Smyrna: The Jewel of the Near East

Smyrna was a vibrant and exciting city prior to its occupation and destruction by Turkish forces on September 13, 1922. After defeating the Greek army, Mustafa Kemal's forces entered Smyrna on September 9 thus ending three millennia of Hellenic civilization in Asia Minor. The Great Idea (Megali Idea) which dominated Greek foreign policy from the inception of the fledgling Greek Kingdom in the 1830's was now in tatters. Smyrna was a major commercial port which also enjoyed a rich social, cultural, and sporting life.

Before 1922, Smyrna was a cosmopolitan city with a population of 270,000 inhabitants composed of 140,000 Greeks, 80,000 Turks, 12,000 Armenians, 20,000 Jews and 15,000 Europeans including Levantines. The latter were descendants of British, Italian, Dutch, and French who had settled earlier in the Near East. They resided outside of Smyrna in the two small towns of Boudja and Bournabat. Smyrna was divided into Greek, Turkish, Armenian, and Jewish quarters, showing the ethnic and social divide of the city.

The Smyrna-Aidin railway owned by British interests was important in the export trade of Smyrna. This railway assisted in moving the agricultural produce of Smyrna's hinterland and Central Anatolia to foreign markets. Greek peasant farmers produced figs, currants, olives, and tobacco crops. The Greek middle and educated classes were composed of clerks, shopkeepers, salaried men, doctors, lawyers, and teachers. Rich Greek merchants lived in exclusive suburbs of Smyrna. A survey conducted by Smyrna economist, John B. Yannikis revealed that there were 391 factories in 'greater Smyrna' of which 344 belonged to Greeks who employed 4584 workers and 485 clerical staff.

There were large American interests in Smyrna including the Standard Oil Company, the MacAndrews and Forbes licorice firm, major tobacco firms, and carpet manufacturers. The British and French bought the agricultural produce from Smyrna's hinterland. Some of the British firms were C. Whittall & Co, Anglo-Anatolian Trading Co, and Anglo-Oriental Trading Co. There also existed four Chambers of Commerce: Greek, French, British and Italian.

Smyrna had a rich social life where Smyrniotes enjoyed dances and musical afternoons and evenings given in the wealthy salons of the affluent Greeks and Armenians. Greek and Armenian women wore the latest fashions from Paris and London. There were four large clubs: the Cercle de Smyrne patronized mostly by British, French, and Americans, along with the sporting clubs and the Greek and country clubs with the different ethnic groups socializing and establishing contacts.

The establishment of schools, theaters, literary societies, sporting clubs, and newspapers played an important role in the maintenance of the Greek language, identity, national consciousness, and cultural heritage in Smyrna. There were many Greek schools with the most notable ones being the Central School of St. Photini (1833) and the Homerian (1881), both for young girls, and the Greco-German and Greco-French lyceums. The Evangelical School (1733) was the most famous and well-endowed and possessed an excellent library.

Aristidis Sterghiadis, the Greek High Commissioner May 1919-September 1922, was responsible along with Professor Constantine Karatheodoris in establishing a university in Smyrna which never operated due to the occupation of the city by the Kemalists.

International college of Smyrna (1891) established by Reverend Dr. Alexander MacLachan was formally recognized by the Turkish authorities. It accepted Greek, Armenian, and Turkish students, but it closed down by shifting its operations to Beirut, Lebanon in 1934.

Theater was alive and well in Smyrna. The following theaters: Efterpi (1841), Kamerano (1862), Alhambra, and Eldorado being open air. Sporting Club (1894), Havouza (1900), Gay (1909), the Splendid, and Kremer were established to cater for performances by major European and Greek theatrical groups. It should be noted that smaller theaters operated in the neighborhoods and suburbs of Smyrna. Professional Smyrna theater companies such as Arts Players, Patriotic Players, and Smyrna Musical Players used their art to express the political aspects of the Greek-Turkish conflict. The last performance ended with the closure of Greek theaters in the summer of 1922.

It also had its own literary societies such as the Omonoia Reading Society (1865), Smyrna Drama Society (1870), Shakespeare Drama Society (1905) and Arts Society of Smyrna (1919) which indicated a well-educated population who appreciated literature for its own sake. Daily Greek, French, Armenian, Jewish and Turkish newspapers kept their respective communities informed of local and international events. Greek dailies included: Amaltheia, Kosmos, Omonoia, Patris, Telegraphos, Tharros, Estia, and Vima. Some of the newspaper owners and journalists received their education at the Evangelical School which was only American school in Smyrna.

Greek publishing houses produced scientific and satirical journals. Some of the important ones were Eranastis, Aristotelis, and Nea Zoe. The first one focused on scientific, historical and philosophical matters, whereas the second concentrated on religious and encyclopedic articles. Nea Zoe published poems and also gave Elias Venezis, the author of the book The number 31328, an outlet for his first stories and series of sonnets. It also raised the issue of women's rights which would have a controversial impact on a male-dominated society. Satirical publications like Techni, Smyrnaios (1920), Peirasmos (May 1922), and Kopanos (1908) would have kept Smyrniotes amused. Techni printed philological and sociological articles and also provided a translation of foreign literary works and book reviews.

Sporting clubs had their “roots in the city's music and intellectual societies.” The Orpheus Club (1890) organized gymnastics, athletics, artistic, and literary events, whereas the Apollon Club (1891) arranged boat races, boxing, and football. Apollon played football matches against local teams and foreign crews of ships visiting the port. The merger of Orpheus and Gymnasion resulted in the formation of the Panionios Sporting Club in 1898, which offered gymnastics, athletics, and football. It participated in all Panionian games until 1922 and some of its athletes participated in the 1906, 1912, and 1920 Olympic Games for Greece. As part of its charter, membership was open to anyone including women. Other clubs included Sporting (1896) and Pelops (1908) who held the last swimming races in July 1922. 

On the medical front, St. Haralambos was the major Greek hospital had wards "for surgery, pathology, gynecology, ophthalmology, mental maladies…a maternity department [and an] old peoples' asylum." It treated all comers without distinction of nationality or religion. Those who couldn't afford to pay were treated free of charge. During the Great War, the Ottoman authorities took charge of this hospital with a reduction in medical services and it resumed normal operation in 1919.

Smyrna was an exciting place to live with its multiethnic populace and babel of languages which gave it its cosmopolitan nature. The jewel of the Near East, which was also called Gavur Izmir (Smyrna of the infidels), ended in ashes, burned by the Turks in September 1922.


Finishing off a spectacular lunch at Hellas restaurant in Tarpon Springs, I strolled deep into the surrounding neighborhood to get an updated flavor for the renowned city of 25,000 inhabitants along Florida's Gulf Coast.

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