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Noun or adjective that defines the non-Muslim populations and cultures of the modern Middle East.

The term levantine is French in originlevantin and implies a geographic reference to the sun risingsoleil levant in the east, or levant. The French coined the term because France, in the sixteenth century, was the first Christian national state to exchange diplomatic recognition with the Ottoman Empire located in the eastern Mediterranean littoral. By the early 1800s, English travel literature referred to the lands of the Ottoman Empire as the Levant. Indeed, in the 1990s the London-published international business weekly the Economist still refers to their reporters based in Cyprus as their Levant correspondents.

The Rise of a Levantine Bourgeoisie

From the 1500s to the 1850s, Levantine traditionally meant a European resident of the Levant involved in EuropeanOttoman trade. By the end of the nineteenth century, the label was significantly broadened to include a European born in the Levant whose parentage included Greek or Armenian blood. Moreover, Levantine was by then applied to Syro-Lebanese Christians, Sephardic Jews, Maltese, Cypriots, Armenians, and Greeks, all minorities in the Muslim East living and doing business in the large trading centers of the Ottoman Empire. The term almost always indicated an urbanized commercial bourgeoisie whose members were usually rich and influential merchants and who were different, due to their Westernized education and culture, from the petit bourgeoisie in the provincial towns and the villages of the hinterland.

Historically, the development of a Levantine bourgeoisie was the result of significant trade with Europe and reflected the growing cultural interaction that both preceded and paralleled imperial ties between Europe and the lands of the Ottoman Empire. The Westernization of Levantines was the result of commerce, travel, emigration, and attendance at the foreign missions' schools that dotted the eastern Mediterranean by the mid-1800s. Believing in progress, Levantines saw Europe as the leader of a progressive world, and easily accepted its values. They formed a mercantile elite whose cultural anchors transcended local and regional boundaries, and whose perspective was fixed on Europe. Consequently, there arose a natural affinity between these modernizing groups, regardless of their ethnonational backgrounds, in different parts of the Middle East. Levantines were individuals who were never Muslims nor usually Arab Christians, whose origins were somewhere in the eastern Mediterranean, and whose primary language and culture, except for Syro-Lebanese Christians, were not Arabic. Because Levantines were conversant in a number of foreign languages and local dialects, many became the indispensable interpreters and translators of the foreign consulates throughout the Levant.

As non-Muslims, members of these minorities usually acquired the protection of European powers in order to benefit from the privileges afforded foreigners under the Capitulations. Centuries of insecurity under Mamluk or Ottoman rule had conditioned them to try to obtain the protection of European powers who, in most cases, were only too willing to extend it. This phenomenon had begun as early as the seventeenth century in Lebanon with the Maronite Christians, who received French protection inside the Ottoman Empire.

Twentieth-Century Evolution of the Term

By the 1900s Levantine had acquired a negative moral coloration. Sir Evelyn Baring, British agent and consul-general in Egypt from 1883 to 1907, adhered to the traditional definition, but emphasized the southern European origin of those to whom the term applied. He further included a pejorative nuance that had recently been attached to the term: "Levantines . . . suffer in reputation by reason of qualities which are displayed by only a small minority of their class . . . among this minority are to be found individuals who are tainted with a remarkable degree of moral obliquity." Other writers were more specific and referred to Greek or Armenian money lenders or to "sellers of strong waters to Muslims in most cities of Western Asia."

The pejorative implication gained ground. An impressive publication that served as a guide to British investors in Egypt, in discussing Alexandria as a summer resort, informed its readers that the city became the temporary home of "businessmen from the capital unable to get over to Europe and a certain class of Levantines who invariably return to Cairo richer than they left." Thus, the term Levantine evolved to encompass both ethnocultural identity as well as moral judgment. From applying to a European born and living in the eastern Mediterranean, it came to include either an Eastern Christian or another member of a non-Arab minority whose business dealings were ethically tainted to the point of implementing the profit motive even while on vacation.

The metamorphosis of the term probably reflected a change in the attitudes of Europeans toward the East. By the end of the nineteenth century, European Arabists believed that Eastern civilization was "purer, more spiritual and more wholesome" than Western civilization, and that European greed and viciousness were destroying the Arab East. To such Europeans, Levantines were the carriers of Western and European greed and viciousness, since it was through themChristian brothers of the Europeans and, to a lesser extent, Jewsthat it flowed into Eastern and Arab society.

By the 1920s Levantine and Levantinism had also acquired political nuances commensurate with the seismic effects of World War I on the region. Various authors used the terms to describe the political crisis affecting Turkish society; the expression ascribed Turkey's defeat in World War I to the fact that Turks from Istanbul had "become Levantiny." Writing in the postcolonial mid-1950s, Elie Kedourie, an Iraqi Jew by birth and an incisive student of Middle Eastern politics and society, maintained that by the 1940s the Levant was perceived as much a region of the spirit as a region of the globe, and that the spread of Levantinism was the characteristic malady of Islamic and Arab society.

Albert Hourani, an Arab Christian and a perceptive student of Middle East history, writing shortly after World War II, maintained that Levantinism was a symbol of national and ethnocultural dispossession. He further ascribed to it philosophical aspects of the human condition, a sort of postwar mal de siècle, by stating: ". . . to be a Levantine is to live in two worlds or more at once without belonging to either; to be able to go through the external forms which indicate the possession of a certain nationality, religion or culture without actually possessing it. It is no longer to have a standard of one's own, not to be able to create but only able to imitate. . . . It is to belong to no community and to possess nothing of one's own. It reveals itself in lostness, pretentiousness, cynicism and Despair" (Hourani, 1947). Undoubtedly affected by the postwar atmosphere of frustrated nationalist self-assertion, Hourani cast Levantines as a group adrift without the contemporary concerns of national self-realization. However, his alarm underlines the concerns of Arab Christian minorities caught in the dilemma of decolonization: the fear of rejection by the Arab Muslim majority.

The twentieth-century political definitions of Levantinism encompass the notion that people and cultures can be divided into genuine and hybrid, with the implication that the former are clearly superior to and more desirable than the latter. They present an arbitrary division of historical phenomena driven by ideology and containing ahistorical value judgments. To apply this perspective to the Middle East overlooks the fact that the area has historically absorbed a number of vastly diverse cultures, languages, customs, and values. Although some of these cultures had a stronger influence than others, they all contributed to the region's heterogeneity. Thus, an understanding of Middle East history must include an assessment untainted by ideological prisms, but comprising a perspective that includes the experience and the contributions of its diverse populations.

see also capitulations; maronites; ottoman empire: overview.


Cromer, Lord. Modern Egypt. London: Macmillan, 1908.

Hourani, Albert. Minorities in the Arab World. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1947.

Kedourie, Elie. England and the Middle East: The Destruction of the Ottoman Empire, 19141921. London: Bowes and Bowes, 1956.

Oppenheim, Jean-Marc Ran. "Twilight of a Colonial Ethos: The Alexandria Sporting Club, 18901956." Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1991.

jean-marc r. oppenheim

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