The centennial of the Great Fire of Smyrna is in 2022.
“Today [Monday, 11 September 1922] I saw with my own eyes the Turks taking bombs, gunpowder, kerosene and everything necessary to start fires, in wagonfuls here and there through the streets,” the Rev. Abraham Hartunian wrote in his diary.
The fires began in the Armenian quarter and kept the Smyrna fire brigade working nonstop. While hosing down the Armenian Club to protect it from nearby fire, Emmanuel Katsaros, a Smyrna fireman, saw two Turkish soldiers carry tins of petroleum inside the building and empty the liquid on a piano.
Katsaros told the soldier standing guard outside: “On the one hand we are trying to stop the fires, and on the other you are setting them.”
“You have your orders and we have ours,” the Turkish soldier said. “This is Armenian property. Our orders are to set fire to it.”
The fires grew too numerous too fast to keep them confined to the Armenian quarter. Turkish soldiers, under the command of Mustapha Kemal (later known as Atatürk), systematically set fire to Smyrna, leaving the Turkish quarter untouched.
Until then, this ancient and beautiful city, with a coveted harbor and a strategic location in the Mediterranean, was a prosperous hub of European trade. It was admired as a cultured and tolerant place where Christians, Jews and Muslims lived in harmony, before the emergence of extreme Turkish nationalism, before the genocide of Armenians, Assyrians, and Greeks by whatever means possible— massacres, forced deportations involving death marches, and arbitrary expulsions and executions.
Beginnings are never really beginnings. Before Kemal’s troops ignited tins of petroleum in the streets leading to the Greek quarter and the Armenian quarter, before the Big Four—Vittorio Orlando, Georges Clemenceau, Lloyd George, and President Wilson—met in Paris after the Great War to divide fragments of Turkey among themselves, before Italy walked out after losing Smyrna and began seizing towns along Turkey’s western coast in its push north to take Smyrna by force, Turkey had already initiated the first genocide of the twentieth century in order to eliminate all Christians and hammer out a new “Turkey for the Turks.”
By the time Smyrna was reduced to mounds of smoldering ash and hundreds of thousands of Greeks and Armenians packed the quay begging for foreign rescue, Turkey’s crimes against humanity, numbering in the millions of victims, were already a fait accompli.
George Horton, then U.S. Consul General at Smyrna, had lived in celebrated cities throughout the world, but no place captured his heart like Smyrna. It had the climate of southern California, the architecture of the Côte d’Azur and the allure of nowhere else on earth. “In no city in the world,” he wrote, “did East and West mingle physically in so spectacular a manner.”
It took over a week for Kemal’s troops to burn Smyrna. Twenty Allied warships, including three American destroyers, eleven British warships, five French, and one Italian looked on from the harbor. They were under orders not to intervene. The paramount concern of the Allies was to protect their oil and trade interests in Turkey.
Eyewitnesses aboard those ships—captains, officers, engineers, sailors, stewards, journalists, photographers and others—numbered in the thousands. They didn’t have smartphones or Twitter accounts, but they did have binoculars, telescopes, moving picture and still cameras, and their own eyes to see the horror of pillage, rape, arson and slaughter.
Ward Price, a journalist for the Daily Mail, reported:
What I see, as I stand on the deck of HMSIronDuke, is an unbroken wall of fire, two miles long, in which twenty distinct volcanoes of raging flame are throwing up jagged, writhing tongues to a height of a hundred feet . . . All Smyrna’s rich warehouses, business-buildings and European residences are burning like furious torches…
Smyrna has been practically destroyed by a gigantic fire . . . without exaggeration, tonight’s holocaust is one of the biggest fires in world history. The damage is incalculable and there has been great loss of life among the native population . . . many thousands of refugees [are] huddled on the narrow quay, between the advancing fiery death behind and the deep water in front, [and there] comes continuously such frantic screaming of sheer terror as can be heard miles away . . .
The American navy helped only when the determined Asa Jennings, a minister from New York who had recently arrived in Smyrna to take up duties as secretary to the local YMCA, rowed out to them and personally demanded they rescue survivors. U.S. naval officer, Lt. Commander Halsey Powell, worked together with Jennings to help rescue thousands of refugees.
Consul General Horton described his view of Turks setting fires:
. . . They first cleared the Armenian quarter and then torched a number of houses simultaneously behind the American Inter-Collegiate Institute. They waited for the wind to blow in the right direction, away from homes of the Muslim population, before starting the fire. This report is backed up by the eyewitness testimony of Miss Minnie Mills . . . “I could plainly see the Turks carrying the tins of petroleum into the houses, from which . . . fire burst forth immediately afterward.”
Smyrna’s then population of 270,000 included 140,000 Greeks, 80,000 Turks, 12,000 Armenians, 20,000 Jews, and about 15,000 Europeans including Levantines. Greeks monopolized the export of sticky figs, currants, olives, apricots, and sultanas for which Smyrna was known.
Greeks owned luxury shops on La Rue Franque. They owned the largest department stores, Xenopoulo, where items for sale were labelled in French, and Orisdiback, which sold imported goods from across the globe.
There were 391 factories in greater Smyrna of which 344 were owned by Greeks. American interests were also significant—the Standard Oil Company, the MacAndrews and Forbes licorice firm, major tobacco firms, and others.
Smyrna had the cinema, the Théâtre-Français, thirty-two daily newspapers—eleven Greek, seven Turkish, five Armenian, four French, five Hebrew— in addition to dailies shipped in from European capitals. Greeks had fine vineyards and prized tobacco and leading positions in the city’s trade with the West.
As Greeks typically keep their language and culture wherever they settle, Smyrna and its environs acquired a mostly Greek character.
Imposing banks and clubhouses lined the quayside. The Orpheus Club organized gymnastics, athletics, artistic, and literary events. The Apollon Club arranged boat races, boxing, and football. The Grand Hotel Kraemer Palace and Théâtre de Smyrne were so monumental, their whitewashed walls were visible for miles out to sea. Hawkers and traders peddled their wares along the quayside, water sellers jangled their brass bowls, and hodjas—Muslim holy men—said a prayer for a coin or two.
There were Swiss hoteliers, German traders, Austrian tailors, English mill owners, Dutch fig merchants, Italian brokers, Hungarian bureaucrats, Armenian agents, and Greek bankers. The waterfront was abuzz with brasseries, cafés, and bars. Apple smoke wafted from hookahs in Turkish cafes. Horton recalled that each café “had its favorite politakia or orchestra of guitars, mandolins, and zithers, and the entertainers grew increasingly animated as more and more wine was consumed.”
When the Big Four met in Paris in 1919 to work out peace terms after the Great War, Italy sought western Turkey as its rightful spoils of war. The U.S. and Britain objected. Italy walked out and sent ships to seize Smyrna. Rather than use British or American troops to secure Smyrna, the U.S. and Britain invited Greece to forestall an Italian invasion by occupying Smyrna in May 1919.
Lloyd George and Greek Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos cooked up a joint report alleging Christians in Smyrna were under imminent threat to persuade France and the U.S. to support sending the Greek army to protect Smyrna. The Greek landing at Smyrna on May 11, 1919—13,000 Greek soldiers, 14 transport ships escorted by 3 British and 4 Greek destroyers—was akin to lighting a fuse.
It turns out that during the Great War, Lloyd George had a secret agreement with Venizelos that if Greece entered the war on the side of the Allies, they would gain territory in Turkey, including Smyrna.
Prior to the Greek landing, a civil war had broken out inside Turkey between the government and Kemal’s new party of Turkish nationalists, who were opposed to the peace terms dictated by the Allies. After Greek troops occupied Smyrna, a war broke out between Greece and the Turkish nationalist army. It lasted three years.
In August 1922, the Turkish nationalist army prevailed under the leadership of Mustapha Kemal. Winston Churchill wrote in his memoirs, “Mustapha Kemal’s Army . . . celebrated their triumph by the burning of Smyrna to ashes and by a vast massacre of its Christian population . . . ”
Dr. Esther Lovejoy, an American and director of the American Women’s Hospital Service, expressed shock and outrage on seeing Smyrna after the fire.
“On one end of the quay, which curved along the harbor for miles, was the Turkish quarter quite uninjured, and on the other end of the quay toward the railroad pier where the ships docked, a few white buildings, spared by the fire, stood like monuments to the memory of a dead City.”
Dr. Lovejoy directed her outrage at the great powers:
What a travesty of National and International responsibility! The Christian Nations, by their actions and reactions, created conditions which made this Holocaust inevitable. They furnished munitions, aeroplanes, everything necessary to Mustafa Kemal in his victorious campaign. They made treaties that were even as scraps of paper. The Greek soldiers marched in and the Greek soldiers marched out, and then the Christian Nations, responsible for the whole wicked business, held up their hands and maintained neutrality while the Turks wreaked their vengeance of the non-combatant people of Smyrna, most of whom were women and children.
In The Colossus of Maroussi, Henry Miller mirrored that view:
The Smyrna affair, which far outweighs thehorrors of the First World War…has been somehow soft-pedalled and almost expunged from the memory of present day man. The peculiar horror which clings to this catastrophe is due not alone to the savagery and barbarism of the Turks but to the supine acquiescence of the big powers . . . And as long as human beings can sit and watch with hands folded while their fellow-men are tortured and butchered so long will civilisation be a hollow mockery, a wordy phantom suspended like a mirage above a sea of murdered carcasses.
As Horton left Smyrna aboard an American battleship, he saw “flames, raging now over a vast area . . . brighter and brighter, presenting a scene of awful and sinister beauty . . . nothing was lacking in the way of atrocity, lust, cruelty and all that fury of human passion . . . one of the keenest impressions which I brought away with me from Smyrna was a feeling of shame that I belonged to the human race . . .”
One hundred years later, as we now witness Russia’s ruthless attempt to obliterate Ukraine and Ukrainians in real time, with far more lethal weaponry, we cannot help but ask, if this self-aggrandizing empire-building doesn’t stop, who or what will be left on earth to obliterate?
About the author
Margot Demopoulos is the author of the novella “On the Quay at Smyrna.” Her work has appeared in the Sewanee Review, Kenyon Review, Harvard Review and elsewhere.
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