The Coastal History Blog 21: “The ‘Cosmopolitan Port Town’—Is There Any Other Kind?”

betterMichael Pearson, in his book The Indian Ocean, emphasizes that littoral societies have markedly different attitudes from their more parochial neighbors inland.  He quotes Ross Dunn on the “cosmopolitan frame of mind” of Muslims in East Africa, southern India, and Malaysia and adds: “This was reinforced by the coastal location and the fact that most of them were traders, and so had to be aware of distant markets and people and places.” [1]  Here are two more quotations that Pearson reproduces with approval: “Port functions, more than anything else, make a city cosmopolitan…” [my italics] and “… experience, that best of masters, has gone far to unteach the lessons of ignorance, intolerance, and national aversion.” [2]

So is the term “cosmopolitan port town” redundant, like referring to a “trackless wilderness”?  I’ve discussed the idea of a “Tolerant Coast” here before, and we’ve visited one corner of the Indian Ocean in my earlier blog post on Sunil Amrith’s recent book.

If we consider Pearson’s propositions in comparative perspective, extending our view only as far as the eastern Mediterranean, they don’t stand up to close inspection.  For example, journalists covering the Middle East often frame their narrative in terms of a visit to a “formerly tolerant port town”—this piece from the Washington Post on Alexandria, Egypt is a good example.  If there is such a thing as a “formerly tolerant port town,” then we know that the soothing sea breezes themselves are not adequate to explain what’s going on.

Philip Mansel, in his highly readable and intriguing study of Smyrna, Alexandria, and Beirut, repeatedly refers to these cities as “volcanoes” or “ticking time bombs.” [3]  That, I think, is a clumsy way to put it—it has the same flaws as referring to a society marred by sharp socioeconomic inequalities as a “pressure cooker” or as “pre-revolutionary.” In fact, Mansel himself frames the question more subtly when he acknowledges that a city like Beirut was simultaneously “an incubator and pacifier of nationalisms.” [4]  Some of the very port towns most legendary for their long histories of coexistence birthed uncompromising nationalist strongmen who had no time for the Levantine worldview.  Beirut’s self-destruction is well known, but Ataturk was from Salonika, today a Greek city.  And Nasser was from Alexandria.  If coexistence had such a long history in these port towns, why did it prove so fragile and, we might add, unpersuasive to those who had personally experienced its benefits?

A cynical answer could be that coexistence was a pragmatic choice, easily tossed aside when it ceased to seem useful.  These towns were, after all, emporia that relied upon long-distance trade, and groups like the Jews, Greeks, and Armenians appeared to be the necessary yeast to make that bread rise.  They served as translators, moneylenders, speculators, commercial agents, ship owners, entrepreneurs, and so forth.  Shared prosperity, as Mansel admits, may have been the grease lubricating the wheels of coexistence. [5]

The grimmer side of this: “in a crisis, nationality could fall like a sword.” [6]  And a crisis could be something as regular as an annual religious holiday.  The Blood Libel—the ancient accusation that Jews kidnapped Christian children to serve up at their Passover meals—enjoyed a vigorous life in the Levantine port towns.  In Smyrna, “Greeks accused Jews of ritually murdering a Christian child in 1868, 1872, 1888, 1890, and 1896”; in one incident, Greeks actually blockaded the Jewish quarter and in 1901, “the bells of St. Photeini rang against Jews,” triggering riots. [7]   Mansel adds, however, that “Greeks visited Jewish districts when illuminated for Purim…” [8]

This last sentence absolutely blew me away.  Purimis an unusual holiday, structured around a ritual reading of the Book of Esther, the story of a narrowly-averted pogrom in ancient Persia.  The would-be persecutor of the Jews, Haman, is vilified in carnivalesque ways (loud groans and mechanical noisemakers greet every mention of his name in the story), a stone with his name inscribed is rubbed blank to efface his memory, and so on.  Drinking and costume parties celebrate the story’s end, which involves a rare instance of the Jews turning the tables and smiting those who planned to exterminate them.  It is a challenge to imagine just what it is like to celebrate Purim in a Jewish community with an immediate and personal memory of pogroms on those very streets.  It is even more of a challenge—and more than I can manage—to imagine what it would be like to celebrate that holiday while rubbing elbows with such guests.  (What it was like for the Greeks is also worth a moment’s consideration.  Did they know what the holiday was about?)

In 1922, when the militant ambitions for a Greater Greece clashed with Ataturk’s emerging Turkish national state, Smyrna’s large Greek population was burned out and driven into the sea in a humanitarian catastrophe of vast proportions.  (In Ataturk’s view, this was proportional retribution for the purges of Turks from towns like his birthplace, Salonika.)  According to Mansel, most of the other inhabitants of Smyrna remained aloof while this went on.  His epitaph for this Levantine city: “Smyrna’s Muslims and Jews showed the same lethal indifference to the fate of other races that Greeks and Armenians had displayed towards each other during previous massacres.” [9]  Today, Smyrna is known as Izmir and the happy tourists writing reviews on TripAdvisor show no awareness that the hip nightclubs and bars along the waterfront were built on the ashes of an ethnically cleansed community.

Superficially, bustling polyglot port towns all appear cosmopolitan.  Yet I think we can notice some important differences between Mansel’s Levant and the Indian Ocean port towns described by Pearson and Amrith.  I don’t mean to impose a simplistic contrast between complete opposites; after all, Amrith’s book has its share of pogroms, for example in Burma against those descended from Indian migrants.  And Mansel records that in Salonika, Christians and Muslims visited the shrines of each other’s saints.

Yet it’s important to not lose sight of the difference between a port town with a robust cosmopolitan spirit and a port town better characterized as a codified regime of toleration.

The syncretism that is so common in the Indian Ocean is a fine example of cosmopolitan attitudes at work.  In the assumption that handy solutions could come from any quarter, seafarers marshalled the saints, charms, and rites from every faith to bring them good luck on their next trading voyage.  Pearson describes the extensive efforts of orthodox Muslim clerics, mostly of Yemenite origin, to re-impose the distinctions between faiths in the Indian Ocean islands and port towns; the need for that campaign is itself a testament to the successes of syncretism, which had blurred the lines between ethno-religious factions almost beyond recognition.

In the Levant, the much-lauded Ottoman approach to diversity (the millet system, which enshrined autonomy, rights, and privileges in law) may have intensified parochialism, jealousy, and rivalry.  At the very least, it left “us vs. them” thinking intact.  Greeks, Jews, Turks, and Armenians could live side by side, but their toleration for each other may have amounted to little more than the temporary and conditional suspension of hostilities.  This should not be confused with a cosmopolitan spirit; it is more like the great Tom Lehrer’s song “National Brotherhood Week.”

A recent piece in Al-Jazeera, “The Cities We Lost,” deplores the “distorted Teflon patriotism intended to dispel generations of accumulated memories of coexistence.”

I’m sympathetic.  Celebrating such a past is one way of saying that the future, too, can be different.  However much we may yearn for a “usable past” for the Middle East, though, the Levantine port town tradition may not be equal to the hopes invested in it.  Historians should pay attention to coexistence, but not shy away from the hard questions, beginning with: “What kind of coexistence?”



[1] Michael Pearson, The Indian Ocean (London: Routledge, 2003), 77.

[2] Pearson, Indian Ocean, 32.

[3] Philip Mansel, Levant: Splendour and Catastrophe on the Mediterranean (London: John Murray, 2010).

[4] Mansel, Levant, 195.

[5] Mansel, Levant, 109.

[6] Mansel, Levant, 137.

[7] Mansel, Levant, 172.

[8] Mansel, Levant, 174.

[9] Mansel, Levant, 217.

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One Response to The Coastal History Blog 21: “The ‘Cosmopolitan Port Town’—Is There Any Other Kind?”

  1. Isaac Land
    Isaac Land March 18, 2015 at 2:09 pm #

    Since posting this piece, I’ve read more widely in the academic literature on cosmopolitanism. Caroline Humphrey’s “Odessa: Pogroms in a Cosmopolitan City” (which appeared in her edited volume, Post-Cosmopolitan Cities) is a long, nuanced essay. Of special interest is her discussion of the central role played by Greek sailors–over at least two generations–in spreading anti-semitic rumors and encouraging violence against Jews. In 1821, what Humphrey calls “the first pogrom in Odessa” (34) was triggered by Greek sailors who claimed that the Patriarch of Constantinople, Gregory V–who had been beheaded by the Ottoman authorities–had been further insulted by Jews who dragged the corpse through the streets. Fifty years later, in 1871, Gregory V’s body was to be repatriated to Athens in a ship named “Byzantium,” but a new cycle of anti-semitic rumors emerged connected with the procession down to the harbor. Humphrey notes the prominence of “sailors and dockworkers from the port” gathering at the Greek church near a Jewish neighborhood on the eve of Easter Sunday. It was this crowd that initiated the pogrom. (37) These examples are interesting both in terms of how sailor’s mobilities and transnational affiliations might shape the life of a port town, and also in light of the familiar claims that the trading functions of ports naturally enhanced an awareness of interdependency and the importance of continued peaceful coexistence between ethnic and religious factions.

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