The cities we lost

What lessons can the Eastern Mediterranean’s once-cosmopolitan cities teach us about our strife-torn present?

Between the 1800s and 1950s, the Levant's port cities were beacons of trade and French-style Westernisation, writes Athanasiadis [AFP]

On a recent trip to Alexandria, I bumped into a Greek author of Alexandrian origins at a quaint waterfront patisserie. Over the course of our conversation, it became clear that unlike the majority of Greeks and other minorities that constituted this once pan-Mediterranean city, he chose to stay in Alexandria.

But his pacing the streets of its modern incarnation didn’t imply his being there; rather, this man inhabited a labyrinthine time-capsule of recollections that insulated him from modern Alexandria’s overcrowding, ugliness, pollution and demolition of its historical buildings.

His reason for remaining, even while absenting himself, was compelling: His leftist father dedicated his life to fighting for Egyptian independence from the colonial British. After leading a sailors’ revolt demanding better rights, the author’s father ended up fleeing British-administered Egypt for Moscow, and was subsequently transferred to Tashkent where he expired sometime in the early 1960s. He never saw his beloved Alexandria again.

His son kept the links with his father’s city, spending many months every year in districts whose past inspired him to commit acts of literature. But his generation of sixty-something Armenians, Greeks, Italians and Jews – childhood friends, business partners, sweethearts – suffered the most from Gamal Abdel Nasser’s socialist revolution and the nationalist liberationist movements that swept the region, the same result his father had strived for.

Elsewhere in the region, Levantine cosmopolitanism was stifled by Kemal Ataturk’s Turkification policies, Baathist Arab nationalism and the fallout from the creation of Israel. Cities such as Alexandria, Smyrna (Izmir), Beirut, Selanik (Thessaloniki) and Constantinople (Istanbul) shrivelled. Today there is no boat service from Alexandria to Beirut or Istanbul, let alone from Izmir to Thessaloniki.

French-style Westernisation

Between the 1800s and 1950s, the Levant’s port cities were beacons of trade and French-style Westernisation: Akin to 19th century Dubais and Dohas, only with an all-important additional layer of cosmopolitanism contributed by the lively mixture of ethnic and religious minorities – Armenians, Circassians, Greeks, Jews and others – coexisting under Ottoman suzerainty. Seaborne trade connected them, lessening their dependence on surrounding hinterlands.

But following the Empire’s collapse in the 20th century, their historical trajectories diverged. As nationalism claimed these cities into the newly-emergent Greek, Turkish, Egyptian and Lebanese states, imperial Istanbul sunk into a Republican hangover; bustling Selanik was turned from the port of the Balkans and the biggest Jewish city in Europe into the Greek state’s second city; aristocratic Alexandria slid into socialist neglect; while Beirut suffered the worst fate as it was literally taken hostage by the new states and wrecked in a classic proxy war. 

As for Smyrna and Salonica, they were some of the first cities to lose their character: Smyrna was burned in 1922 by a victorious Turkish army at the conclusion of a failed attempt by a Greek army to seize Byzantium’s historical expanse; Salonica’s identity went through successive degradations by the intentional dismantling of Ottoman and Jewish heritage in the aftermath of the city’s 1912 reconquest by the Greeks (who until then had been a minority of 40,000 in a population of 160,000), then by the Nazi occupation and finally by the cementification that marked Greece’s urbanising years.

And the erasing of memory continues. In November of last year, during a walk in Alexandria’s historical centre, al-Zahraa Adel Awad, an activist who runs a Facebook page on Belle Epoque Alexandria, pointed out a rickety wooden house of at least centennial vintage, telling me it was one of the city’s last Ottoman houses.

“Take a good look at it,” she advised. “It might not be here on your next visit.”

Demolition of memories?

But sad as the demolition of elegant buildings may be, why should the passing of these cities’ memories matter? Doesn’t nostalgia only self-indulgently cater to a small minority of has-beens? Isn’t it insensitive, at a time when we are witnessing the Middle East’s turbulent times, to concern ourselves with the bricks and mortar left behind by a community of outsiders?

The nationalist education that we all received in our schools was fashioned in such a way as to define ourselves according to narrow ethnic and religious definitions, or against common foes, rather than visualising us as richly textured components of one harmonious regional, historic tapestry.

Shouldn’t we focus instead on the political and economic crises in Turkey and Greece or the strife in Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Libya and elsewhere that collectively has claimed hundreds of thousands of dead over the past few years? Haven’t the power vacuums created by the Arab Spring resulted in loss of life, environmental collapse and the looting or destruction of Ottoman, Mamluke, Byzantine and Hellenistic heritage of far greater historical value than a few 19th century bourgeois buildings?

Why cry over the eradication of an era that is anyway irretrievably extinct?

I believe we should care because the story of how the cosmopolitan era ended allows us to uncover the threads of the narrative that brought us to the current precipice: A largely homogenised region facilitated by the expulsion of minorities and fostering of so-called “pure” Turkish, Greek or Arab nations. But rather than ending strife and dysfunction, the policies of chauvinism, among other factors, reinforced them.

In all the countries that once boasted ports bustling with multicultural communities, narratives of religious and nationalist chauvinism were manipulated to create a front against a “common enemy”.

But xenophobia failed to defeat colonialism, and neither did it yield social harmony. The banishment of large segments of the Mediterranean’s Christian and Jewish communities may have yielded temporary relief through the redistribution of their capital and assets, but it hardly resulted in lasting economic and social wellbeing. 

It also created a stagnating self-complacency in the Arab World enabled by the removal of those societies’ most competitive mercantile elements and their replacement by a facile social pact whereby the ruler guaranteed heavily subsidised foodstuffs and fuel for his people in return for allegiance and an absence of dissent.

The countries that emerged from Ottoman ashes spiralled into deeper level of educational, economic and social dysfunction, held together by strongmen hailing from these new states’ only solid institution: the Army. The countries founded after the collapse of the Ottoman, British and French empires knew that their survival was invested in the forming in their subjects’ minds, be they “Turkish”, “Egyptian”, “Greek” or “Israeli”, of a distorted Teflon patriotism intended to dispel generations of accumulated memories of coexistence.

The nationalist education that we all received in our schools was fashioned in such a way as to define ourselves according to narrow ethnic and religious definitions, or against common foes, rather than visualising us as richly textured components of one harmonious regional, historic tapestry.

While this skewed vision was not too disruptive for the new countries’ hinterlands, it marked the death of their port cities. Alexandria, Beirut, Istanbul, Salonica and Smyrna were workhorse city-states that produced major shares of the GDP of those states that later subsumed them. 

Hard-and-fast mercantile rules

In these melting pots, life was played by hard-and-fast mercantile rules. They were places of great social inequality, where the European, Ottoman and shuwwam (Levantine) upper crust enjoyed preferential treatment due to the Capitulations, legislation drafted in the twilight of the Ottoman Empire that allowed minorities to be protected by powerful foreign consulates, sometimes through the purchase of multiple European nationalities. But there was also great social variegation, with more recent arrivals starting from the bottom.

Working-class Greeks ran grocery shops, middle-class members of the minority worked in white collar administrative jobs (such as shipping agents), and the community’s wealthy might have been tobacco magnates who ploughed some of their profits back into generous donations towards building schools and churches for their less fortunate compatriots. The Greek and the Italian could be as rich as the pasha or as poor as the fellah, and often inhabited the same districts.

Surviving residents of the traditional working class, formed of Coptic and Muslim Egyptians, fondly recall growing up in Alexandria’s mixed districts alongside Armenians, Greeks, Jews, Maltese and the odd White Russian aristocrat-in-exile. Older Turks still remember Greek sentences they learned from their Rum playmates while growing up in fishing villages along the Bosporus or inner city neighbourhoods with a strong minority flavour. Surviving Salonica Jews still remember sentences in Bulgarian and Turkish commonly used by their neighbours.

In Alexandria, Beirut, Istanbul, Salonica and Smyrna, shop signs were written in French, Greek and Arabic and most people could get by in at least those languages if not also in Turkish, Italian, Ladino and English. It was an era of such intertwined coexistence that cosmopolitanism ceased being the preserve of the educated wealthy and lacked the associations it acquired in the 1960s thanks to advertisers invested in promoting jet travel to exotic locations.

The intervening century of nationalism killed off cosmopolitanism, while the spread of technology contributed to a leveling globalisation. Today, the memory of the departed East Mediterranean is preserved in the crumbling facades and oyster-shaped balconies of Alexandria’s eclectic apartment blocks, Thessaloniki’s neoclassical villas and Beirut’s serays.

Sometimes, even those fragments of memory have drained away, as in last summer’s Gezi Park protests where almost none of those protesting over the razing of a park and its replacement by a chintzy Ottoman barracks-style mall and hotel realised that, perhaps subconsciously, they were also fighting the imposition of a conservative, religiously conservative tourist-friendly neoliberal theme park on a once cosmopolitan area known for its bohemian lifestyle, churches, synagogues, and Genoese, Ladino Jewish, Armenian and Greek traders.

It was not by chance that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently lambasted his opponents as “admirers of Byzantium”.

Because memory is fickle, it is important to salvage this warning from the flickering ashes of Eastern Mediterranean cosmopolitanism: That inclusiveness and teamwork in an atmosphere of cultural tolerance are stepping-stones towards defeating the petty-minded disputes currently hobbling entire societies, from their political elites down to the man on the street.

Though this may appear an almost inconceivable vision in a region currently ripping itself apart in an orgy of sectarianism and mistrust, it is only this realisation that can result in us exiting our current impasse.

Iason Athanasiadis is a writer and filmmaker based between Istanbul, Cairo and Tripoli, Libya.