- Norberto Paredes @norbertparedes
- BBC News World
At the beginning of the last century, a mainly Greek city washed by the Mediterranean Sea was on the west coast of what is now Turkey.
Smyrna was a prosperous city where Turks were a minority and made up less than a third of the population, against a Greek and Christian majority. Both groups coexisted with smaller communities of Armenians and Jews.
At that time, its inhabitants were unaware that the multiculturalism that characterized the metropolis would cease to exist a few decades later and that this millennial city would be renamed İzmir, the Turkish translation of the original Greek name.
In August 1922, after having won the final battle of Dumlupinar of the Greco-Turkish war, the army of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk – considered “the father of modern Turkey” – took another step towards the objective of reducing the Hellenic influence in Anatolia (now Turkey).
The Battle of Dumlupinar, in addition to marking the end of the bloody conflict which lasted from 1919 to 1922, represented the beginning of the end of the Greek presence in Asia Minor.
By withdrawing the army from the then Kingdom of Greece, Atatürk also began to expel large numbers of ethnic Greeks, which was later institutionalized and referred to as “the exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey”.
By this population exchange stipulated in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, some 1.5 million Greek Orthodox Christians – many of whom had never lived outside Turkey – were expelled from Turkey and a smaller number of Muslims were expelled from Greece to Turkish territory.
The Fire of Smyrna
One of the darkest episodes of what some controversially call “the greek genocide“was the fire of Smyrna, which occurred shortly afterwards.
“It was the biggest blow Hellenism has suffered and one of the biggest for Christianity,” Vasilios Meichanetsidis, co-author of the book, told BBC Mundo.The Genocide of the Ottoman Greeks” (The Genocide of the Greek Ottomans), an analysis of the “state-sponsored” “campaign of extermination” of Christians in Asia Minor.
Meichanetsidis claims that the burning of Smyrna was an even more powerful blow than the fall of Constantinople, because with it “Hellenism and Christianity were exterminated” from the Ottoman Empire “completely and forever”.
the fire started the afternoon of September 13-four days after Atatürk’s army entered Izmir after the withdrawal of Greek troops-, in the Armenian quarter of the city (which is now called Basmane) and spread rapidly due to the strong wind who blew that day.
Moreover, according to historians, the authorities made very little effort to extinguish the ferocious flames.
The destruction of the Greek and Armenian quarters
“One of the first people to notice the start of the fire was Minnie Mills (…) She had just finished her lunch when she noticed that one of the neighboring buildings was on fire. She stood up to take a closer look and was shocked at what he witnessed,” British historian Giles Milton notes in his book “Paradise Lost: Smyrna 1922“(Paradise Lost: Smyrna 1922).
Minnie Mills, who was director of the city’s American Institute for Girls, told the author that saw a Turkish officer enter a house with small cans of oil or gasoline and shortly afterwards the house caught fire.
She was not the only witness at the institute: “Our teachers and our daughters saw the Turks in normal soldiers’ uniforms and some in officers’ uniforms. to homes that were burned down soon after,” Mills said.
The day after the blaze began, thousands of refugees crowded the waterfront quays of Izmir seeking refuge in a burning city.
According to historians, the heat of the fire was so intense that many feared the refugees would die.
“All morning you could see the glow and then the flames of Smyrna on fire,” US Lieutenant Aaron Stanton Merrill recounts in the book.The fires of hate(The Fires of Hatred) by Norman Naimark.
“We arrived about an hour before dawn and the scene was indescribable. The whole city was on fire…Thousands of homeless refugees were coming and going on the burning jetty in panic to the point of madness. It was painful to listen to the piercing cries of women and children”.
The fire lasted nine days and completely destroyed the quarters inhabited by Greeks and Armenians; the Muslim and Jewish sectors were not damaged.
There are different accounts and different reports of who was responsible for the fire.
But today, most experts agree that Turkish soldiers set houses on fire and Greek and Armenian companies. Some pro-Turkish sources argue that it was the Greeks and Armenians who burned down their own neighborhoods to damage the Turkish reputation.
“The city had to burn”
“There is a controversy on the subject, but most historians, whether Western, Greek and even Turkish, now admit that they were Atatürk’s troops. According to the Turkish ideology of the At the time, the city was to be burned down,” he explains. .
“The Turks were determined to create a modern Turkish state, where there would be no minorities, but where everyone would be Turkish, Turkish Muslim. Even the Kurds have experienced this. “Turquoise” process in this nationalist idea”, he continues.
The Ottoman Empire was a cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic and multi-religious empire and for many “Kemalists” (as the supporters of Kemal Atatürk were called), this was one of the causes of its dismemberment.
Atatürk’s idea was to convince all these different ethnic and religious groups to remain part of the Turkish Republic under the concept that there was only one ethnic group in the civic sense of the term, referring to “Turkishness”: the quality of being Turkish
According to Meichanetsidis, the burning of towns and villages had already been going on in Anatolia for 10 years.
“The Turks used to come to these places, they massacred the Armenians or the Greeks they found and then set fire to the place to prevent the refugees from returning.
Before its fire, Izmir was one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the Ottoman Empire, with Greek, Armenian, Levantine, Jewish, Ottoman Turkish, English, American, and French residents, among other nationalities.
Was a city that had no more room within the Turkey which was not yet born.
For over 3,000 years Greeks had lived in the territory of what is now Turkey and until the last days of the Ottoman Empire there was still a large Hellenic community which dominated much of the trade in Asia Minor.
The process of “turquization” and Islamization of a city the size of Izmir was not easy at all. However, the Greco-Turkish War gave the Kemalists a golden opportunity.
The Greek heritage: disappeared or transformed
It is estimated that before the fire of Smyrna, about 2 million Greeks lived in Anatolia.
But after the fire and especially after the population exchange in 1923 and the Istanbul riots of 1955the Greek population was greatly reduced.
“Currently, there are less than 2,000 in the whole country. In Izmir, there are a few who have settled in the city recently. After the events of 1922, it was difficult for the Greeks to stay in Izmir,” says historian Vasilios Meichanetsidis.
Many monuments and testimonies of the heritage left by the Greeks in Turkey have disappeared or have changed over time.
“Today there are very few memories of the Greek past in Turkey, especially in Izmir, as the fire consumed the entire community quarter of that city.”
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