the dynamics of traditional empires and societies, Mr Mansel describes Izmir (formerly Smyrna), as it flourished before the first world war and Alexandria in the days before the triumph of Egyptian nationalism in the 1950s.’ (The Economist)
‘The great Levantine cities of the Near East form the subject of Philip Mansel’s excellent new book. It’s a thought-provoking study of the Levantine world, as seen through the prism of three of its most splendid cities: Smyrna, Alexandria and Beirut. It’s also thoroughly researched, as readers familiar with Mansel’s previous work, “Constantinople: City of the World’s Desire”, might expect. One of its strengths lies in the colourful quotations from letters, diaries and travel narratives.’ Giles Milton (Literary Review)
‘Philip Mansel’s impressive return to the eastern Mediterranean … Instead of composing an elegy on a once powerful civilisation, Mansel has given the Levantine world its chronicle, and restored its weight in history.’ Jason Goodwin (Spectator)
‘This is a masterly work: by focusing on the see-sawing fortunes of Smyrna, Alexandria and Beirut – extolled as “queens” of the Levant – Mansel exposes the problems of achieving coexistence in a world fragmented by disunion. … Whether [Beirut] will survive as a cosmopolis is anybody’s guess. Between the lines of Mansel’s prodigious book, that uncertainty poses a cardinal riddle. Might future strategies in pursuit of wealth through free trade – modified so that the conditions are equitable – lead toward coexistence and peace?.’ Moris Farhi (Independent)
‘Then Lebanon famously blew up. Why, is a good question. Is it that internationalisation and formal collective rights just envenom relations on the street? Or that the internationalisation was clumsily done? Or that Yasser Arafat messed things up? The jury is out. In its deliberations it will find Philip Mansel one of its main authorities.’ Norman Stone (Guardian)
‘Mansel fait un brillant récit … l’auteur, qui connaît bien la région et qui a rédigé cet ouvrage pendant ses séjours à Beyrouth et à Istanbul, en fait des portraits hauts en couleur et en vérité.’ Irène Mosalli (L’Orient Le Jour)
‘Eloquent and moving … a song of lamentation for a lost cosmopolitan world … There are magnificent set pieces in this book such as the portrait of Mohammed Ali of Egypt and his grandiose Alexandrian palace of Ras el-Tin; the British bombardment and occupation of the city in 1882; the torching of Smyrna when it fell to Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal in 1922, and many more … His strength indeed lies in his exhaustive research … Mansel made his reputation as a historian of nineteenth-century France and then with a dazzling book on Constantinople. His latest book will earn him a permanent place among historians of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern society.’ Patrick Seale (BBC History)
‘Thrilling … brilliantly organised along both chronological and geographical lines … A major achievement ... What gives it special virtue, to my mind, are the author’s verve and his attention to detail, to the personal dimension.’ Professor John Rodenbeck (Bulletin of the Association for the Study of Travel in Egypt and the Near East)
‘Mansel skilfully highlights the nationalist, religious, and cultural conflicts that plagued Smyrna, Alexandria, and Beirut well into the 20th century, while at the same time still acknowledging that the diversity of religion, nationalities, and ideas that coexisted in the Levant existed nowhere else in the world. This is a rich piece of historical storytelling that will satisfy scholars, travellers, readers of travel literature, and everyone in between. Highly recommended for anyone with an interest in this complicated region of the world.’ Veronica Arellano (Library Journal)
‘Highly enjoyable to read …It raises profound questions about the world in which we live…Important.’ Robert Holland (Anglo-Hellenic Review)
‘This book is a labour of love and finely tuned scholarship, ornamented with such telling social detail and intimate knowledge of the urban and social landscapes that it brings 300 years of history to entertaining life…Philip Mansel slowly makes the reader aware that the grand theme of his history is a slow unfolding tragedy which remains absolutely relevant to today’s multicultural societies, engaged as they are in the delicate balancing act between political unity and cosmopolitan diversity … not only an entertainment and a historical education but also something of a political warning.’ Barnaby Rogerson (Times Literary Supplement)
‘Majestic, detailed and pertinent.’ (Sunday Telegraph)
‘This is a remarkable, highly unusual and very readable social history of Smyrna, Alexandria and Beirut …a beautifully written book, full of amusing and informative gems taken from sources ranging from official documents to personal diaries. It is a history written to a human scale that depicts both the splendour and catastrophe that was the Levant.’ Lev Myshkin (The Global Dispatches)
‘Enlightening and quite irresistible.’ (Tribune)
‘On every page places, incidents, clothes, even sounds are faultlessly placed in front of the reader. It is a book to remember.’ (Vatan)
‘In a precise historical presentation the author of “Constantinople” gives the story of these cities in their own words without missing even the smallest details.’ (Cumhuriyet)
‘Philip Mansel pulls one into the magnificence of his pages. His book, on which he has worked like an oyster on a pearl, fills a great gap.’ (Sabah)
‘Magnificent. Deserves to be a classic like the author’s “Constantinople”.’ (Milliyet)
‘A superb book with some marvellous pictures.’ Peter Clark (Asian Affairs)
‘His most important and innovative book thus far…brilliant but horrifying.’ Al-Ahram
In 2011 Levant was chosen as one of their Books of the Year by the New Statesman and the Times Literary Supplement.