01 July 2024

The Greeks have a word for it:
44, catastrophe, καταστροφή

The monument on Mikrasiaton Square in Rethymnon recalls the Asia Minor Catastrophe in 1914-1923 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

Is the election later this week going to be a meltdown and a catastrophe for the Conservative Party?

Is the performance of Nigel Farage and his party in the election later this week going to be a catastrophe for tolerance, diversity and human rights?

Does the potential overwhelming majority for the Labour Party threaten a future or potential catastrophe for democracy?

I have no doubt that the threat of Donald Trump’s return to office leads me to fear the catastrophic consequences for the US – and for the world.

The American comedian, actor, singer, and pianist Jimmy Durante, who could do to words what should never happen to a thesaurus, would say ‘catastroscope’ for catastrophe ‘cazzmaclismic’ for cataclysmic, and ‘exubilant’ for exuberant.

The words catastrophe and catastrophic come from the Greek words κατά (kata), ‘down’ or ‘against’, and στροφή (strophe), turning, which gives us the Greek: καταστροφή (katastrophḗ) and καταστρέφω (katastréphō), ‘I overturn’.

We can think of the use of kata- as a prefix when he speak of catacombs; I described the use of the use of -strophe as a suffix in this series recently (20 June) when I discussed the word apostrophe, ἀποστροφή, and illustrated it with the poem Στροφή (Strophe, Turning Point), the title poem in a collection by the Greek poet George Seferis.

The Greek noun καταστροφή may mean overturning, subjugation, reduction, end, close, conclusion, ruin or undoing, and the verb καταστρέφειν (katastrephein) means to overturn, to trample on, or to come to an end.

The word travelled from its Greek source katastrophe through the Latin catastrophe into other European languages. The first known use of catastrophe in English was in 1540 to refer to the conclusion or final event of the dramatic, disastrous action in a tragedy. Catastrophe then described a reversal of what is expected, especially the turning point in a drama or the winding up of the plot.

In time, catastrophe came to be used more generally of any unhappy conclusion, sudden disaster or ruinous end. By the mid-18th century, the word was being used to denote truly devastating events, such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

Today, the word catastrophe may refer to very tragic events as well as more minor ones. When we use the word, we may be referring to a general or specific event. But we use it too for things that are only figuratively catastrophic – burnt dinners, lost luggage, really bad films, and so on. Even a missed flight is not an actual catastrophe, as I have to realise in my own small world.

Catastrophe (1982) is a short play by Samuel Beckett; Catastrophe was a five-part science series presented by Tony Robinson on Channel 4 in 2008; and Catastrophe was also a 2015 television sitcom starring Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney.

Elections and political opinions apart, some of the real catastrophes we all face include climatic catastrophe, or the forced transition of our climate system at a rapid that we cannot cope with; ecological catastrophe, or a disaster in our the natural environment due to human activity; and an impending climatic catastrophe, caused by runaway climate change resulting from a rise in the average temperature of the Earth’s climate system.

The Holocaust is known in Hebrew as HaShoah, which translates as ‘The Catastrophe’.

The word catastrophe has been used in the past few decades too to refer to the Chernobyl Catastrophe in 1986 and to translate the Nakba in Arabic.

Remembering the Asia Minor Catastrophe in Mikrasiaton Square in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

When I was back in Rethymnon two months ago, I was reminded of how long-lasting the traumatic effects of catastrophe really are for the lives of families and communities. The Asia Minor Catastrophe is the Greek name for the 1923 Greek defeat in war between Greece and Turkey in 1919-1922 and the ‘population exchange’ between Greece and Turkey after that defeat.

It seems that in every corner of Rethymnon I stumble across reminders of the Asia Minor Catastrophe a century ago. They are found in street names and placenames, from Smyrni Street beneath the slopes of the Fortezza, and Mikrasiaton Square in the heart of the old town, to Tsesmes, the suburban village on the eastern fringes of Rethymnon, where I have also stayed in recent years.

Mikrasiaton Square (Πλατεία Μικρασιατών) has been transformed into the biggest square in the heart of the Old Town. Its name recalls the refugees from Asia Minor, who were known as Μικρασιάτες or Mikrasiates, people from Minor Asia. The Greek genocide (Γενοκτονία των Ελλήνων, Genoktonia ton Ellinon) was the systematic killing of the Greek Christian population of Anatolia or Asia Minor, during World War I and its aftermath (1914-1922).

The wholescale massacre of people and communities was carried out systematically on the basis of religion and ethnicity. It was instigated by the Ottoman government led by the Three Pashas and intensified and systematised by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

The genocide included massacres, forced deportations, death marches, expulsions, summary executions, and the destruction of Greek cultural, historical, and religious monuments. Up to a million Greek people living in the Ottoman Empire and its successor the Turkish Republic were murdered and died in that period.

By late 1922, most Greeks in Asia Minor had either fled or were murdered. The majority of survivors fled as refugees to Greece, adding over a quarter to the population of Greece at the time.

The refugees who arrived in Rethymnon first found shelter in the area now known as Mikrasiaton Square. Many found shelter in the Church of Saint Francis (Agios Franciskos), which had been used as an imaret or poorhouse during the Turkish era; others found homes in outlying villages such as Tsesmes, which takes its name from Cesme, north-west of Smirni (Izmir).

The refugees from Asia Minor integrated quickly into to the local population, bringing with them their arts, crafts and creativity, and actively contributing to the revitalisation of the local economy.

Today, Mikrasiaton Square is an attractive plaza, filled with strolling families, playing children and tourists taking selfies in front of the minaret and domes of the Neratnzes Mosque. There are bikers and skaters too, park benches and attractive restaurants. It has also been a popular venue for open air concerts and live music.

Some abandoned buildings might have blighted this square in the past and become typical recipients of graffiti and painted scrawls. But instead, an imaginative initiative has attracted the talents of street artists, adding to the attractions of the square.

The buildings around Mikrasiaton Square include some of the town’s most important buildings from the Venetian and Ottoman periods, such as the House of Culture, the Nerantzes Mosque, the former Venetian Church of Agios Franciskos (Saint Francis), now housing temporary exhibitions of the Archaeological Museum, and the Historical and Folklore Museum of Rethymnon.

The new monument on the east side of Mikrasiaton Square recalls the Asia Minor catastrophe and is an initiative of the descendants of those refugees who arrived in Rethymnon a century ago. It is five meters long and four meters in high, and depicts the horrors of burning homes, death marches, murders and grieving mothers.

The names of the towns in Asia Minor that had sizeable Greek majorities until a century ago are inscribed on the monument, beginning with Symrni, and including Tsesmes, Ephesus, Pergamon, Miletus, Iconium (Konya), and Sardis … many of them Greek-speaking cities long before Saint John wrote from Patmos to the Seven Churches in the Book of Revelation.

Smyrni Street beneath the slopes of the Fortezza in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Before the word genocide came into legal use, the destruction of the Greeks of Asia Minor was known by Greeks as ‘the Massacre’ (η Σφαγή), ‘the Great Catastrophe’ (η Μεγάλη Καταστροφή), or ‘the Great Tragedy’ (η Μεγάλη Τραγωδία).

Ataturk provided a ‘model’ for genocide for the Nazis. Hitler once declared that he regarded himself as a student of Ataturk, and described him as his ‘star in the darkness.’ Ataturk and his new Turkey of 1923 constituted the archetype of the ‘perfect Führer’ and of ‘good national practices’ for Nazism. Nazi propaganda emphasised the ‘Turkish model’ and continuously praised the ‘benefits’ of ethnic cleansing and genocide.

Genocide was declared an international crime in international law in 1948. Two years ago (2022), Greece marked the 100th anniversary of the ‘Catastrophe of Smyrna’ (Izmir), when Greeks were forced to flee the city when Turkish forces set fire to it. The great fire of Smyrna began on 13 September 1922, and lasted nine full days and nights until 22 September 1922.

The monument on Mikrasiaton Square recalls the genocide of the Greeks during the Asia Minor Catastrophe (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

A more contemporary example of a catastrophe in Greece is the recent national debt crisis and near bankruptcy of Greece could be characterised as a catastrophe. In response of this catastrophe, two poles were formed. Grassroots efforts led to community kitchens, healthcare clinics, and popular assemblies. On the other hand, the European troika – the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund – used this opportunity to impose austerity measures. These responses in the summer of 2015 produced a clash between two worldviews in the aftermath of a catastrophe.

Thinking about catastrophes dialectically and comparatively can help us take an ethical stance and decide on a political course of action in the future. Global warming, increasing social inequality, and the rise of the far right across Europe, means we are likely to face many more catastrophes in the years ahead.

Previous word: 43, apostrophe, ἀποστροφή.

Next word: 45, democracy, δημοκρατία

A quiet moment in Mikrasiaton Square in Rethymnon seems like a world away from political and economic catastrophes (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Previous words in this series:

1, Neologism, Νεολογισμός.

2, Welcoming the stranger, Φιλοξενία.

3, Bread, Ψωμί.

4, Wine, Οίνος and Κρασί.

5, Yogurt, Γιαούρτι.

6, Orthodoxy, Ορθοδοξία.

7, Sea, Θᾰ́λᾰσσᾰ.

8,Theology, Θεολογία.

9, Icon, Εἰκών.

10, Philosophy, Φιλοσοφία.

11, Chaos, Χάος.

12, Liturgy, Λειτουργία.

13, Greeks, Ἕλληνες or Ρωμαίοι.

14, Mañana, Αύριο.

15, Europe, Εὐρώπη.

16, Architecture, Αρχιτεκτονική.

17, The missing words.

18, Theatre, θέατρον, and Drama, Δρᾶμα.

19, Pharmacy, Φᾰρμᾰκείᾱ.

20, Rhapsody, Ραψῳδός.

21, Holocaust, Ολοκαύτωμα.

22, Hygiene, Υγιεινή.

23, Laconic, Λακωνικός.

24, Telephone, Τηλέφωνο.

25, Asthma, Ασθμα.

26, Synagogue, Συναγωγή.

27, Diaspora, Διασπορά.

28, School, Σχολείο.

29, Muse, Μούσα.

30, Monastery, Μοναστήρι.

31, Olympian, Ολύμπιος.

32, Hypocrite, Υποκριτής.

33, Genocide, Γενοκτονία.

34, Cinema, Κινημα.

35, autopsy and biopsy

36, Exodus, ἔξοδος

37, Bishop, ἐπίσκοπος

38, Socratic, Σωκρατικὸς

39, Odyssey, Ὀδύσσεια

40, Practice, πρᾶξις

41, Idiotic, Ιδιωτικός

42, Pentecost, Πεντηκοστή

43, Apostrophe

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