12 July 2016

A touch of spice in Tsesmes brings back
stories of refugees and racism in Anatolia

The salads in Pagona’s Places called to mind ‘A Touch of Spice’ and Byzantine cuisine (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

I am staying on the square in the suburban village of Platanes, a few miles east of Rethymnon and by a long stretch of beach on the north coast of Crete. Behind Julia Apartments and Platanes, the neighbouring village of Tsesmes marks the beginning of the ascent into the mountains of Crete, and the road up to Arkadi, one of the best-known monasteries on the island.

Tsesmes is just a short five-minute walk from Platanes, but while the two villages share one school, they have kept their separate identities, and on Sunday mornings the Divine Liturgy alternates between the two village churches, served by one Greek Orthodox parish priest, Father Dimitrios.

I have been to church in Tsesmes, and have walked up to the village a few afternoons and a few evenings for lunch and dinner, to enjoy the beautiful sunsets, or to continuing the climb up to the monastery of Agias Anastasias tis Romoi.

But I was intrigued by the name of the village. It is pronounced Ches-mes, which is not Greek-sounding. The cuisine in its best taverna, Pagona’s Place, somehow called to mind A Touch of Spice (Πολίτικη Κουζίνα, Politiki Kouzina), the 2003 Greek film by Tassos Boulmetis about Fanis Iakovides, a professor of astronomy and astrophysics, and his grandfather Vassilis who was a culinary philosopher in Constantinople.

A roadsign at Tsesmes … but what did the name mean? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Of course, the name Tsesmes is originally the Turkish word Çeşme, which is borrowed from the Persian word for a ‘spring’ or more particularly a ‘fountain.’ I could find no old Ottoman fountain in the village, and eventually found that Tsesmes takes its name from Çeşme, the town on the western Anatolian coast of Turkey, across a narrow strip of Aegean water from the Greek island of Chios.

Çeşme is at the western-most end of Turkey, about 85 km west of İzmir (Smyrna) on a promontory at the tip of the peninsula with the same name. Today, it is a popular holiday resort, but over the last week or two I have learned the disturbing and sad stories of “ethnic cleansing” that brought many of the people of Çeşme to this part of Crete less than a century ago.

In classical antiquity, Çeşme was known as Kysos (Κύσος), and it was a port town of Erythtrai, one of the 12 Ionian cities ca 1000 BC in the western part of Anatolia. It had a market in wine and slaves, but it suffered when Eryththrai was attacked first by Lydia and then by the Persians, and went into decline.

However, Kysos flourished once again during the Kingdom of Pergamon and with the arrival of the Romans, who called it Cyssus. It remained part of the Byzantine Emprie until the Turkish fleet under Chaka of Smyrna (Çaka Bey) conquered Çeşme in 1081. It returned to Byzantine rule later, but was captured once again by the Turks under Bayezid I, the Thunderbolt of the Ottomans.

People fleeing Çeşme would find refuge in Tsesmes (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Çeşme had its own golden age in the Middle Ages when a modus vivendi was established in the 14th century between the Republic of Genoa, which held Chios, and the Beylik of Aydinids.

Tamerlane took Çeşme from the Ottomans after the Battle of Ankara in 1402, letting the Beylik of Aydınoğlu annex it. The town is dominated by Çeşme Castle, which may have been built first by the Genoese before the Ottoman Turks took Çeşme once again in 1422.

Çeşme was at the end point of the Silk Road and soon got richer and attracted more people. But the Ottoman capture of Chios in 1566 had disastrous consequences for Çeşme. Trade came to a standstill, and many families moved from Çeşme to İzmir.

In 1770, the Bay of Çeşme was the location of the naval Battle of Chesma between the Russian and Ottoman fleets during the Russo-Turkish War (1768–1774). The battle ended in the defeat of the Ottoman fleet at the hands of the Russians. Hasan Pasha succeeded in sinking the Russian flagship, but lost his own flagship in the process.

Çeşme remained a backwater until the early 19th century, when Hadji Memiş Aga moved to Çeşme with his two sons and revived the markets. He brought Greek workers from the islands of Chios, Rhodes and Lesbos to live in Çeşme, and they drained the marshlands and introduced the cultivation of vines, tobacco, wheat and aniseed. Çeşme’s new prosperity was enhanced with the export of grapes and mastic.

The town also became a popular retreat for wealthy people from Smyrna and a seasonal resort known for its thermal baths.

Memories of Anatolia? A quiet corner in Tsesmes (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Although Balkan Turks began arriving in Anatolia as refugees in the early 20th century, the Turkish population of Çeşme dropped to a handful of families and the town and the surrounding area continued to have a Greek majority.

The first expulsions of Greeks from Çeşme began in 1914 with the outbreak of World War I. In one attack in the neighbouring town of Phocaea (Foca), north of Smyrna, 50 Greeks were killed. The German journalist Harry Stuermer, who was normally sympathetic to the Turks, spoke of the town’s “smoking ruins.”

Many Greeks who fled Çeşme found refuge on the neighbouring island of Chios, and newly-arrived Turkish refugees who had fled from the Balkans were housed in Greek homes.

But many of the Greeks of Çeşme returned in 1919 with the hope of security and new prosperity with the Greek administration of Smyrna (1919-1922). But as the former Ottoman Empire disintegrated and was portioned, the region was soon gripped in a new war between Greece and Turkey.

For Greeks, the Asia Minor Campaign (Μικρασιατική Εκστρατεία) quickly deteriorated into the Asia Minor Catastrophe (Μικρασιατική Καταστροφή).

Greek forces landed in Smyrna (Izmir), on 15 May 1919, when they were greeted as liberators by the majority of the Greek population in the city. The Greek troops advanced inland and took control of west and north-west part of Anatolia.

On 10 August 1920, the Ottoman Empire signed the Treaty of Sèvres and ceded most of Thrace to Greece. Turkey renounced to Greece all rights over Imbros and Tenedos, but held Constantinople, the islands of Marmara, and a tiny strip of European territory, while the Straits of Bosporus were placed under an International Commission. Turkey also transferred to Greece sovereignty over Smyrna and the hinterland. Smyrna was to maintain a local parliament and if the people asked to be incorporated into Greece, the League of Nations was to hold a plebiscite.

However, all this was abandoned in 1921 when Ataturk’s nationalist forces defeated the Greeks at the Battle of Sakarya (Sangarios). The Greek front collapsed with the Turkish counter-attack in August 1922.

Many Greeks fled hastily with the retreating Greek army as Turkish troops advanced on Greek towns and villages.

A vanguard of Turkish cavalry entered the outskirts of Smyrna on 8 September, and the Turkish cavalry rode into the town around 11 a.m. on Saturday morning, 9 September. Ataturk declared the Ankara government could be held responsible if a massacre took place.

Anywhere from 50,000 to 400,000 Greeks and Armenians crammed onto the waterfront in their failed efforts to flee their plight. They were forced to remain there under harsh conditions for almost two weeks, refused assistance or succour by the 21 Allied ships from the US, Britain, France and Italy docked in the harbour.

As they crammed onto the dock front, Turkish troops and irregulars were committing massacres and atrocities against the Greek and Armenian people still in the city, murdering people and raping women. The Greek Orthodox bishop, Metropolitan Chrysostomos, was tortured and hacked to death by a Turkish mob in full view of French soldiers, who were prevented from intervening by their commanding officer. A retired British doctor was beaten to death in his home, while trying to prevent the rape of a servant girl.

The city was set ablaze by the Turkish nationalists on 13 September, and the Great Fire of Smyrna burned for nine days until 22 September. Only the Greek and Armenian quarters of the city were burned, while the Turkish quarter remained unscathed. It is said the fire killed from 10,000 to 100,000 Greeks and Armenians in Smyrna.

The war effectively ended with the Great Fire of Smyrna. The last remnants of the retreating Greek army were evacuated from Çeşme.

Turkish troops led by Fahrettin Altay Pasha arrived in Çeşme from Smyrna, and the last bullet of the war was shot on 16 September 1922 in the square of Çeşme. The expulsion of the Greek Army from Anatolia was completed on 18 September, although the fires continued to burn in Smyrna.

An old house in Tsesmes on a street that remembers Nikomedeia (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The Treaty of Lausanne, signed on 24 July 1923, enshrined the Ottoman policy of dividing people according to religion rather than descent, language, or self-identification. Whole populations were categorised as Greek and moved to Greece because they were Christians, not because of the language they spoke. Here in Rethymnon, whole sections of the town were forced to move to Turkey because the people were Muslims, despite the fact that many spoke Greek and were intermarried with Greek families or of Greek origin.

The exercise amounted to “ethnic cleansing” but is still referred to as the “population exchange.”

At first, many of Çeşme’s Greek-speaking people moved to the neighbouring island of Chios. But a large number of families were invited to settle in Crete in the new village they built above Platanes, east of Rethymnon.

The move was a traumatic experience. People were uprooted from their homes and forced to move to a new country. Some did not even speak Greek, and many retained a lifelong attachment to the town they had left. Naming their new villages after the towns they had been forced to leave in Anatolia was a common practice: Nea Alikarnassos (Νέα Αλικαρνασσός), a suburb east of Iraklion, was founded in 1925 as a public housing development to accommodate refugees; Nea Smyrni (Νέα Σμύρνη) is a suburb in south Athens.

The name of the road from Platanes up to Tsesmes recalls the mainly Greek town of Nikomedeia (Νικομήδεια), now İzmit, about 100 km east of Istanbul, in the north-west part of Anatolia. An Allied report on 1 June 1921 described the Turkish atrocities in Izmit as “considerable and ferocious.”

The parish church on the square in Tsesmes is dedicated to Saint Nektarios (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Today, Tsesmes retains some of the feeling and atmosphere of an Anatolian Greek village. The parish church in one of the village’s two squares is dedicated to Saint Nektarios (1846-1920), Metropolitan of Pentapolis and Wonderworker of Aegina. He was born in Selymbria (today Silivri, Istanbul), and at the age of 14 moved to Constantinople In 1866, at age 20, he moved to the island of Chios to take a teaching post. Ten years later, in 1876, he became a monk. He served the church in Cairo and Greece, and was recognised as a saint in 1961.

Many of the houses in Tsesmes are reminders of the origins of the villagers, and some of the family names are Turkish-sounding, with endings such as -oglu. But the best reminder was in the cuisine and cooking traditions in Pagona’s Place.

Pagona's Palce may be small, but it is one of the finest restaurants in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Meanwhile in Çeşme, many of the old houses, once the homes of rich Greek merchants, still survive. The main street leading down to the seafront is dominated by the large Greek Orthodox Church of Aghios Haralambos. It no longer serves as a church, for all the Greek people are gone. It is used at times for temporary exhibitions, but for most of the year its doors remain firmly bolted. Nor is there a memorial or statue in Çeşme to mark the Asia Minor Catastrophe, the deaths it brought with it, or the refugee crisis it created.

Çeşme and Chios are at the heart of the present refugee crisis in the Aegean, with refugees caught in the waters between Turkey and Greece and in the political machinations that leave them helpless and drowning.

Had Europe dealt with the racism and xenophobia in Anatolia 100 years ago that led to the Armenian genocide and the first large-scale experiences of “ethnic cleansing,” perhaps the European genocides of the 1930s and 1940s would have been easier to resist, perhaps “ethnic cleansing” would never have occurred on such a large scale in the Balkans in the 1990s, and perhaps we would have a more humanitarian attitude to the present refugee crisis that is repeating the sins of the 1910s and 1920s.

On a Sunday morning at the Divine Liturgy in the parish church in Tsesmes (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

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