Where Is the Levant?
The Levant is the name given to the eastern Mediterranean and the adjoining lands of Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Israel. Levant means “east”. The levanter wind is a strong easterly wind in the Mediterranean. In English history the Levant was indirectly the cause of the Crown using customs and excise to raise revenue. The Levant Company was in 1581 given the monopoly of trading with Constantinople (now called Istanbul), the meeting place of traders from east and west.
This company claimed that it protected routes and ensured the safe passage of merchant ships. It therefore charged merchants duty on goods arriving in England. The Levant Company continued in being until 1825, but its power to levy duty was taken back by the Crown in the reign of James I. Customs and excise have been an onerous and unpopular method of raising revenue ever since.
The term is borrowed from the French levant “rising”, referring to the rising of the sun in the east, or the point where the sun rises. The phrase is ultimately from the Latin word levare, meaning ‘lift, raise’. The notion of the Levant has undergone a dynamic process of historical evolution in usage, meaning, and understanding. While the term “Levantine” originally referred to the European residents of the eastern Mediterranean region, it later came to refer to regional “native” and “minority” groups.
The term became current in English in the 16th century, along with the first English merchant adventurers in the region; English ships appeared in the Mediterranean in the 1570’s, and the English merchant company signed its agreement (“capitulations”) with the Ottoman Sultan in 1579. The English Levant Company was founded in 1581 to trade with the Ottoman Empire, and in 1670 the French Compagnie du Levant was founded for the same purpose. At this time, the Far East was known as the “Upper Levant”.
In early 19th-century travel writing, the term sometimes incorporated certain Mediterranean provinces of the Ottoman empire, as well as independent Greece (and especially the Greek islands). In 19th-century archaeology, it referred to overlapping cultures in this region during and after prehistoric times, intending to reference the place instead of any one culture. The French mandate of Syria and Lebanon (1920–1946) was called the Levant states.
Today it is the term typically used by archaeologists and historians with reference to the history of the region. Scholars have adopted the term Levant to identify the region due to it being a “wider, yet relevant, cultural corpus” that does not have the “political overtones” of Syria-Palestine. The term is also used for modern events, peoples, states or parts of states in the same region, namely Cyprus, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, and Turkey are sometimes considered Levant countries (compare with Near East, Middle East, Eastern Mediterranean and Western Asia).
Several researchers include the island of Cyprus in Levantine studies, including the Council for British Research in the Levant, the UCLA Near Eastern Languages and Cultures department, Journal of Levantine Studies and the UCL Institute of Archaeology, the last of which has dated the connection between Cyprus and mainland Levant to the early Iron Age. Archaeologists seeking a neutral orientation that is neither biblical nor national have used terms such as Levantine archaeology and archaeology of the Southern Levant.
While the usage of this term in academia has been restricted to the fields of archaeology and literature, there is a recent attempt to reclaim the notion of the Levant as a category of analysis in political and social sciences. Two academic journals were recently launched: Journal of Levantine Studies, published by the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute and The Levantine Review, published by Boston College. ISIL has adopted the term “Levant” within the English translation of their self-designation.