Athens News Article: A Lost Paradise
Posted on: 06-03-2011 | Category: Articles & Interviews

IN GREECE it is almost impossible to be unaware of the Catastrophe – the
devastation of the predominantly Greek city of Smyrna in 1922 and its
aftermath. It is not just the many books, films, exhibitions and articles that
commemorate this seminal event, but the large numbers of Greeks who descended
from the 1.2 million Asia Minor refugees and who grew up with the stories.
Streets and districts throughout Greece are named after towns and villages
left behind such as Nea Smyrni (New Smyrna) and Nea Philadelphia, and tiny
refugee dwellings that still exist in certain Athenian neighbourhoods such as
Kaisariani and Kokkinia (the focus of Renee Hirschon’s fascinating
anthropological study, Heirs of the Greek Catastrophe). While these
Ottoman Greeks brought new ideas, skills, sophistication, culture, music and
food to a poor country of only about four million Greeks, many arrived
traumatised and penniless. They lived in tents and shacks for years, and were
insulted with barbs like “Yoghurt-baptised-ones” (for their presumed culinary
preferences) or “Turkish seeds”.
Turks blame the Greeks for what happened in Smyrna (today’s Izmir). It was,
after all, the Greek army that invaded and occupied the city and proceeded
eastwards with the hubristic Great Idea (Megali Idea) of regaining
Constan-tinople and the glories of Byzantium. Greeks, on the other hand, are
deeply attached to the horrific story of a Turkish massacre and the expulsion
of innocents. Last year, a sixth-grade school Greek history book was withdrawn
amidst political, ecclesiastical and pedagogical outrage; its description of
“crowds gathering” in the port at Smyrna was deemed offensively neutral.
All this makes it extremely refreshing to encounter a clear-eyed, informative
and well-written book about Smyrna in 1922, which takes on a different
viewpoint. Giles Milton is a British journalist and author (of the bestselling
Nathanial’s Nutmeg), who evidently has no axe to grind with Greeks or
Turks (or Armenians – another significant minority in Smyrna, who were either
brutally massacred or troublesome arsonists, depending on who you believe).
Instead, he tells the story using diaries, letters and archives from the
“Levantines” – rich families of European (and occasionally American) descent,
many of whom had lived under the Ottomans for generations. They helped shape
Smyrna into a wealthy, cosmopolitan and dynamic place where the majority of
the Christian population cohabited harmoniously with Jews and the ruling
Turks. By the early 1900s, the Levantines controlled much of Smyrna’s
impressive shipping, mining, banking and trading businesses. They inhabited
elegant villas in leafy suburbs, commuting into town on a little steam train,
which waited for any latecomers and on which each had his accustomed seat.
Theirs was a life of polyglot parties, Parisian fashions, charity concerts and
haute cuisine in a city characterised by diversity and tolerance. In the port,
camels co-existed with fancy motor cars; oriental patisseries with German
brasseries; and Muslim shrines with American colleges. Newspapers arrived from
every European capital, supplementing the dailies in Greek (11), Turkish (7),
Armenian (5), French (4) and Hebrew (5). Life was not luxurious for all its
citizens, but Milton paints a convincing picture of early 20th-century Smyrna
as a kind of “paradise”, thus giving him the tempting opportunity to use his
famous namesake’s title Paradise Lost.

 

 

 

 
Smyrna’s 320,000-strong Greek community was among the hardest hit by World War
I. Though many were Turkish citizens, they suddenly became “enemies” (as did
the city’s British and French). Milton makes it clear that the disaster of
1922 was born of the war’s aftermath, as the Great Powers (Britain, America
and France) attempted to cash in on Turkey’s weakness and to acquire their own
footholds. Worst of all, they encouraged Eleftherios Venizelos to invade
Turkey and to create a Greater Greece, but abandoned the Greeks when their
campaign in Anatolia was defeated. Turkey had suddenly become a potentially
important ally and should not be offended. In what began as a “war by proxy”,
Greece’s erstwhile supporters refrained from intervening, even as Mustafa
Kemal (soon to be Ataturk, leader of republican Turkey) and his troops entered
Smyrna.
Milton tells the gripping, often appalling story of the city’s annihilation
with verve. Apocalyptic infernos raged as women and children were raped and
decapitated. Over 100,000 people were killed. The British, the French, as well
as Americans and others watched “neutrally” from their 21 warships moored in
the harbour, as half a million desperate refugees “crowded onto the port” (the
condemned phrase in the Greek history book). Flames forced many to leap into
the sea, the Turkish cavalry lashed through the throng and the ships’ bands
played music to drown out the horrible cries.
Smyrna’s tragedy marked the death throes of the Ottoman Empire, the rise of
modern Turkey and the end of over two millennia of Christian life in Asia
Minor. It also gave rise to the Treaty of Lausanne – the twentieth century’s
first official mention of “ethnic cleansing”. As Bruce Clark describes in
Twice a Stranger, Muslims in Greece were sent to Turkey, whilst
Christian “Greeks” (often Turkish-speaking) were uprooted to a
“mother-country” they had never known.
Milton holds the Turks responsible for the vast fires which swept through
Smyrna, but he is clear that the Greek army was far from blameless, with its
triumphant, violent arrival in Smyrna and its burning of Turkish villages in
retreat from Anatolia. Above all, however, the culprits in the loss of
Smyrna’s “paradise” were the Great Powers, whose political and imperial
ambitions made them opportunistic, ruthless and treacherous. Greece’s
Catastrophe is an early 20th-century example of the human cost involved in
what has more recently been called “collateral damage”.
* Giles Milton’s Paradise Lost: Smyrna 1922; The Destruction of Islam’s
City of Tolerance can be ordered from www.amazon.co.uk

* Sofka Zinovieff is the author of Eurydice Street: A Place in Athens
and Red Princess: A Revolutionary Life. You can visit her website at www.sofkazinovieff.com