8/4/10 - the destruction of smyrna

In today's excerpt - the 1922 destruction of Smyrna, a beautiful city located on the Aegean coast of what is now Turkey with twice the Greek population of Athens itself. In a century of global ethnic cleansing, the razing of Smyrna was on a scale that the world had never before seen -- and was a harbinger of much that came after. Perhaps the most cosmopolitan and ethnically tolerant city in the world in the early twentieth century, it fell victim to the nascent Turkish nationalist movement after misguided foreign policy moves -- some say the blunders of British Prime Minister David Lloyd George -- inflamed the centuries-old enmity between Turkey and Greece. Essentially all of its 700,000 inhabitants were killed, captured or fled as refugees before the Turkish National Army:

"The city [of Smyrna] was one in which fig-laden camels nudged their way past the latest Newton Bennett motor car; in which the strange new vogue of the cinema was embraced as early as 1908. There were seventeen companies dealing exclusively in imported Parisian luxuries. And if [a person] cared to read a daily newspaper, he had quite a choice: eleven Greek, seven Turkish, five Armenian, four French and five Hebrew, not to mention the ones shipped in from every capital city in Europe. ...

"Amidst the grandeur there was intense human activity. Hawkers and street traders peddled their wares along the mile-long quayside. Water sellers jangled their brass bowls; hodjas -- Muslim holy men -- mumbled prayers in the hope of earning a copper or two. And impecunious legal clerks. often Italian, would proffer language lessons at knock-down prices. 'You saw all sorts . . .' recalled the French journalist, Gaston Deschamps. 'Swiss hoteliers, German traders, Austrian tailors, English mill owners, Dutch fig merchants, Italian brokers, Hungarian bureaucrats, Armenian agents and Greek bankers.'

"The waterfront was lined with lively bars, brasseries and shaded cafe gardens, each of which tempted the palate with a series of enticing scents. The odour of roasted cinnamon would herald an Armenian patisserie; apple smoke spilled forth  from hookahs in the Turkish cafes. Coffee and olives, crushed mint and armagnac: each smell was distinctive and revealed the presence of more than three dozen culinary traditions. Caucasian pastries, boeuf a la mode, Greek game pies and Yorkshire pudding could all be found in the quayside restaurants of Smyrna. ...

"What happened over the two weeks [following September 9, 1922] must surely rank as one of the most compelling human dramas of the twentieth century. Innocent civilians -- men, women and children from scores of different nationalities -- were caught in a humanitarian disaster on a scale that the world had never before seen. The entire population of the city became the victim of a reckless foreign policy that had gone hopelessly, disastrously wrong. ...

"The total death toll is hard to compute with any certainty. According to Edward Hale Bierstadt -- executive of the United States Emergency Committee -- approximately 100,000 people were killed and another 160,000 deported into the interior. 'It is a picture too large and too fearful to be painted,' he wrote in his 1924 study of the disaster, The Great Betrayal, although he did his best, interviewing numerous eyewitnesses and collecting their testimonies. Other estimates were more conservative, claiming that 190,000 souls were unaccounted for by the end of September. It is  unclear how many of these had been killed and how many deported, although Greek sources suggest that at least 100,000 Christians were marched into the interior of the country. Most of these were never seen again. ...

"The exodus from Asia Minor was on a [massive] scale and it was to continue for  many months. To [rescue worker] Esther Lovejoy's eyes, it was 'the greatest migration in the history of mankind.' The migration was eventually enshrined in law in 1923, when  [Turkish leader] Mustafa Kemal put his signature to the Treaty of Lausanne. All of Turkey's remaining 1.2 million Orthodox Christians were to be uprooted from their ancestral homes and moved to Greece. And the 400,000 Muslims living in Greece were to be removed from their houses and transported to Turkey. It was ethnic cleansing without parallel."


Giles Milton


Paradise Lost: Smyrna 1922




Copyright 2008 by Giles Milton


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