London: the new Levant?

Posted by RDN under Mind & body / On books on 3 January 2014

I have been reading Robert Byron’s lovely, weird, The Byzantine Achievement (1929). I am drawn to the way the English mind admires the Hellenic as part of its being drawn to the Levantine. This Hellenophilia is a question of seeing Greece as something more, and more continuous, than merely having in its heyday been the birthplace of the Western mind. Besides, I like the way creative people like John Craxton (and the Durrell’s of course) and others were so keen on Greece. Byron’s these is that Byzantium was neither Classical (and in that sense it wasn’t proto-Western) nor Asian (and in that sense it wasn’t oriental). Rather, it was something which was Greek (and indeed the Greek which was mocked by the likes  H A L Fisher as scruffily Balkan), and planted in the eastern Mediterranean. Byron sees this misunderstood tradition as being full of life, reality, vigour, intelligence: it wasn’t subject to the whimsical despotism of the East, nor to the abstract yearnings of the West’s “classicism”. It was Christian, for sure, but Christian (one might say) in a Palestinian or Jewish way. Its Christianity and its secular life (insofar as they can be separated) had much in common with the rest of the non-Christian Levant. (I take it that a realist would point out, what he wasn’t so keen to, that Byzantium was also sclerotic.)

I am not alone in thinking about these sorts of things. Tom Holland’s In the Shadow of the Sword addressed them in a book and on TV, partly because he seems to have wanted to see what happened when Christianity and Islam met, amongst all sorts of other influences. Philip Mansell gave us Levant: Splendour and catastrophe on the Mediterranean, as Muslims, Christians and Jews lived together in trading coastal cities. There have been a fistful of TV shows looking at such allied themes as the deep history of the Jews, the Ottomans and the city we call Istanbul. Not to speak of the culinary exporations of the adorable Yotam Ottolenghi.

I suppose what is so interesting is that we have been tempted to see the Middle East more widely, and much of the Levant, as a place of chaos, of a collision of civilisations and it’s been hard to see how civilised they have been and might be. But after enough trouble, we get the urge to look beneath the present chaos and see what the fuss is about. Writers start to see the Levantine as being a source of what we think of as civilised. We can dimly reach back to ideas of Babylon and think it the birthplace of civilisation, and Athens comes easily to our mind as its most intense flourishing. But these are distant from us. Robert Byron – and now he is joined by many others – seems to want us to see something more earthy, real, and local as being as noble. Byron specifically said that the present Greek was bearing witness to ancient qualities.

A newer tradition is quite happy with this idea. People like Matt Ridley or David Landes stress that trade and migration – networking, confluence and co-habitation – produce the societies which we can most admire. So the “collision” of civilisations can be civilising, though it sometimes is the opposite.

I like the idea that London is now a sort of Venice, an honorary Levantine city-state itself, and why not a sort of Smyrna, Alexandria or Beirut? London is of course a harlot – driven by greed not creed – but definitely the scene too of great congress. And there is no particular reason to suppose it will end in tears, just because the Levant has been a scene of disasters.

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