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The History and Shaping of the Levant


The History and Shaping of the Levant

Dr. Yousra Mazeh

            The Ottoman Empire was a marvel of its time. Aside from the huge expanse of land it covered, the cultural and social structures that existed throughout were unlike any other around the world. The significance of these entities lies in the fact that they were able to host a global community and facilitate the growth of diverse, complex societies. But roots don’t always show and a glance at the Middle East today would never reveal the disparity of peoples within the region and the unique backgrounds that shaped their lifestyle, language, customs, and beliefs. The Arab people as a whole have their similarities, but those similarities are basic and can slightly differ from region to region, reflecting the national identities that persist within the territory. The paths taken by each country to cause these slight divergences would be impossible to cover fully, but the shared historical events that helped shape the modern Middle East can reveal a lot in themselves. To further explore this process and the questions of the effects of Ottomanism, war, colonialism, and nationalism, I will zoom in on one particular region within the Middle East and try to trace its path. From Ottoman rule up until gaining independence, many factors were at play in shaping the ethnically and religiously diverse countries within the Levant and nationalism was a vehicle for these transformations during this period.

            To trace the history of the region, I will start at the Ottoman Empire circa 1500 and investigate the political features around that time. The European powers interfered with the Levantine cities especially, so it is important to understand the extent of their reach and the specific actions that had major effects on the region. Then I will define nationalism and its roots in the Middle East. Nationalism was adopted differently throughout the Arabian Peninsula, however, so it would be best to just focus on the specific role nationalism played in the Levant. And then I will go over the two great turning points in the evolution of the Levant which are World War I and II.

The origins of the modern Middle East lie, to a great extent, in the ties established within the Ottoman Empire. After the Ottomans conquered Constantinople and began to spread their Islamic empire to lands from the northern coasts of Africa, to the eastern territories of the Arabian peninsula, a united, pure Islamic state was on the rise and keeping up with the technological advancements of the time, so that it began to be seen as a threat to the Holy Roman Empire and Christian European powers. The relations between the Ottoman Empire and European nations, however, were one of a kind and even heretical in the minds of many European Christians. The Ottomans, hard set on fighting their battle and raising and protecting their Islamic faith, contrasted starkly against the French, known to be responsible for many crusading activities[1]; but, by the turn of the sixteenth century, a common enemy entered the scene and, as common enmity tends to do, an unlikely alliance was formed between the Ottomans under Sultan Suleiman I (aka Suleiman the Magnificent) and the French kingdom under King François I.

            The French King had his own views on what a holy empire should look like and strongly believed in unification among the Christian people. He was fighting for the post of Holy Roman Emperor against King Charles I of Spain. Even after Charles ascended to the position of Holy Roman Emperor, and subsequently became known as Charles V, François fought the spread of Charles V’s influence[2] and in the process of doing so, allied his forces with the Ottomans, who were also incessantly threatened by Charles V’s forces. This alliance was suggested in 1525, made official in 1535, and strengthened until the French were comfortable enough to vocalize their relationship with the Ottomans amidst the disapproval of their neighboring Christian states.[3] The established Franco-Ottoman Alliance is of great significance when investigating the history of the Middle East, the Levant region in particular, and how it gave rise to the unique identities within the modern Middle East today.

            With this political alliance came much more interaction between Europeans and the Ottomans within the port cities of the Levant region. The French were granted concessions that allowed them to be continuously present within the Levant regions and free from falling subject to the laws of the Ottoman Empire. The continuous presence of the French brought social and cultural influences that were accepted within the port cities in which they stayed, especially after the establishment of a French embassy in 1536 in the diplomatic district within Constantinople known as Pera. After that, England, Poland, and later, the Netherlands followed suit and established their own embassies within the region as well, being anti-Habsburg. By the nineteenth century, these capitulations allowed for the establishment of a foundational social construct to accommodate coexistence between different races and religions within the cities of the Levant.[4]

It is important to note that, even though foreign embassies were also established in other regions within the Ottoman Empire, such as modern day Iran and Morocco, the usual trend was that “the foreigners” were segregated and placed in their own ghettos (closed off cities) far from the capital and intermingling was not as encouraged. That was not true for the Levantine cities, with bustling ports and a mix of people with different ethnicities and religions coming in close contact with each other every day. The effects were remarkable and are truly characteristic of these regions today. Religious customs and laws were widely shared, “only the cities of the Levant contained mosques, churches, and synagogues side by side.”[5] Christians, Muslims, and Jews exchanged practices and perspectives often pertaining to issues such as inheritance or marriage and divorce. Trade was very important within this region as well, the market places and ports were naturally where people congregated. And along with the diplomatic and geographic features that these diverse communities shared, there was even a common language, lingua franca, used only as a means of vocal communication between people within the Levant that was simple Italian at its core but mixed in words from languages including French, Arabic, and Turkish.[6] Centuries of the lasting alliances between the Ottoman Empire and these European states shaped the Levant region in such a profound way, that in the wake of war and nationalism by the turn of the twentieth century, distinct and rich cultural identities were formed during the rise of Arab nationalism.

The Ottoman Empire, as vast and diverse as it was, depended greatly on religion to maintain a sense of loyalty and unity throughout its expanse of land. From the heart of the empire, Istanbul, Ottomanism was endorsed and instilled in the people to keep this balance. But the growing presence of Europeans and their increasing influence and power within the empire eventually set off this balance. Especially due to the uneven distribution of contacts with the Europeans, most Arab people began to feel a lack of belonging; no longer could they stand by Ottoman nationalism.  The mid nineteenth century is when we start to see disengagement in Ottomanism by the Arab peoples and increasing formations of local nationalist groups spreading throughout the empire. Multiple nationalist identities began to form during this time, including Turkish nationalism, within the center of the Ottoman Empire, and Arab nationalism that “differed from region to region in intensity, origin, and precise character.”[7]

Nationalism itself can be defined as an attachment to a territory rising from emotional links developed through the sharing of values, symbols, and norms. The feeling must correspond to a defined nation, whether it be notional or physical, and shared by the other people of that nation. So, from that definition it is easy to conclude how many different nationalist movements began to rise within a greater Arab nationalist conception.

Knowing that these ideas of nationalism started developing several decades before the start of the twentieth century, it isn’t surprising to discover that during the First World War, these movements were catalyzed and the end of the war marked a time of transformation within the Middle East. And at the same time of the formation of these ideas, the Ottoman Empire was struggling with decentralization of power due to European forces, as mentioned earlier, which set it on a path of steady decline until the fall of the empire in 1918 and the rise of independent Arab states. The leaders of the nationalist groups that existed within the Ottoman Empire helped in its collapse. They saw the sultan as weak for allowing European powers to end up with so much power and wanted to protect their own customs and territories. This was difficult, however, because by 1920, after the complete collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the lands of the fallen empire were mandated to the French and British, and nationalists had to endure colonial rule before they would get their opportunity to truly form independent states by the Second World War.

During colonial rule, while the undercurrent of nationalism remained strong within the societies of the Levant, the first distinguished borders marking new national entities were formed and served as the foundations for “imagined communities” to build on. Under colonial rule, state institutions were able to become established that complemented these perceived communities.[8] And an education system was established that promoted literacy, commonality, and other features that further supported nationalist movements.[9] This seemed to be a crucial step in the establishment of independent nations within the Middle East. Britain and France were unable to establish a firm grip on their mandated colonies after being greatly weakened by the war and faced challenges through the changing political atmosphere in Europe after WWI. Come World War II and no longer can they continue to exercise power in their Middle Eastern colonies, so Britain and France basically retreat by the 1940s and that opens up an arena for independent nations to form.

Many historians agree that the European powers provided a sufficient platform for the formation of prosperous states within the Levant that could continue to advance their rich cultures. From early on there were established diplomatic settings that served as models, a common education system, the persistence of a shared language, political ties that could provide support and protection, etc. These features and more link the rich history of the region to the branched out entities that thrive today. In Jordan, a nation was able to become established against all odds from early on in the twentieth century, only to achieve popular legitimacy later on, an asset very unique to the Middle East.[10]

In Lebanon and Syria, people suffered greatly through the wars and had to deal with crises such as famine. The following quote exemplifies the attitude of nationalist leaders within the Levant, or Fertile Crescent, where ethnic and religious diversity was able to flourish for so long, but later required an evolved attitude to build independent nations that could accommodate coexistence. “There now is no Muslim, Christian, Druze, etc. amongst us. For the scaffolds were erected for all alike. And the famine claimed the lives of all equally. And the locusts descended on everybody. This war has melded us all together in its boiling pot, so that we now are Syrian, Lebanese and Palestinians without distinction of religion or denomination.”[11] A sense of nationalism that encouraged the acceptance of differences among people who share the same territory and face the same hardships is key in the forming of unique, diverse regions within the modern Middle East. In the wider context of the Middle East, leaders across the region similarly wanted to put aside the differences that existed between the peoples of the region and establish pan-Arab unity after the Second World War. This idea grew more popular as political leaders started to understand that, even if they could establish their own independent governments, in the case that they would be attacked by one of the big European powers, they were definitely at a loss, unless there were established alliances between the Arab nations. A sense of unity among all Arab people was not established adequately enough to last since these leaders were intent on following their own ambitions. But, the sentiment behind pan-Arab nationalism persisted and sustains an enduring sense of unity across the Arab nations nonetheless.[12]


Anderson, Betty. “The Duality of National Identity in the Middle East: A Critical Review.” Critique: Critical Middle Eastern Studies 11, no. 2 (September 2002): 229-250. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed April 2, 2017).

Fraser, TG, editor. The First World War and its Aftermath: The Shaping of the Modern Middle East. London: Gingko Library, 2015.

Gelvin, James L. “The League of Nations and the question of national identity in the Fertile Crescent.” World Affairs 158, no. 1 (Summer95 1995): 35-43. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed April 2, 2017).

Kamrava, Mehran. The Modern Middle East: A Political History since the First World War. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.

Mansel, Philip. Levant: Splendour and Catastrophe on the Mediterranean. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011.

Piccirillo, Anthony. “‘A Vile, Infamous, Diabolical Treaty’: The Franco-Ottoman Alliance of Francis I and the Eclipse of the Christendom Ideal.” Senior thesis, Georgetown University, 2009.

Smith, Dan. The Penguin State of the Middle East Atlas. New York: Penguin Books, 2016.

[1] Philip Mansel, Levant: Splendour and Catastrophe on the Mediterranean (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), 6.

[2] Anthony Piccirillo, “‘A Vile, Infamous, Diabolical Treaty’: The Franco-Ottoman Alliance of Francis I and the Eclipse of the Christendom Ideal” (Senior thesis, Georgetown University, 2009), 36-38.

[3] Mansel, Levant: Splendour and Catastrophe on the Mediterranean, 7.

[4] Ibid., 9.

[5] Mansel, Levant: Splendour and Catastrophe on the Mediterranean, 13.

[6] Ibid., 14.

[7] Mehran Kamrava, The Modern Middle East: A Political History since the First World War (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 70.

[8] Betty Anderson, “The Duality of National Identity in the Middle East: A Critical Review,” Critique: Critical Middle Eastern Studies 11 no. 2 (2002): 231, accessed May 2, 2017.

[9] James L. Gelvin, “The League of Nations and the question of national identity in the Fertile Crescent.” World Affairs 158 no. 1 (1995): 41, accessed May 2, 2017.

[10] Mehran Kamrava, The Modern Middle East: A Political History since the First World War (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 41-42.

[11] K. Sa’āda, ‘Kitāb Maftūh ‘ilā as-Sūrīīn wa al-Lubnānīīn wa al-Filistīnīīn’, in Silsilat al-’A’māl al-Majhūla (Dar al Rayes, Beirut: 1987) p 140, quoted in TG Fraser, editor, The First World War and its Aftermath: The Shaping of the Modern Middle East (London: Gingko Library, 2015), 91.

[12] Dan Smith, The Penguin State of the Middle East Atlas (New York: Penguin Books, 2016), 32-34.

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