Pity the lot of the modern British consul. Globalisation has undermined his raison d’être; budget cuts have robbed him of his perks. Croquet on the consulate lawn would still be jolly japes if only the Foreign Office hadn’t sold off the lawn.
How much rosier was consular life in the eighteenth century, especially for those lucky few posted to one of the great cities of the Levantine world. They lived like Oriental potentates, enjoyed vast salaries and had the power of life and death over their own nationals. Moreover, they often acted as intermediaries for the scheming viziers, eunuchs and sheikhs in whose fiefdoms they resided.
These fiefdoms – the great Levantine cities of the Near East – form the subject of Philip Mansel’s excellent new book. It’s a thought-provoking study of the Levantine world, as seen through the prism of three of its most splendid cities: Smyrna, Alexandria and Beirut.