Paradise Lost: Smyrna 1922

I’ve just finished reading Paradise Lost: Smyrna 1922 The Destruction of Islam’s City of Tolerance by Giles Milton.

Smyrna had had a Greek population since about 1000 b.c. It was one of the cities which claimed to be the birthplace of Homer. For centuries, as part of the Ottoman Empire, it was a prosperous trading port, and by the end of the 19th century had grown into a rich and cosmopolitan citywith large Greek, Armenian and Jewish communities. One of Milton’s striking pieces of evidence for this: there were 11 Greek newspapers available in the city, as well as seven in Turkish, five in Armenian, four in French and five in Hebrew.

The city was home to a number of fabulously rich Anglo-Levantine merchant families – the Whittalls, Girauds and Woods –  and it is largely through their stories that Milton recreates the tragedy of the city as a whole. The Girauds owned the Oriental Carpet Manufacturing Company, which employed 150,000 people, while the Whittalls controlled an even larger fruit exporting empire.

One of the first Christian communities in the world and one of the few places to escape the 1915 Armenian genocide, Smyrna still retained its ancient cosmopolitan character at the end of World War 1. However, with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Greece occupied Smyrna and the surrounding region in 1919, encouraged by the Allies, and in particular Lloyd-George, to protect western oil interests – and a Greek-Turkish war began. Milton narrates these developments in a clear and balanced way,  weaving in the personal recollections he has gathered from interviews and memoirs.

When the Turks entered the city on September 9, few guessed the scale of the horrors that would be meted out on the city. Estimates vary but some suggest that  100,000 people were killed, with many times that number turned into homeless refugees. There was a large ethnic Greek population living in the area occupied and it was these who suffered terribly when the Greek army was routed, defeated by Kemal Ataturk, Turkish nationalist leader and founder of modern Turkey. His troops slaughtered the Greek and Armenian population, and burnt the Greek and Armenian part of the city.

Then suddenly, in 1922, Smyrna was snuffed out in a single week of mass-murder, rape, looting, pillage and one of the greatest acts of arson in the 20th century. At the end of it, the New York Times ran the headline: “Smyrna wiped out.”  The chapters recounting the events of the days during which the city burned are filled with vivid depictions of terrible atrocities that are as difficult to read or comprehend as Holocaust accounts.

The Great Fire of Smyrna destroyed much of the city in September 1922. It occurred four days after the Turkish forces regained control of the city thus effectively ending the Greek -Turkish War. Milton provides convincing evidence that it was Kemal Ataturk’s nationalist troops who brought in thousands of barrels from the Petroleum Company of Smyrna and poured them over the streets and houses of all but the Turkish quarter. Moreover, he argues, it was done with the full approval of Ataturk, who was determined to find a final solution to his ‘minority problem’ to ensure the future stability of his fledgling Turkish republic.

This is the story told by Giles Milton, in a book that constitutes gripping and well-written history. I would have been interested to read more about the city in its golden heyday – and more about the lives of its ordinary citizens, particularly those of the impoverished Turkish community. But theirs are lives that go largely unrecorded, unlike the rich Levantines and Americans whose stories provide the backbone of this book.

No-one comes out of this story well: neither the Greeks with their ill-advised occupation and dreams of the Great Idea of a Greek Empire in Anatolia; nor  Lloyd George, whose naive politics worsened the situation; nor the Turks (troops or irregulars) pouring petrol to start the fires; nor the commanders of the Allied warships in the harbour who refused to do anything to save the thousands starving on the quayside (the British poured boiling water on desperate refugees who swam up to their vessels).

But there is one inspiring story that Milton records. As the city burns and half a million refugees huddle on the quayside in desperate straits, facing death by fire and suffocation or at the hands of rampaging Turkish troops and irregulars, one man, in Milton’s words, ‘would lead what must rank as the most extraordinary rescue operation of the entire twentieth century’. Asa Jennings was an employee of Smyrna’s YMCA, a Methodist minister from New York who had only been in the job for a few weeks. But, as Milton recounts, he engages in a determined bid to rescue as many of the refugees as he can. He negotiates with high-ranking French, American and Turkish representatives in a successful bid to utilize some of the multitude of ships moored offshore to transport the refugees away from the city.

Among the Greeks forced to flee were the family of the Greek poet George Seferis,who was studying law at the Sorbonne in September 1922 when Smyrna was recaptured by the Turks and its Greek population fled. Seferis would not visit Smyrna again until 1950; a recurrent theme in his poetry is exile and nostalgia for the Mediterranean and his birthplace, Smyrna.

Just as if one night
you happened to enter
the city that reared you,
and later they razed it to the ground and rebuilt it,
and you struggle to transpose older times
to recognize again…

The evil has been committed; the significant question is who will redeem the evil. Notebooks, 1950

The houses I had they took away from me. The times
happened to be unpropitious: war, destruction, exile;
sometimes the hunter hits the migratory birds,
sometimes he doesn’t hit them. Hunting
was good in my time, many felt the pellet;
the rest circle aimlessly or go mad in the shelters.

Don’t talk to me about the nightingale or the lark
or the little wagtail
inscribing figures with his tail in the light;
I don’t know much about houses
I know they have their own nature, nothing else.
New at first, like babies
who play in gardens with the tassels of the sun,
they embroider coloured shutters and shining doors
over the day.
When the architect’s finished, they change,
they frown or smile or even grow stubborn
with those who stayed behind, with those who went away
with others who’d come back if they could
or others who disappeared, now that the world’s become
an endless hotel.

I don’t know much about houses,
I remember their joy and their sorrow
sometimes, when I stop to think;
again
sometimes, near the sea, in naked rooms
with a single iron bed and nothing of my own,
watching the evening spider, I imagine
that someone is getting ready to come, that they dress
him up
in white and black robes, with many-coloured jewels,
and around him venerable ladies,
gray hair and dark lace shawls, talk softly,
that he is getting ready to come and say goodbye to me;
or that a woman — eyelashes quivering, slim-waisted,
returning from southern ports,
Smyrna Rhodes Syracuse Alexandria,
from cities closed like hot shutters,
with perfume of golden fruit and herbs —
climbs the stairs without seeing
those who’ve fallen asleep under the stairs.

Houses, you know, grow stubborn easily when you strip
them bare.

The House Near the Sea, 1946

In 1963 Seferis was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.  In his acceptance speech he said:

The behaviour of human beings does not seem to have changed [since the ancient Greek dramas]. And I should add that today we need to listen to that human voice which we call poetry, that voice which is constantly in danger of being extinguished through lack of love, but is always reborn. Threatened, it has always found a refuge; denied, it has always instinctively taken root again in unexpected places. It recognizes no small nor large parts of the world; its place is in the hearts of men the world over. It has the charm of escaping from the vicious circle of custom. ..

In our gradually shrinking world, everyone is in need of all the others. We must look for man wherever we can find him. When on his way to Thebes Oedipus encountered the Sphinx, his answer to its riddle was: ‘Man’. That simple word destroyed the monster. We have many monsters to destroy. Let us think of the answer of Oedipus.

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2 thoughts on “Paradise Lost: Smyrna 1922

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