A Few Things We Don’t Quite Get About the Levant

Nassim Nicholas Taleb
INCERTO
Published in
11 min readMay 12, 2024

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(First Draft of the Foreword to Pierre Zalloua’s forthcoming book. For comments.)

Head-dress for success — Nobody told the Arabs — Ivermectin and religious conviction — Bad news for Baden Baden — Mother Anatolia — Take away the State Department

Europa was the daughter of Agenor, king of Tyre

Some people believe that the Levant is the end of the East and a portal to the West; others describe it as the end of the West and a portal to the East. Those in the first group tend to belong to the main branches of the Islamic faith, while those in the second belong to various Christian Levantine churches. Now, one might think that the two descriptions are equivalent: an intersection, after all, is an intersection. However, by the same mechanism that generates the so-called ‘narcissism of small differences,’ not only are these two statements not equivalent, but they are, in practice, contradictory. It even took a civil war for the Lebanese to understand this fallacy.

Douma, in Northern Lebanon

So the healthy way to think of the Levant is neither East nor West and, better, above such dichotomy; both its location on the Mediterranean and its proximity to both the Caucasus and Arabia (though separated by a desert) are highly deceiving.

The area has inflamed Western imagination for a long time, partially explained by the technology and cultural transfers that took place over three millennia. For Westerners, there has always been an aura of holiness and mystery, not just from its origination of Christianity but also for the various deep Gnostic creeds built there, the numerous religions still buried there with secret beliefs that require a complicated initiation, often hidden under Islam or even Christianity.

The Superficiality of Cultural Markers

Let me first discuss how the notion of East vs West is highly constructed — and very poorly so. Let us consider the modern symbols that provoke such strong emotions. We’ll start with headscarves, indicative of a certain confession, with the French boiling over its non-republican significance. Well, the Islamic practice either originated from the Orthodox Church or was a common trait of the times across cultures — just look at old Russian babushkas. A noticeable trait in Renaissance paintings: Medieval Europe had stern sumptuary rules, with women dressed in black (and their heads covered) while men were allowed sartorial flamboyance.

But somehow, it recently spread as a cultural marker — in my own Levantine childhood, I never saw my Greek Orthodox grandmother without a head covering, while Muslim women (particularly in rural areas) were often bareheaded. Now, consider the prayer style: ditto. The Orthodox performed the μετάνοια, with the head touching (even hitting) the ground during prayer, a symbol of both physical and spiritual prostration, a practice that was prevalent at the birth of Islam. Finally, consider architecture: the dome is Byzantine, and the first Islamic places of worship were designed by Byzantine architects — it was so natural, as nobody informed the Arabs that there was supposed to be an East-West dichotomy that came with a cluster of symbols.

Further, the demarcation East-West, until the late 18th Century and the formation of the nation-state of Greece, was not along current lines. The “East” started at the border between the Ottoman and Habsburg empires –Orthodoxy thrived under the turban which it preferred to the tiara. So did the name Levant. The Levant Trading Company which brought coffee to coffee houses in London three Centuries ago was based in Smyrna, now Izmir, Türkiye. And it was not until Greece joined the European Union in 1981 that people stopped saying “I am going to Evropa”, meaning Western Europe. For ‘Levant’ is a French exonym meaning ‘East,’ referencing France, similar to how ‘Anatolia’ refers to ‘East’ from the perspective of the Attic mainland. Its Arabic name, Bilad el Sham is an exonym meaning “North”. Canaan is the only endonym of which I am aware.

Over time, with the rise of monolinguistic nation-states after the dissolution Ottoman Empire, the designation “Levant” kept shrinking until if referred to an area that is linguistically coherent, that is speaks a collection of dialects that are mutually understandable under the umbrella “Levantine Arabic”, mapping to today’s Syria, Lebanon, and the Holy Land, closest to Ancient Canaan.

Doura-Europos and the Arrow of History

Now, let us return to that identity business. About a decade ago, I was privileged to visit an exhibit from Doura-Europos, a Syro-Mesopotamian frontier city of the Roman Empire, in the area currently known for its origination and dominance of ISIS/ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria/Levant). A synagogue had biblical scenes painted, proving that as late as the 4th Century, human representations were still present in some parts of Judaism. Further, the same room served as a place of worship for pagans, Christians, and Jews.

The first lesson, which was a main theme behind The Black Swan, is our endemic misunderstanding of the dynamics of history. What I call the retrospective distortion, affecting both the perception of the random character of events and the degree of differentiation of past designations: we flow back modern distinctions such as Christian or Jew to the past, in a severely deforming anachronism. We also pathologically like to categorize, and underestimate past diversity.

The second lesson is that religious differentiation, culminating in the modern polarizations, is a rather late thing in history. So is its ancillary religious intolerance.

So the direct ancestors of the most intolerant people on earth, ISIS supporters, would put to shame the modern West with their tolerance. We have numerous accounts in Syro-Palestine of families and tribes straddling different religions –some clans swapping between Christian Maronitism and Mountain Shiism (Harfoush), some between Druze and Maronites (Abillama), some between Sunni Islam and Christianity (the Shehabs). Somehow the deadline for conversion closed sometimes in the late 19th C. Even Sunni Islam (supposed to be the most Orthodox) was quite differentiated as some Sufi branches (in areas under Ottoman rule) were not aware of the interdict against the consumption of alcohol.

The rise of connectivity (in sequence, newspapers, radio, television, then the internet) had the perverse effect to make religions less regional, more centralized. For instance, Maronites used to swap religion with a Shiite neighbor in case of the realization of a wish, or neder –the practice has now stopped. My theory is that many religions stayed hidden under the cover Sufi, Shiite, Alevi, Alawi, Ezidi, and we have been losing such diversity.

So today, we tend to observe in the Levant greater polarization around religion, with separation of groups around sectarian lines, the main ones being: Sunnis, Shiites, Druzes, Maronites, Greek-Orthodox, Monophysites or “Syriac Orthodox”, Armenian Orthodox (the last two being not compatible and not in communion with the earlier ones), and Jews. But this, as we showed from Doura Europos is not intrinsic to religion: it is not necessarily a property of religion to produce polarization with clustered beliefs.

But if Levantines were in the past wise about religion, they were still polarized, but for other, generally silly things. It’ s a human trait to cluster and form networks with irrational and unexplainable side viewpoints –as one buys a collection of creeds as a single block. At the time of writing those who vote for Donald Trump believe in the therapeutic benefits of Ivermectin, an equine dewormer, while his opponents prefer to rely on vaccines; now try to see any valid, non contrived connection between therapeutic choices and political beliefs. So when Doura Europos was a bustling city, with religion a noncentral marker, Levantines weren’t textbook angels. There was almost always a severe brand of sectarian tension. The distinction was between the blues and the greens, people rooting for different teams in hippodrome races, with some political and sometimes theological correlation. Later, after the rise of Islam, a new division was formed between Qaysi and Yamani, based on imagined ancestry, which cut across religious groups: there were Muslim, and Druze, even Christian groups on both sides.

That Europe Thing

Some news for you, uncovered by Pierre Zalloua and colleagues (including yours truly). Where are you most likely to find people who are genetically closest to the ancient Greeks, those who have inflamed Western imagination and fueled theories of cultural ascendance? Well, it’s not in Athens, and even less so in the capitals of “Europe.”

The West — that is, to simplify for the purpose of this foreword, Northern Europe, the land of butter — has spent some time trying to give itself its own letters of nobility by associating with the Greeks. This includes attributing some qualities as unique to the Hellenes. By assuming that the absence of evidence is evidence of absence and that if we don’t have texts on a subject that precede the Greeks, then they must have invented it. This culminated with the great racial awakening of Europe emerging from the Middle Ages into the buildups of the category Indo-European vs. Semitic, essentially language groups that became associated with race. Later, a German could claim to be vicariously, through their ancestors, an active partaker in the origin of Western Civilization.

Our discovery will certainly irritate, perhaps infuriate, some Neonazi with a tattooed skull doing combat training in a clandestine camp near Baden Baden –or, worse, some professor of classics in a German university. For we found that the closest genetics to ancient Greeks are people from the Northern Levant. We sampled three groups from Northern Lebanon near the Syrian border: Muslims from Dinniyeh, Maronites from Zgharta/Ehden, and Greek-Orthodox from the Koura valley. They proved to be genetically closer to the Ancient Greeks than a random person in today’s mainland Hellas. Is this from gene swapping with Greek sailors and Byzantine armies? No, as we could time the admixtures: the origin is very ancient. It just happens that both Ancient Greeks and Ancient Levantines, particularly those in the North, originate from the same source population in Ancient Anatolia.

For the distinction Indo-European vs. Semitic is merely linguistic, not racial, but even scientists spent two centuries under the delusion that it was an unbrigeable genetic fissure. Languages move faster than people. As I argued in Skin in the Game, genes follow a majority rule, slow to disperse between neighboring populations, while languages (and religions) follow a minority rule, and can spread nonlinearly, like wildfire. If ten people whose mother tongue is not English sat in a company meeting with an solely English speaker, English will be the spoken language, which explains how the elite language becomes rapidly the norm. Often, as in Türkiye, Morocco, Egypt, conquered populations change language rapidly, deceiving themselves about a national origin. Even Ernest Renan, who was obsessed with the racial superiority of the West, at some point defined Semitic as merely linguistic[1]. An easy way to see that the Phoenicians and Greek were almost the same branch: the dominant paternal haplogroup for both is the Anatolian J2a (Zalloua will make the notion of haplogroup clearer in Chapter x).

The Anatolian connection doesn’t require genetics; it is actually visible to anyone with acceptable vision (or a competent optician) who has taken a road trip across the Eastern Mediterranean. 1) What is called “Arabic music” in the Levant is actually an Anatolian style shared across the entire zone from Crete to the foothills of the Zagros Mountains — the tones are the same, although the words change. 2) The dances: Lebanese and Syro-Palestinian “dabke” are similar to those found in Turkey (“halay”) and the Greek world (Καλαματιανός, Χασάπικο, and Συρτάκι). 3) The traditional Lebanese mountain garb, consisting of loose-fitting trousers with tapered ankles, resembles the Greek βράκα, the Turkish “şalvar,” and perhaps has its origins in the Persian “shalwar” (pants, often misperceived as a Western thing, actually originate from Persia and Anatolia).

Traditional Levantine clothing, Largely Anatolian

That Bad Greek of Syria

Another fact that may irritate the “West vs. East” crowd: the Levant was the larger contributor to “Western Civilization” directly, that is the Graeco-Roman corpus during the Hellenistic era, that is the ten centuries extending from the arrival of Alexander in the 4th C. BC to the 7th C AD, with the Arab invasion. Just as I am now writing in English without being a Northern European and liking butter (and porridge), Levantines wrore in Greek while being diglossic (Greek and Aramaic), or even triglossic (Greek, Aramaic, and the local Canaanite dialect). [Footnote: There was even quadriglossia in Berytus, present day Beirut, as the law school taught in Latin, something that horrified the purist Libanius Antiochus (ironically I recall once insulting someone telling him“we spoke Latin before you” as, in addition, the author Ammianus Marcellinus was, as his name indicates, from Ammia, present day Amioun, my ancestral village and place of residence)]. Many historians miss the link, focusing on the East-West transfer of knowledge via the translation program of the Abbasides House of Wisdom. Let us not forget that the New Testament was written in Antioch in what Nietzsche called the “bad Greek of Syria”.

Ironically, the racemonger Charles Murray wrote a book proclaiming the superiority of Western civilization by listing its contributions, not realizing that most ancient names were Levantine.

So below is a short list of Greek language Levantine authors and thinkers:

First, six Levantine scholarchs, that is, heads of Plato’s Academy: Diogenes of Phoenicia Hermias of Phoenicia, Syrianus, Marinus of Neapolis, Isidorus of Gaza, and Iamblichus of Apameia.

Next, the sholars Lucian of Samosata, Posidonius of Apameia, Numenius of Apamea, Zeno of Citium (originator of Stoicism), Zeno of Sidon, Philostratus, Philo of Byblos, Aeneas of Gaza, Libanius Antiochus, Zacharias Scholasticus, Boethus of Sidon, Apollonius of Tyre, Procopius of Gaza, Damascius, Apollodorus of Damascus, Domninus of Larissa, Timotheus of Gaza, Nicomachus of Gerasa, Ammianus Marcellinus, Antipater of Sidon, Antipater of Tyre, Marcus Valerius Probus (Probus of Berytus), Vindonius Anatolius Berytius, Dorotheus of Sidon, Hermippus of Berytus, Sopater of Apamea, Procopius of Caesarea, Lucius Julius Gainius, Fabius Agrippa of Apamea, Antiochus of Ascalon, Apollodorus of Seleucia, Philostratus, Maximus of Tyre (Cassius Maximus Tyrius), and Sopater of Apamea.

Add the jurists Papinian (Aemilius Papinianus) and Julius Paulus Prudentissimus.

Finally, we count the theologians John Chrysostom, John of Damascus, Ananias of Damascus, Alcibiades of Apamea, Alexander of Apamea, not counting a certain number of Catholic popes.

The Most Stable Region of the World

Another counterintuitive fact: the Levant today appears to be an unstable part of the world, filled with warfare and intractable conflicts. This may lead people to overlook the fact that, between 1860 and 1948 (or more generally 1967, and, for Lebanon, 1975), the Levant was the most stable part of the world. It attracted a large number of what the French called “Levantins” — French and Italian merchant families in search of stability who settled in the Ottoman Empire, some of whom moved further south after its dissolution. There were bankers, doctors, dentists, piano teachers, and even French grammar specialists among these fortune-seekers. Additionally, the Levant was the main destination for Anatolian Armenians following their massacre in 1915. Remember, during that period, Europe was consumed with warfare, from the Franco-Prussian Wars to the Second World War, which completely spared the Levant. The area benefited from not being on the radar of the United States State Department, an institution that wreaks havoc when trying to ‘improve’ –usually unsolicited –yet remains unaware of its track record. It is my hope that we will revert to that situation at some point in this century.

[1] La vie de Jésus

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