Based on the Latin ‘levare’, meaning ‘to rise’, ‘Levant’ refers to the lands of the rising sun in the east, thus representing a European perspective. The Arabic ‘Mashriq’ for the Eastern Mediterranean, as opposed to ‘Maghrib’ for North Africa, also refers to a region in the ‘east’. The term Levant is closely related to the region’s trade connections up until the 20th century, particularly to Europe. Nowadays it is mainly used by historians and archaeologists working in this region and in a pridominantly historic rather than a contemporary context. A description of today’s situation, however, wouldn’t be much different, as a note on the Levant’s historical outline from UCL´s Institute of Archaeology shows: “We confront a diverse terrain, cosmopolitan populations, and a mosaic of small social-political units (towns, city-states, small states),[…].”[1]

the levant - world - satellite 01

Property of NASA, Visual Earth: http://visibleearth.nasa.gov/ altered: borderlandlevant

The reason why the region is of such an interest to historians and archaeologists, is of course its incredible history. Known as part of the ‘Fertiel Crescent’, the Eastern Mediterranean has been the region from which agriculture spread towards Egypt and north Africa, Europe and the Kaukasus. Although called ‘Neolithic Revolution’, starting over 10,000 years ago, it was more of a slow evolving development than a revolution, spanning over millennia. At around 3,000 BC first cities and citystates emerged. Later on, large empires in Egypt, Mesopotamia, or Persia were established, whose extension varied, often times rendering the Eastern Mediterranean coast an ‘in-between-zone’. After the extensive empire of Alexander the Great and the Romans incorporation of the Eastern Mediterranean, the Arab unification and it’s rapid expansion took posession of it. The relative short periode of the Crusades was followed by the Ottoman Empire stretching across the whole region and beyond. [2]

This rough overview shows how much sense it makes calling the region Levant, referring to the spot of land and not to a political and/or religious constellation of any selected periode.

the levant - satellite 01

Property of NASA, Visual Earth: http://visibleearth.nasa.gov/ altered: borderlandlevant

In the more recent history the region was under the reign of the Ottoman Empire for several centuries. From the beginning of the 16th century under the administrative rule of the “Damascus Eyalet”, an administrative sub-region of the Empire. In the middle of the 19th century, the Levant consited of the “Syrian Vilayet”, the “Beirut Vilayet” and the Sanjaks of Jerusalem, Nablus and Acre, usually referred to as Southern Syria. At the beginning of the 20th century in the course of World War I, the Ottoman Empire collapsed. Geostrategic interests, particularly of England and France, who divided the area among themselves, cerated artificial political boundaries as we more or less have them today. Having settled there before, Jews suffered from a millennia long violent persecution, both in the region and in Europe. The culmination in the horrible murder of millions of Jews through the nazi regime, led to the wish for a permanent place for Jews in the region. Hence, the inmigration of a large number of people with Jewish fate, with the subsequent foundation of the state of Israel in 1948, eventually completed the picture. The situation is that of a very heterogeneous region with a plethora of ethnic- and religious groups and sub-groups, organised in small states. More or less since the beginning of the 20th century a to large degree violent conflict between the Jewish population, later Israel, and Arab populations, Palestinians and the neighbouring states, continues. After several wars between Arab and Israeli forces, each time with Israel as the `winner´, there are peace treaties between Egypt and Israel and Jordan and Israel. Israeli relations to Syria and Lebanon are still hostile and borders closed. This conflict over territory has been happening particularly at the expense of the Palestinians who found themselves uprooted and displaced, trapped in despair after all this upheaval.[3]

levant core cities 01

Property of NASA, Visual Earth: http://visibleearth.nasa.gov/ altered: borderlandlevant

Although the Levant is not exactly defined, it is commonly said to comprise of Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Palestinian Authority, the central southern part of Turkey, and for some Cyprus. The capitals and major urban areas in the region are in striking close proximity to each other. Amman, Beirut, Damascus, Gaza, Haifa, Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv-Jaffa are all located within 250 km linear distance. Since all the states in the region are historically very young, strong nationalisms are enforced to hold them together. As noted by Balibar in his paper summarised in the tab `borderland´, the process of territorialisation requires the elimination of some identities characterising individuals or groups in order to homogenise a state internally. Towards the outside, the existence of enemies triggers contraction, covers internal tensions and supports coherence. These policies in a way strongly contradict the actual diversity in the Levant, found both in the region and within each state.


I am using the term `Levant´ because it neither refers to a state, nor to a religious confession. Moreover, referring to a region, it is not clearly defined by boundaries. These characteristics underline both the open approach to space as such and the intricate diversity and multifacetedness of borders, highlighted by this blog. Considering Balibar´s ideas behind “borderland”, the Levant, it seems to me, is representing an epitome of the concept.

[2] March, M. ed., 1990, Cultural Atlas of Mesopotamia & the Ancient Near East, Oxford: Equinox Book

[3] Atteneder, S 2008, The East Mediterranean – Insight and Outlook, Magister Thesis, University of Art and Design, Linz, unpublished


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