100 Years Since the Burning of Smyrna

The burning of the city of Smyrna, a cosmopolitan port city in the eastern Aegean, is the event that stands as a dramatic symbol of what became known as the Asia Minor Disaster. It signaled the end of the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-1922 and the end of the centuries-long presence of ethnic Greeks along the Aegean coast of Asia Minor, the Pontus region on the coast of the Black Sea, and in some areas in the Asia Minor hinterland, as for example in Cappadocia. Thus, in commemorating the anniversary of the burning of Smyrna that took place in September of 1922 we honor and reflect on the lives of all those who lost their lives or their homes, all those who were forced to flee as refugees, and all those officers and soldiers who fought during the Greco-Turkish war.

Read more: 100 Years :Later: The Suffering and Lessons from the Smyrna Catastrophe

Read more: The Asia Minor Disaster in the American Press of the Time

Read more: The Smyrna Quay: The History of a Symbol

Read more: The American Documentary Evidence Proving the Turks Burned Smyrna and Why It Was Kept Secret

Read more: Asia Minor 1922: Tears and Anguish Are Not Enough – The Greek Genocide Must Be Recognized Now!

Read more: Armenia – Another Asia Minor Dream that Never Came True

Read more: The Children of Smyrna – As Refugees They Rebuilt Their Lives, and Built a Better Greece

Read more: The “Foreigners”: Their Part in the Asia Minor Tragedy

Read more: Metropolitan Symeon of Nea Smyrni Speaks about the Smyrna Commemorations

Two decades after those events the word ‘genocide’ was first coined by Polish lawyer Raphäel Lemkin partly in response to the Nazi policies of systematic murder of Jewish people during the Holocaust, but also in response to previous instances in history of targeted actions aimed at the destruction of particular groups of people. Genocide was first recognised as a crime under international law in 1946 by the United Nations General Assembly and was codified as an independent crime in the Convention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in 1948. What the Greek orthodox populations in Asia Minor and the Pontus region experienced has, decades later, been officially recognized as a genocide.

To refer to those events as the Asia Minor Disaster is by no means an avoidance of the term. Rather, it seeks to encompass everything else which affected Hellenism at that time. The deaths and expulsions of the ethnic Greeks brought not only the end of the Greek presence on the other side of the Aegean. It brought an end to the Great Idea, the project that was aimed towards incorporating within Greece’s borders all adjacent regions that were historically Greek and were inhabited by majority Greek populations. It brought the end of the cosmopolitan city of Smyrna in which Hellenism had thrived economically and culturally. It sent well over a million of ethnic Greeks to mainland Greece as refugees, most of which were destitute and infirm, burdening the homeland and its resources. Finally, it exacerbated the violent political divide between the supporters of the king and prime minister Eleftherios Venizelos, poisoning the country’s public life for almost two decades. And finally, it resulted in the emergence of a stridently nationalist neighboring state with which relations continue to be strained.

Smyrna in the Early Twentieth Century 

In the early twentieth century Smyrna was one of the most important port cities of the Mediterranean and the outlet for Ottoman trade with Europe and America. Smyrna was under Ottoman administration, but commerce mostly was in the hands of Greeks, Armenians, and Levantines who lived side by side more or less harmoniously with the Muslims and the Jews of the city. The two-kilometer-long quayside, famously known as the Quai (προκυμαία) represented the city’s commercial and cosmopolitan character. It was lined with mansions, clubs, hotels, and bars where the wealthy and not so wealthy residents of the city mingled and socialized. “In no city in the world did East and West mingle physically in so spectacular a manner”, wrote George Horton, the American consul in Smyrna, from 1911- 1917 and 1919-1922.

Theatre de Smyrne, 1910.

As was the case with the other cosmopolitan cities in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, Alexandria, Salonica, and Odessa, the Greek element prospered economically by playing the role of economic middleman. The city’s wealth was due to the demand for raw materials from the Eastern Mediterranean on the part of the growing industrial and manufacturing sectors in Britain and France. Cotton and silk were exported to textile mills, olive oil went to soap manufacturers, tobacco was in great demand, and fruit such as figs and raisins which were consumed in Europe were the main goods being exported from Smyrna. Clothing and machinery were some of the main imports that entered the Ottoman markets through Smyrna. The so-called capitulations (in Greek διομολογήσεις) were a set of privileges the Ottomans granted to European and Greek merchants that protected them from interference from the local courts and gave them huge tax-breaks, encouraging them to stay and do business in Smyrna. As French archaeologist Gaston Deschamps noted, “you saw all sorts of people, Swiss hoteliers, German traders, Austrian tailors, English mill owners, Dutch fig merchants, Italian brokers, Hungarian bureaucrats, Armenian commercial agents, and Greek bankers”. But the wealth all these European Christians enjoyed in what was an Ottoman city inflamed a righteous anger among the Muslim Turks and they considered Smyrna an infidel city.

The numbers of Greeks in the city grew in the second half of the nineteenth century thanks to many arrivals from mainland Greece or the neighboring Aegean islands. By the early twentieth century the Greeks had become the largest ethnic group in the city, with the Muslim Turks a close second. Then came the Armenians, the Levantines (Λεβαντίνοι), who were the Europeans who had lived there for two or three generations, a small Jewish community, American businessmen, missionaries, teachers, and recently arrived Europeans.

The city was built along its waterfront that ran south to north. In the south on the slopes of the mountain was the Muslim Turkish neighborhood, which was the poorest of the city. To its north was the small Jewish neighborhood followed by the wealthier, Christian neighborhoods, the Armenian and the Greek one and that was followed by the European one and the city’s commercial center. Across the bay were suburbs with villas belonging to the rich residents of the city. Towards the southeast was the suburb of Paradise where the American missionaries had established their schools.

La douane, customs house in Smyrna, 1911.

Hellenic & Greek Orthodox Culture in Smyrna

The ability of the Greeks to deal with both the Europeans and the local Turks in this cosmopolitan environment did not prevent them from nurturing and promoting their Hellenic culture and Greek Orthodox faith. There were over sixty Greek schools in the city, the pride of which was the Evangelical School (Ευαγγελική Σχολή) which was established in 1733. A number of important Greek educationalists taught there, and it was considered on a par with the best schools in Alexandria, Athens, and Constantinople. It possessed an archaeological museum, a significant natural science collection, and a library which contained some 50,000 volumes and 180 manuscripts. Smyrna’s major Greek language newspaper was the Amaltheia (Αμάλθεια), established in 1838. By the late nineteenth century and it had acquired a readership throughout the Eastern Mediterranean. In the early twentieth century it became one of the staunchest opponents of the movement to promote the ‘demotic’ over the existing ‘katharevousa’ form of the Greek language.

The Greek Orthodox cathedral in Smyrna was the church of Agia Foteini, originally built in the 17th century. Its design was modest in order not to provoke the Ottoman authorities, but in the mid-1800s when the city became a commercial cosmopolitan center, it acquired a tall, thirty-meter bell tower. A replica of the bell tower, which was destroyed in 1922, exists in the square of the Nea Smyrni municipality in the greater Athens area.

In 1910 the Ecumenical Patriarchate appointed Chrysostomos (Kalafatis) as the Metropolitan in Smyrna. Previously, Chrysostomos had served as Metropolitan in the town of Drama in what was then Ottoman controlled Macedonia. It was the time of the Macedonia Struggle (Μακεδονικός Αγώνας) and Chrysostomos was deeply involved in promoting the establishment of Greek schools in the region, strengthening the morale of the Greeks, and assisting the efforts of the Greek guerilla forces. Chrysostomos maintained his zest for the Greek nationalist cause when he moved to Smyrna, and that would eventually cost him his life in 1922.

Borrowed Time: 1912-1919

Smyrna 1919.

The Balkan Wars of 1912-13 and World War I triggered a wave of nationalism in the Ottoman Empire, announcing its demise. The Ottoman Empire’s loss of Epirus and Macedonia sent thousands of Muslim refugees from those areas streaming into the Ottoman territories. The authorities chose to settle most of those refugees with demobilized soldiers who formed bands of armed irregulars in the coastal areas of Asia Minor where thousands of Greek Orthodox lived. This inevitably led to ethnic friction and deep resentment by the destitute Muslims refugees towards the wealthier Greeks. There were soon spontaneous and premediated incidents of violence, deaths, and displacement of Greeks.

This wave of nationalism became more organized with an Ottoman boycott of Greek shops and businesses in 1914, a sign of rising nationalist sentiment but also of a sense that the privileges given to the minorities had given them an unfair economic advantage. Those privileges, the capitulations, were abolished in 1914, but the inequalities still festered.

Meanwhile, the Ottoman Empire entered WWI on the side of the Central Powers, Germany, and Austria. The ethnic Greeks had been liable for conscription in the Ottoman army beginning in 1908, and many had emigrated because of that. Now, with the prospect of war, conscription became more systematic, but the authorities were unwilling to enlist Armenians and Greeks into the regular army and instead drafted them into labor battalions which were supposed to work on roads and other constructions projects. In reality, this meant hard labor to the point of death and deportation into the Ottoman hinterland. There were also random attacks on Greeks by the irregulars, the so-called ‘chetes’ (τσέτες) one of which that occurred in the coastal town of Phocaea which was just north of Smyrna and was recorded in detail by French archaeologist Felix Sartieux (Σαρτιέ).

There was a momentary respite for the Greeks as the Ottoman authorities and the supporters of the nationalist vision of Turkey for the Turks turned their attention to the Armenians. It all started on April 24, 1915, when hundreds of middle-class Armenians were rounded up in Constantinople and deported to the Ottoman hinterland. Almost immediately the authorities went after the over one million Armenians who lived what are today the eastern provinces of Turkey. They were forced out of their homes and sent on what amounted to death marches southward towards Syria. Relatively few survived the ordeal while women and children survived only after they converted to Islam. The total figure that died is estimated at about 1.2 million.

Greece Assumes Control of Smyrna

At the end of the war, the victorious Great Powers (Great Britain, France, Italy, and the United States) decided to break up the defeated Ottoman Empire and temporarily place it under their military control. Greek prime minister Eleftherios Venizelos persuaded the Powers to assign Greece the control of Smyrna and its surrounding area which made up a distinct Ottoman administrative district, pending a referendum for the future of the region. With an overwhelmingly Greek presence in this area, any referendum would have most likely yielded a decision favoring longer term Greek rule. Had things turned out differently, Greece might have gained a small slice of the coast of Anatolia around Smyrna, or Smyrna might have remained an international enclave with a similar relationship that Hong Kong had with China. We know that did not happen, and in retrospect Venizelos’ push to have Greece take part in the Allied control of Asia Minor has been questioned because it opened the way to the Asia Minor Disaster. But his defenders rightly point out that there were many other moves beyond Venizelos’ control made in between the assignment of Smyrna to Greece in 1919 and the city’s destruction in 1922. Also, there had been a series of attacks on the Greek population along the coast of Asia Minor and the Pontus region on the Black Sea and clearly Greece had to step up in order to protect them – the fate of the Armenians spoke for itself.

The Greek population of the city received the Greek Army enthusiastically when it landed there in May of 1919. Inevitably the Muslim Turkish population of the city were dismayed and concerned about what would happen. The Greek troops were blessed by the Metropolitan Chrysostomos when they arrived, but soon after that a misunderstanding led them to encounter protesting Turks and clashes ensued for several hours. Turkish civilians were killed, and others were arrested. Reportedly Venizelos was furious that the arrival of the Greeks had not gone smoothly, especially since they were supposed to ensure they could keep the peace in the multi-ethnic city.

Aristides Sterghiades

Venizelos appointed Aristides Sterghiades, a friend and fellow Cretan, as High Commissioner of the city in order to restore order. Sterghiadis’ efforts to appear impartial backfired. The strict measures he took alienated the Greeks even though his intentions were to preserve the city’s multi-ethnic character. He did manage many reforms in a very short time, however. Sterghiades introduced mechanical farming to the rich land around Smyrna, and he established a microbiological laboratory and a Pasteur Institute to fight malaria and syphilis. Medical and economic relief was distributed to both Christians and Muslims. The High Commissioner also laid the groundwork for the planned Ionian University of Smyrna and invited Professor Constantinos Karatheodori, a professor at Gottingen University in Germany and an internationally recognized authority of mathematics, to come to Smyrna. The university’s motto was ‘Ex Orient Lux’ and it was to offer an impressive range of disciplines. Among the languages to be taught were Turkish, Arabic, Farsi, Hebrew, Greek and Armenian and would have opened its doors in September 1922.

The Greek civilian and military leadership in Asia Minor, October 1920, including the Greek High Commissioner Aristeidis Sterghiades (left, with dark suit), to his right the Comamander-in-Chief of the Greek Army Leonidas Paraskevopoulos, and second from right, Paraskevopoulos’ chief of staff, Major General Theodoros Pangalos.

What Sterghiades possessed in terms of efficiency and commitment, he lacked in people skills and an understanding of the sense of entitlement many Smyrniot Greeks felt. He clashed openly with the more nationalistically minded Chrysostomos and soon found he had no friends among the Greek Smyrniot elite. In 1922 he would leave the city in a hurry aboard a British warship a little before the Turkish troops would arrive, blindly following orders from Athens – Venizelos was long longer prime ministers – that he should not alert the local Greeks of the impending danger. He never returned to Greece and spend the rest of his life living in self-imposed exile in Southern France.

Mustapha Kemal

Mustafa Kemal, portrait.

The way the Great Powers had treated the Ottoman Empire at the Peace Conference of 1919 and the way the Ottoman government had caved into the demands of the Powers triggered a deep-seated sense of humiliation and anger among many Turks. Mustapha Kemal, a senior military officer who was 38-years old at the time took it upon himself to turn his back on the government, leave Constantinople, and travel to the eastern regions of the Empire’s territory. There, he would become the leader of a new Turkish nationalist movement which believed in the idea of a Turkey for the Turks, free of any Great Power interference and which should eliminate or at least curtail the presence and influence of non-Muslim minorities. Thanks to his military expertise and ruthless leadership he managed to organize a capable fighting force that grew very quickly. When the Ottoman government officially accepted the Empire’s partition with the treaty of Sèvres in 1920, Mustapha Kemal launched a full-scale military attack on all foreign troops in the Ottoman domains, including the Greeks who were already engaged in fighting against Turkish irregular troops around the perimeter of the area around Smyrna that was under Greek control.

King Constantine Continues the War Until the Collapse

Mustafa Kemal, portrait.

Meanwhile in Greece itself national elections were held in November 1920 and prime minister Venizelos’ Liberal party suffered a surprising defeat. Worn down by a decade-long engagement in wars and civil strife the electorate turned towards the pro-royalist party. Venizelos’ party won narrowly in terms of the percentage of the popular vote, receiving just over 50% but it won fewer parliamentary seats than the royalists who won just over 49% of the vote. It was a shock result; Venizelos left the country for France while the next step of the winners of the election was to bring back from exile King Constantine. He had been forced to give up the throne and was replaced by his second-born son Alexander in 1917, but Alexander had died a month before the elections following a freak incident involving a monkey bite.

Although the pro-royalist party had promised to end the war in Asia Minor with Constantine’s approval, when he assumed his duties again, he made the fatal decision to pursue the military campaign against the Turkish forces.

The logic behind continuing the campaign was that the enemy’s headquarters in Ankara had to be destroyed. The problem was that Ankara was almost 400 miles away from Izmir and to reach it the Greeks had to go over mountainous terrain, deep ravines, stretches of desert, and several rivers. There were no local ethnic Greek populations on most of that route and the Greeks had ventured way beyond the area assigned to them. Under Constantine’s leadership the Greek forces won a battle in the summer of 1921 in the Kütahya-Eskisehir region, more than half the distance they needed to cover to get to Ankara. But it turned out to be a pyrrhic victory because the army’s communication and supply lines were overstretched, the living conductions of the soldiers were inhumane, and morale was unpredictable. The Greeks pressed on, but within a year their fighting capabilities were even weaker and in August a fierce Turkish counterattack led to an ignominious collapse of the Greek lines and a haphazard retreat back to the coast which in desperation employed a scorched earth policy in several instances.

Smyrna Awaits Its Fate

One of the most surprising decisions taken by the Greek leadership during the war was that the retreating Greek armies should not make a stand and defend Smyrna, but would instead make their way to several points on the coastline from where ships would evacuate them and take them back to Greece. What was more than surprising was that it was believed that for Greece not to lose its ability to claim any part of Asia Minor the local ethnic Greek populations should remain there. This was despite thousands of Greeks fleeing towards Smyrna in order to save themselves from the advancing Turkish forces. Until the news of the Greek front’s collapse reached Smyrna, most people in the city were going about their lives as normal, the war far away geographically and mentally. The assumption was that the Greek army would prevail or at worst a stalemate would be reached with the Turks and that the city would remain unaffected and intact.

There was a rude awakening in early September when exhausted Greek soldiers with their uniforms in tatters started stumbling into the city along with terrified bedraggled villagers who were carrying all their belongings on their shoulders. That was the moment when Sterghiadis and the Greek officials hastily departed. Day-by-day the uprooted ethnic Greeks from the hinterland, now refugees, streamed into the city seeking protection. Having nowhere else to go they converged on the waterfront. The famous ‘Quay’ that until recently symbolized the city’s prosperity and cosmopolitanism was becoming a makeshift refugee camp. Out in the bay of Smyrna lay in anchor several warships of the Great Powers, sent there to keep an eye on the situation and offer protection to their citizens in the city.

The Attitude of the Great Powers

The presence of the warships in the bay also offered hope to the refugees amassing on the waterfront, but it was a false hope. The initial support the Powers had offered Greece in 1919 had ebbed considerably. Constantine’s return to the throne in 1920 had been received with coolness by the Great Powers because he had favored Germany and Austria during WWI. On the diplomatic level, the Great Powers, calculating their long-term interests, had already begun to make approaches to the Turkish side. Their societies and their economies had been weakened during WWI and no European political leader could risk leading their country into a possibly prolonged military engagement in the Eastern Mediterranean. Moreover, the instability of the Ottoman government that had prompted their initial involvement appeared to be replaced by a strong leader who might be able to guarantee stability – and access to oil. Mustapha Kemal had already received crucial support from the new Soviet government in Russia, but he appeared open for business with the western countries as well.

With the idealism of the immediate post-war moment steadily evaporating, and domestic needs becoming urgent, the Powers began choosing realpolitik over principles. And in any case the politicians who approved Venizelos’ request that Greece take over Smyrna had lost considerable influence. The French prime minister Georges Clemenceau stepped down in 1920. Italy’s prime minister Vittorio Orlando was also out of office. Venizelos’ greatest ally, British prime minister David Lloyd George was consumed by domestic issues and governed thanks to a fragile coalition of two parties that collapsed in October 1922, ending his tenure as prime minister. In the United States, Woodrow Wilson, whom Lloyd George had persuaded to back Venizelos, was still in office but was politically weakened because Congress was not supporting him on the foreign policy front, and he had suffered a stroke. His two representatives in the Eastern Mediterranean disagreed over how to deal with the rise of Turkish nationalism. Rear Admiral Mark Bristol, the U.S. High Commissioner in the Ottoman Empire who was based in Constantinople, admired the Turks and was hostile to the aspirations of the Armenians and the Greeks. His motivations were a mixture of racial prejudice, an affinity with Mustapha Kemal’s style of strong leadership and, an overriding concern of ensuring the United States would maintain strong commercial and economic ties with the Ottoman Turks. In contrast, George Horton, the U.S. Consul in Smyrna, who was married to a Greek, was a longstanding philhellene and unsympathetic towards the Turkish nationalist movement. Horton did all he could to help the Greeks during the destruction of Smyrna. But overall, it is clear that soon after 1919, both the persons and the foreign policy goals of the Great Powers that had benefitted Greece were no longer in play. It was not so much a case of the Powers abandoning Greece, rather it was a case that as always, they pursued their own interests and changed their policies accordingly.

Smyrna Burns

On Saturday September 9, 1922, the vanguard of the advancing Turkish army, a smartly uniformed cavalry unit, entered the city and appeared on the waterfront. According to one description they were dressed in black, with black fezzes, with their red crescents and red star, riding magnificent horses and carrying long curved swords. With one hand raised they called out to the terrified inhabitants “Korkma! Korkma! Fear not! Fear not!.” They proceeded to the governor’s building, the konak and pulled down the Greek flag and raised the Turkish one. The city was now under Turkish control, but the order and calm the cavalry promised was not to last very long. Throughout the rest of the day more and more Turkish troops arrived, along with many irregulars, who behaved as if they had entered a conquered city. Instances of looting houses, killing, and raping civilians began in the wealthy suburb of Kordeliò (Κορδελιό) and quickly spread to the other suburbs such as Bournabat (Μπουρνόβας) where many Levantines had their villas.

An image of complete destruction of Smyrna’s Armenian quarter where the fire that consumed the capital of Ionia began.

The next day, Sunday September 10, Mustapha Kemal arrived. He passed through the city and established his headquarters further out in one of the suburbs. He appointed one of his military commanders, Nureddin Pasha, as the governor of Smyrna. It was a decision that indicated Mustapha Kemal’s attitude towards the city and its non-Muslim inhabitants. Nureddin had distinguished himself for his ruthless brutality against the Armenians, the Kurds, and the Pontic Greeks so much so that even members of the Turkish nationalist parliament called for him to stand trial for the atrocities. With Mustapha Kemal’s blessings, Nureddin would continue his policies in Smyrna. One of the first things he did was to call for Metropolitan Chrysostomos who, to his credit had chosen to remain in the city even though he could have left before the arrival of the Turks. After a brief interaction with the prelate, Nureddin came out on the balcony of the konak and told the crowd that had assembled outside, pointing to Chrysostomos, they could do to him what they liked. As he came down the steep staircase in the front to the building, the crowd grabbed him by the beard and started brutally beating him to death with their fists, sticks, and knives. Seventy years later, in 1992, the Synod of the Church of Greece declared him a martyr and saint of the Greek Orthodox Church.

What followed over the next two days was extensive looting, raping, and killing starting with the Armenian neighborhood. Order and discipline among the incoming troops and irregulars had broken down completely and along with Armenians and Greeks several European residents also lost their lives. The streets were strewn with corpses, dead animals, and broken furniture the looters had thrown out of the abandoned houses in which they searched for valuables. According to a French officer, after three days the Armenian quarter was entirely ravaged. “The streets are heaped with mattresses, broken furniture, glass, torn paintings. One sees bodies in front of the houses. They are swollen. The smell is unbearable. There are no men in this quarter; all are dead, or hiding, or taken away.” Only buildings belonging to American and European institutions were spared, the flags flying outside them providing a haven for all those who could seek refuge there. As a precaution, sailors and marines from the Allied fleet were landed ashore to guard their respective diplomatic compounds and institutions but with strict orders of maintaining neutrality in the event that violence would break out between the Turks and the Christians.

Smyrna, 1922.

On the afternoon of Wednesday September 13, author Giles Milton, Minnie Mills, the director of the American Collegiate Institute for Girls, noticed that one of the neighboring buildings was burning. She stood up to have a closer look and was shocked by what she witnessed. “I saw with my own eyes a Turkish officer enter the house with small tins of petroleum or benzine and in a few minutes the house was in flames.” She was not the only one at the institute to see the outbreak of fire. “Our teachers and girls saw Turks in regular soldiers’ uniforms and in several cases in officers’ uniforms, using long sticks with rags at the end which were dipped in a can of liquid and carried into houses which were soon burning. This was the beginning of the fire that would burn the Armenian, Greek, and part of the European neighborhood of the city, destroying the residential and commercial core of Smyrna. There were several other eyewitness reports that confirmed that Turkish troops and irregulars had lit the fires that would have devastating consequences. George Horton wrote that as the conflagration spread and swept on down toward the quay, the people poured in a rapidly increasing flood to the waterfront, old, young, women, children, sick as well. These thousands were crowded on a narrow street between the city and the deep waters of the bay. The wind that was blowing from the south made the fire spread even more quickly, and the sky became dark from the billowing smoke.

The horrific situation in Smyrna was described by George Ward Price, a foreign correspondent of the British Daily Mail newspaper. Price was the first British journalist to interview Mustapha Kemal and was somewhat an admirer of his. He initially reported that there was order in Smyrna after the entry of the Turks, later he was graphic in his description of the fire which he observed from the safety of a British battleship: “What I see, as I stand on the deck of HMS Iron Duke, is an unbroken wall of fire, two miles long, in which twenty distinct volcanoes of raging flame are throwing up jagged, writhing tongues to a high of hundred feet. All Smyrna’s rich warehouses, businesses buildings, and European residences are burning like furious torches… Without exaggeration, tonight’s holocaust is one of the biggest fires in the world’s history. The damage is incalculable and there has been great loss of life among the native population… many thousands of refugees are huddled on a narrow quay, between the advancing fiery death behind and the deep water in front and there comes continuously such frantic screaming of sheer terror as can be heard miles away… picture of constant projection into the red- hot sky of gigantic incandescent balloons, burning oil spots in the Aegean, the air filled with nauseous smell, while parching clouds, cinders and sparks drift across us – and you can but have a glimmering of the scene of appalling and majestic destruction which we are watching.”

Horton, on board the USS Simpson, also registered his horror, writing, “as the destroyer moved away from the fearful scene and darkness descended, the flames, raging now over a vast area, grew brighter and brighter, presenting a scene of awful and sinister beauty… nothing was lacking in the way of atrocity, lust, cruelty and all the fury of human passion which, given their full play, degrade the human race to a level lower than the vilest and cruelest of beasts… one of the keenest impressions which I brought away with me from Smyrna was a feeling of shame that I belonged to the human race.”

In what is one of the most controversial incidents that took place around this time, the warships of the Powers that were anchored in the bay had orders to save their own citizens but ignore the pleas of the Armenians and the Greeks unless they possessed a foreign passport. Thus, there were thousands of Armenians and Greeks trapped on the waterfront who were prey to the irregulars and any troops who harassed them and assaulted them and stole their property. One of the few exceptions was the Japanese ship Tokei Maru that managed to rescue many of those refugees. The British also saved a few thousands as the fire pushed the refugees into the sea, but when the fire died down, the rescue effort ended, leaving about 250,000 refugees stranded in Smyrna and in other coastal towns such as Aivali. They faced constant danger, along with hunger, thirst, and disease, while the Turkish authorities began to arrest the men and place them into labor battalions that were sent inland to do hard labor, an experience from which very few would survive.

The Rescue of the Refugees

One of the many foreign aid workers and teachers who were in Smyrna and tried to protect the refugees was Asa Jennings, an American from upstate New York and an official with the YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association) who had arrived in Smyrna in August and was supposed to organize boys’ sports and teach them Christian values. Jennings joined the American Relief Committee that American businessmen and missionaries hastily formed in September to offer aid to women. Seeing that refugees were trying to swim out to the ships in the harbor but were prevented from boarding and even drowning, Jennings persuaded an American naval officer, Halsey Powell, to allow him to use a navy boat to go out to an Italian ship and try and persuade the captain to take on some refugees. With the help of a bribe the captain agreed to take 2,000 refugees over to the Greek island of Lesvos. When they arrived there at the port town of Mytilene, Jennings noticed a number of Greek merchant ships anchored there. They had been used in the evacuation of the Greek troops. What followed next could well be the plot for a Hollywood movie. It has been told in a beautifully written book by Boston University professor Lou Ureneck and an award-winning documentary by Greek American Mike Damergis.

Jennings devised a bold plan requiring the agreement of the government in Athens, Ioannis Theophanides the Greek naval admiral who was in command of the port of Mytilene, the captains of the merchant ships, the American Navy, and Mustapha Kemal himself. The plan was a simple as it was risky, entailing the evacuation of the remaining refugees in Smyrna on board those ships. Halsey Powell, ignoring the neutral stance he was supposed to adhere to, negotiated with the Turkish leader and gained his approval. The captains of the vessels were unwilling to take the risk of sailing into Smyrna despite the American involvement, but admiral Theophanides threatened them with court martial. All the pieces were in place and the operation took place within a week as the Turkish authorities had demanded. The 250,000 refugees were taken to the port of Mytilene, where a statue of a refugee mother and child stands today, commemorating their arrival to safety.

Smyrna’s Legacy

As the last Greeks and Armenians departed, they left behind them the burned-out shell of a once cosmopolitan city. The end had come from outside – the city had been unable to resist the nationalism that had brought about the end of the Ottoman Empire. For the Greeks it was a genocidal end of a three thousand-long presence in Asia Minor, for the Turks it was the beginning of a new era with the birth of the Turkish Republic. Mustapha Kemal was named Ataturk, father of the Turks, Smyrna became Izmir.

Smyrna was unable to resist the strong forces of nationalism that brought about not only its own end but the end of the multiethnic Ottoman Empire. This indeed was the era when national states replaced not only the Ottoman Empire but the Austro-Hungarian and the Russian Empires. But even as that multiethnic era ended in Europe, it was slowly emerging across the seas in several countries like the United States, where immigrants and refugees from many lands were settling to begin a new life and to preserve the spirit of multi-ethnic and multicultural cohabitation that had been so prevalent in the pre-World War I Mediterranean, including the port city of Smyrna.

In Greece itself, history has shown that despite the trauma of the defeat and the influx of over a million refugees into the country, Greece was able to survive and enjoy an economic and cultural revival. The Greek refugees from Asia Minor and the Pontus region enriched the nation in many ways. Meanwhile, the Greek diaspora kept Smyrna’s legacy alive by prospering in the new multiethnic environments in Australia, Canada, South Africa, the United States, and other places across the globe.



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