Pasaport Quay in Izmir is urbane and relaxed today ... It is difficult to imagine that this was the scene of a major disaster in 1922 (Photograph: Dario Moreno)
I’m spending this week in the Aegean, hoping for a few days of well-deserved Mediterranean sunshine in western Anatolia and on the island of Samos.
This is my third or fourth holiday in these parts of Greece and Turkey, based in Kuşadasi. Although, in many ways, it is a brash, modern resort, the facilities are good, and Kusadasi provides a good base for exploring some fascinating classical and biblical sites: both İzmir and Kuşadasi are within easy access of places such as Ephesus, Pergamum and Sardis, Pamukkale, Hierapolis and Laodecia, Priene, Miletus and Didyma.
I flew in early on Monday morning [24 August] to the very modern Adnan Menderes Airport in İzmir. With a population of over 2.6 million people, İzmir is Turkey’s third most populous city and the country’s largest port after Istanbul.
İzmir, which has almost 3,500 years of urban history, has been described by many writers as “the Pearl of the Aegean.” Victor Hugo once said: “Smyrne is a princess with her most beautiful small hat.” Although it was known to the Ottoman Turks as Gavur Izmir or “Infidel Izmir” and still suffers from what one author has described as the “sketchy understanding” of outsiders, many Turks today see it as one of their most progressive cities because of its modern values, the dynamic lifestyle, and the obvious gender equality among local people.
Sweet-smelling birthplace of Homer
According to local claims, Homer is said to have been born in Smyrna – although others say he was born on the nearby island of Chios. In classical Greece, this was Μύρρα (Mýrrha), and later Σμύρνα (Smýrna) or Σμύρνη (Smýrni). Some traditions link this name to Smyrna, an Amazon who seduced Theseus, leading him to name the city in her honour. Others link the name to the shrub or plant that gives us myrrh, the aromatic resin that was one of the gifts of the Magi to the Christ Child.
The Romans continued to use the name Smyrna. Other variants include Smirne (Italian), Esmirna (Spanish), Smyrne (French), and Izmir (Ladino). In English, the city was known as Smyrna until the 20th century. Today’s İzmir is simply a modern Turkish adaptation of the Armenian version of the same name.
The city is one of the oldest settlements in the Mediterranean basin. Recent excavations suggest this place may have been first inhabited some time between 6500 and 4000 BC, and the finds include several graves with artefacts from about 3000 BC. A place named Ti-smurna appears in Assyrian records from the first half of the 2nd millennium BC, although it is not certain whether this refers to İzmir, and by 1500 BC, the region had fallen under the influence of the Hittites.
The most important sanctuary in Old Smyrna was the Temple of Athena, dating from ca 640-580 BC. By then, Smyrna was an important urban, trading centre and Smyrna was added to the twelve Ionian cities, becoming the thirteenth city and one of the most prominent cultural and commercial centres in the Mediterranean basin.
Under the Romans, Smyrna vied with Ephesus for the title of First City of Asia (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
After Smyrna capitulated to the Lydians, the vengeful Persians subsequently destroyed old Smyrna, but Alexander the Great later rebuilt the city when he had defeated the Persians. Under later Roman rule, Smyrna enjoyed a second golden period. As one of the principal cities of Roman Asia, Smyrna vied with Ephesus and Pergamum for the title “First City of Asia.”
A suffering early Church
In New Testament times, Smyrna was one of seven churches of Asia addressed in the Book of Revelation. The Book of Revelation tells us the Church in Smyrna was poor and the Christians of Smyrna were suffering persecution (Revelation 2: 9). But – in contrast to the other six churches – nothing negative is said about the Church of Smyrna. But they were told their persecution would continue and they are urged: “Be faithful to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Revelation 2: 10) – the persecution continued into the 2nd century.
Tradition says Saint John the Divine appointed Polycarp as Bishop of Smyrna. Saint Ignatius of Antioch visited Smyrna and later wrote letters to, Polycarp, who was martyred in 153 or 155 AD. Saint Irenaeus, who heard Polycarp as a boy, was probably a native of Smyrna. In Polycarp’s days, Smyrna had a population of 100,000, but an earthquake razed the city to the ground in 178 AD, and imperial funds and support were needed to rebuild the city. Tertullian traced the Church in Smyrna to the Apostles, Saint John and Polycarp and counted the it as one of only two churches that had a recorded and historic apostolic succession.
The Turks first captured Smyrna in 1076 under the Seljuk commander Caka Bey, who used Smyrna as a base for naval raids. After his death in 1102, the city returned to Byzantine rule, but a century later it was captured by the Knights of Rhodes when Constantinople was conquered by the Crusaders in 1204. Until the 13th century, Smyrna remained one of the largest cities in our civilisation. It was recaptured in the early 14th century by the Turks under Umur Bey, who used the city as a base for naval raids. In 1344, the Genoese took back the castle, but Smyrna was captured by the Ottomans in 1389.
Fleeing the Spanish inquisition, Ladino-speaking Jews first arrived in Smyrna around 1492, and the city became one of their principal centres in the Ottoman Empire. The emergence of Smyrna as a major international port in the 17th century was helped by its attraction to foreigners and its European cultural attractions. In 1620, privileged trading conditions were granted to foreigners, foreign consulates and trade centres were established along the quays, and within time the city a large population that included French, English, Dutch and Italian merchants, living alongside large communities of Greeks, Armenians and Jews.
Massacre of Greek population
But Smyrna was a predominantly Greek city in the first three decades of the early 20th century, with Greek-speaking people making up perhaps 70% of the population. And so it seemed appropriate after Ottoman Turkey’s defeat in World War I that Smyrna – along with large parts of Anatolia and western Turkey – was placed under Greek rule according to the terms of the Treaty of Sevres, and on 15 May 1919 the Greek army moved into Smyrna, but the subsequent Greek expedition into central Anatolia turned into a disaster for both Greece and for the local Greek people in Turkey.
The Turkish army captured Smyrna on 9 September 1922, putting an end to the three-year war between Greece and Turkey. When the Turks took Smyrna, they proclaimed a jihad and the atrocities against the Greek and Armenian communities began immediately. The Orthodox Metropolitan Chrysostomos was murdered and as many as 100,000 Armenian and Greek Christians were slaughtered throughout the city.
The fire that broke out in Smyrna on 13 September 1922, four days after the capture of the city, is one of the greatest disasters in Greek and Turkish history. The city became the scene of the worst Turkish excesses against the Greek population of Anatolia, and most of the city was burned to the ground in a fire that raged for days. As thousands of Christians were murdered, allied ships in the harbour stood idly by and for three days refused the pleas for safe passage for a quarter of a million refugees huddled in terror on the quayside.
The New York Times, in a report on 18 September 1922 headed “Smyrna’s ravagers fired on Americans,” documented the relentless destruction of the Christian quarters of the city and the massacre of Christians by Turkish troops. US soldiers and volunteers were attacked when they tried to help Armenians and Greeks. Other contemporary reports put the death toll at over 100,000. In the Armenian quarter alone, the 25,000 residents were systematically butchered and then the streets and houses were set aflame to incinerate any lingering survivors.
In desparation, many jumped into the waters they escape their pursuers and drowned before the eyes of the very people who had the means to rescue them.
Waiting Greeks on the dockside were denied access to allied ships in the harbour ... many jumped into the water and drowned in a vain effort to escape the massacre (Photograph: Benaki Museum, Athens)
On board the British, French and US ships, military bands played loud music to drown out the screams of the huddled, pleading and drowning Greeks and Armenians. Eventually, when they allowed Christians on board, they excluded all males between the ages of 17 and 45 years old.
About 400,000 Greek and Armenian refugees from Smyrna and the surrounding area received Red Cross aid immediately after the destruction of the city. In all, about 1.5 million Greek refugees from the region arrived in Greece in the weeks that followed.
The 42-hectare Kültürpark was laid out on the ruins of the Greek quarter of Smyrna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Modern İzmir was built from scratch on the ashes of the despoiled and ravaged city, and the 30-hectare Kültürpark was laid out on the ruins of the Greek quarter in the heart of the city. Today’s city is predominantly Muslim, although İzmir is still home to Turkey’s second largest Jewish community. They are 2,500 strong, and there are nine synagogues in the city. The Levantines of İzmir, are mostly of Genoese, French and Venetian descent.
Surprisingly, İzmir has a tiny Greek minority today. The few thousand Greek Orthodox inhabitants are descendants of the handful of Greeks who held British or Italian passports in 1922 and decided to stay on. It is said too that the descendants of many of Smyrna’s exiled Greeks still legally hold the title to much of the land in prosperous suburbs such as Karşıyaka, once known as Peramos (Πέραμος). But most of Smyrna's Greeks settled in places that took names such as Nea Smyrna (Νέα Σμύρνη) in Athens.
A forgotten past?
Nothing is left of the Hellenistic and Roman cities that once stood here, apart from the Agora, dating from the 2nd century BC. The Agora of Smyrna is well preserved. However, other important historical remains are still buried under modern buildings, including the ancient theatre of Smyrna where Polycarp was martyred.
The Agora is all that survives of Classical Smyrna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
The Agora was closed to visitors since 2003 to facilitate a 25-year restoration programme. However, a few years ago the staff kindly showed me the basilica and the Western Stoa with its colonnade of 14 Corinthian columns, and they allowed me to wander through the site, where fresh water still runs through the ancient ducts and channels.
To the north of the Agora, in the heart of the city, the Kültürpark, which is the host next month to the İzmir International Fair, is a vast area of over 42 hectares in the heart of the city. It includes open-air theatres, a Painting and Sculpture Museum, art centres, an amusement park, a zoo and a parachute tower. But strolling around it today, there are no signs that this was once a thriving Greek city, with a Greek-speaking population whose story goes back to the days of Homer.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin