Back to a Levantine future?

The White Tower – landmark of the city of Thessaloniki in Greece
The White Tower – one of the most prominent landmarks of the city of Thessaloniki in Greece: most of the Levantine cities thrived because they were heterogeneous, a characteristic that was lost when nationalism entered the scene to impose more uniform identities (image: dpa)

As regional and global problems rise, the once mixed cities of the Eastern Mediterranean may offer ideas for how we can escape our distress

Essay by Michael Young

A decade ago, after publishing my only book, I proposed what I thought might be an interesting follow-up idea. I would take a months-long trip from Beirut to Nicosia, Izmir, Salonica, Mostar, Sarajevo, all the way to Vienna, and write about what had happened in terms of intercommunal relations – especially, but not exclusively, between Christians and Muslims. The end point in Vienna made sense because that is where the expansion of the Ottoman Empire was stopped in 1683.

I wasn't sure what the book would conclude, because that was left up to the journey of discovery. In the end, I was unable to follow through on the idea, but having visited most of these cities, I came to feel that as they became more monochromatic in the 20th century, they lost something essential in their character.

For example, what is Salonica without its Muslims or Jews? Jews once formed a majority in the city and the Jewish population, totalling some 46,000 people, was annihilated in Auschwitz-Birkenau by the Nazis in 1943, except for some 2,000 survivors. What is Turkish-controlled Nicosia without Greeks? I visited that half of the city in 1993, and entered a demoralising time warp. It seemed frozen in 1974, the year of Turkey's invasion, with strolling Turkish soldiers the major consumers in the then rather rachitic commercial area.

Cover of Philip Mansel's book "Levant: Splendour and Catastrophe on the Mediterranean"
Philip Mansel's book "Levant: Splendour and Catastrophe on the Mediterranean" investigated three cities that had gained from intercommunal coexistence – Smyrna, or modern-day Izmir; Alexandria; and Beirut

A stimulating blend of peoples, languages and cultures

None of those who have written about Levantine cities – meaning the cities of the Eastern Mediterranean once characterised by a stimulating blending of populations, languages, and cultures – has failed to reach a similar conclusion. Most of these places were alive and prosperous because they were heterogeneous, only to lose those characteristics when nationalism entered the scene to impose more uniform, or dominant, identities. Nationalism was not always a killing factor, however, as Beirut can attest. Perhaps the fact that Lebanese nationalism has always been a largely shambolic affair is why the city retains many of the pluralistic characteristics it once did during its somewhat idealised past.

In a book published in 2011, titled Levant: Splendour and Catastrophe on the Mediterranean, Philip Mansel investigated three cities that had gained from intercommunal coexistence – Smyrna, or modern-day Izmir; Alexandria; and Beirut. All had lost their cosmopolitan sheen, Mansel lamented, even if his chapter on Beirut came up short for failing to address the city's surviving ambiguities.

To Mansel, the essence of Levantine cities was their "diversity and flexibility", as they "could be escapes from the prisons of nationality and religion". He observed that "[i]n these cities between worlds, people switched identities as easily as they switched languages". His purpose was to see whether Levantine cities "were global cities before globalization", and whether they were "truly cosmopolitan, possessing the elixir of coexistence between Muslims, Christians, and Jews for which the world yearns". Mansel's book, though uneven, asked all the right questions.

Mansel's difficulty was that in looking at the history of his three Levantine cities, he couldn't hide that an integral part of their DNA was communal antagonism. Levantine cities thrived in part because the systems put in place by the Ottoman Empire allowed for diversity, and because in the end there was one final authority imposing order. The millet system gave each religious community significant autonomy in communal affairs, and even if the Ottomans sometimes had difficulty asserting their power, they could be pitiless when they put their mind to it – as happened after the 1860 massacres of Christians in Damascus.

River Evros – the border between Greece and Turkey
The Greek-Turkish border on the Evros river has become a focus for people looking to migrate illegally into Europe: "Regional or global problems have become of such a scale that the self-centred, inward-looking dynamics unleashed by nationalism are no longer adequate for addressing these problems. Environmental crises are good examples, but so too are illegal migration, vast population displacements and global economic shocks," writes Michael Young (image: Alexia Kalaitzi)

An ideal to be emulated?

What's the message then? Should we look at the nature of Levantine cities as an ideal that we should try to emulate, or recognise that what existed then only did so because of the peculiarities of Ottoman rule? In reviewing Mansel's book, I tried to square the circle by arguing, somewhat paradoxically, that perhaps what made his three cities so vital was precisely that they appeared to be impossible places, perpetually balanced on the edge of the precipice, and that this perennial game of equilibrium acted as a "volatile narcotic".

However, beyond the vivifying imagery, there is also a very practical benefit to looking back at these places, and it has to do with the shortcomings of nationalism in an age that requires transcending nationalism. In other words, regional or global problems have become of such a scale that the self-centred, inward-looking dynamics unleashed by nationalism are no longer adequate for addressing these problems. Environmental crises are good examples, but so too are illegal migration, vast population displacements and global economic shocks.

What we're talking about here is not multilateralism, though, which is the common format in which states wrestle with many of the problems they face. That's because multilateralism rests on fundamentally nationalistic foundations, since states bargain and negotiate with each other from the standpoint of national interests. For example, the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change (regardless of its merits or de-merits), which sought to cut carbon emissions, hit up against the refusal of many states to adopt measures that would undermine their economic growth, which could lead to popular discontent or worse.

Rather, a more profound question is whether nation states today are continuing to fulfil the role they are supposed to fulfil. This may seem like an odd question for people living in the developed world, where the state system remains the default framework of international relations. But in large parts of the Middle East, as well as in swathes of Africa and Asia, an increasing number of states, when they're not crumbling entirely, are chronically dysfunctional. In many places, nonstate actors have filled the vacuums left by states and have created networks of interests and crime, denying states the ability to achieve even their minimal aims.

Moving towards post-nationalist behaviour?

That's why it's worth asking whether the Levantine ideal, though it created environments for clashing identities, can be a waystation toward post-nationalist spheres of behaviour, especially in parts of the Middle East? In other words, does it offer a road to renewal? This may strike some as an effort to return to the "isms" of the past – pan-Arabism, pan-Syrianism, communism – which will provoke howls of protest, not least because many of these ideologies, like their proponents, were totalitarian in their intent and have been largely discredited in the Arab context.

The problem is that the regional nation-state system is in no better shape. Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, Sudan, and Libya are all places in which nationalism has been demeaned and sidelined by other forms of identity – sectarian, tribal, or regional. The result is entities caught up in various stages of breakdown or disintegration. Only the oil-wealthy Gulf states, as well as Morocco, Egypt, and to a lesser extent Tunisia, are exceptions in this cheerless catalogue of collapse.

How, you might ask, are states that have fallen apart capable of agreeing to even broader post-nationalist governing structures? I don't pretend to have an answer. However, in the absence of functional states, and often any desire among communities within these states to coexist, other frames of reference may soon have to be contemplated in our region. It could be to move toward larger entities that combine a number of existing states, since greater collaboration may be the only way for populations to tackle the monumental challenges they will inevitably encounter in the coming decades. Or it could be something else.

Past Levantine cities don't offer solutions so much as the possibility of leading us in advantageously impressionistic directions. If multifarious communities could live together and profit for centuries, then wouldn't it make sense to think of new entities that could benefit from similar admixtures? In his book Salonica, City of Ghosts, historian Mark Mazower tells the story of a Jew from the city who emigrated to France in 1916 and was asked for his nationality upon arrival. "Salonican", he replied. The nation-state need not be the only construct with which people identify. Levantine cities present us with other avenues of reflection.

Michael Young 

© Diwan | Carnegie Middle East Center 2024