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Travel

Beloved Smyrna and Mystical Ephesos – A Journey We Owe Today to Yesterday

SMYRNA – The ‘100th anniversaries’ of Hellenism, some bright, some somber, continue in 2023. The events to be commemorated from 1923 fall under the broad heading of ‘population exchange’ and the crueler subheads include ‘one million Hellenes leave Asia Minor forever’ – but ‘Farewell to Smyrna’ could be the most painful of all.

When you are sailing into history in reverse, you know ‘of’ a given tragedy, but if you didn’t feel it and witness it yourself, you cannot really ‘know’ any of humanity’s great calamities, only that there was a given tragic event…that presumably means something to you.

If it means something to you, then you must – if you can – embark on a pilgrimage to the place, if only to vote with your feet against those who work hard to justify if not completely deny the reality that still pains us – with respect to Smyrna, the genocides, the massacres, the expulsions. And to say in this case, “yes there is a city called Izmir” that is now flourishing as the third largest city of Turkey with five million (!) residents, “but in our souls there is and always will be that other city you can no longer see with your eyes.” The city where many thousands left behind their hopes, and in the end, their very lives, or tears. Smyrna of the Greeks – or as the Turks then would say, “Smyrna of the infidels.” God forgive them – it’s too hard for us to do so.

Minor Asia Catastrophe 1921.

So, off I sailed across the Aegean, departing Piraeus on December 17, 2023 on the wonderful Celestyal Crystal cruise ship escorted and well taken care of by the friendly and efficient crew. Off I went, not looking to ‘see’ anything – what is there to physically see? I am reminded as I type that when an autocrat wishes to destroy something, it is destroyed. The renowned quay that was washed by the waves of the Aegean for all time before September 13, 1922 but was watered for ten days by the tears of widows, orphans, and refugees, Greeks and Armenians lucky to escape with their lives. They mourned the friends and relatives who were not so lucky. The quay itself is gone. Perhaps not the infrastructure, but the renowned avenue where residents along with visitors from all over Europe and the Mediterranean passed their time in pleasant cafes and restaurants, and in shops featuring the latest fashions from Paris and phonograph records from New York, enjoying meals and wines from one of the most fertile and beautiful regions of the Earth, Western Asia Minor.

It’s all gone. Still, I wanted to walk along the current promenade and look out across the famed bay – but the day before we landed I was told that I had to choose between visiting the ‘new’ city and ancient Ephesos. The Smyrna of Hellenes’ hearts has disappeared but the great ancient city is still being unearthed (and even rebuilt) and it was also calling me strongly, so I chose to physically visit Ephesos. We should all go there. Our excellent and friendly tour guide Cam, who was very respectful of Greek history (unlike many official Turkish guides), explained that being in an earthquake zone, the classical and Hellenistic Greek buildings of Ephesos were replaced over time by the monumental Roman buildings. Of course, they are of the classic Hellenic architectural orders – Doric, Ionic, Corinthian – so they do cause our Hellenic chests to swell with pride. There also fascinating Byzantine remains – as well as what is known as the House of the Virgin Mary – perhaps you don’t know about that part.

It must be said that this is essentially a Roman Catholic shrine as the evidence for the Virgin Mary’s presence is partly circumstantial (we know St. John the Theologian was there, so we say Panagia must have been with him) and anecdotal (the Orthodox Christian residents have believed it for 2000 years, which caused the Fathers of the Church to hold the 3rd Ecumenical Council there because they believed them. Indeed, it is the site of the first church known to be dedicated to Mary.

My point is, however, that when you visit the tiny, humble house where she is said to have lived, you become certain she was once in this beautiful place – if not due to what you feel within its four walls, then from what awaits you outside them, among the hills and trees and flowers and streams beneath an eternal blue sky where she and St. John and St. Mary Magdalene strolled enjoying Nature’s glories while communing with Divine Beauty. Even today, when you turn down the volume of your thoughts and plans and emotions, you feel at One with both Nature and the Divine.

And it is certain that Panagia was on the minds for those multitudes on the quay one hundred years ago, praying that they and their children would be saved. Many were…many were not.

WHAT IS THAT? THAT IS THE SMYRNA IN OUR HEARTS

I wanted to wake up early to experience sailing into the bay, but I overslept. I was angry at myself, but then I realized that the inbound trip was not relevant. Few of those Smyrniots of blessed memory ever took that ride because their families were born and thrived there, some for centuries, some for millennia – for 3,000 years.

And then it began. As I was getting ready for the excursion to Ephesos, I heard them. Voices. At first they were like overheard conversations of the Smyrniots of that dark September, some of the most cultured and commercially successful Hellenes of their time. The sounds were interspersed with my thoughts of what I would take on the bus – a book to read, a pen and notepad to record impressions? The voices became…not louder (they were quite faint) but more intense. Then, in the shadows my cabin, the curtains being only half open, I ‘imagined’ elongated dark shapes, vertical, yes, like columns of rising smoke – like what I myself witnessed on 9/11 – “the Turks have set fire to the city” I seemed to hear Greeks and Armenians shouting. Then the shouts became screams.

Again, the sounds were not loud. They were barely discernible over my morning tinnitus – but they declared despair, confusion – panic! I heard no words, but we know they were saying “the City is burning…They are destroying Smyrna” as their friends and neighbors are dying.

I could swear the sounds were mingled with sensations of smoke and I could not make the images of sight and sound and smell go away. In fact, I was fighting another battle: to keep from crying. I was no longer in my cabin or on the ship, however. I was being drawn unconsciously to the shore. I walked down the gangplank, out the gate, and through the commercial part of the port. Past Turks who were not looking at me. Neither did I look at them, not even to wonder if perhaps if one of their forebears had struck the matches that fueled the conflagration of hate. I was drawn to the waterside, eyes now across the bay – to the quay that is no more, its elements transformed into smoke that rose into the heavens a century ago along with the souls of those Greeks and Armenians. Their genocide had essentially just come to an end, not because the ‘civilized world’ finally woke up and stopped the Turks, but only because the fire marked the beginning of the final ‘disappearing’ of communities that for millennia had tended the soil, traded its produce, fed and educated their children – and contributed to the rest of civilization. Surely someone on the quay had thought of Heraclitus, the great sage from nearby Ephesos: “Yes, it’s all fire. Everything flows. The city was here this morning, and now it’s gone.”

Yes Hellenes, visit Smyrna. The euros you pay the locals are owed not to them, but to the Hellenes we mourn and honor.

In the watery wake of a cruise ship, we sense the streams of history. Leaving the port of Smyrna in 2022, the boat followed the route of the refugees of 1922. Few would ever see (how could they bear it?) their beautiful homeland again. (Photo Constantine S. Sirigos)

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