The Great Fire of Smyrna, that drove the Greek population into the sea.
Tension is running high between Greece and Turkey. The cause? Turkish Chief of the General Staff Gen. Hulusi Akar paid a visit to Imia, a pair of two small, uninhabited Greek islets in the Aegean Sea, on January 29. He was accompanied by the commanders of the Turkish land, naval and air forces.
Imia – which Turkey calls “Kardak” – was a subject of yet another crisis in 1996 that brought Greece and Turkey to the brink of war. Although armed conflict was ultimately averted, Turkey still claims that the islands are Turkish, even though the islands in the Aegean are historically and legally Greek.
Greek President Prokopios Pavlopoulos and Deputy Foreign Minister Ioannis Amanatidis have criticized Akar’s recent visit to the Greek island, describing it as a “serious violation” and a “show for Turkey’s domestic audience.”
Since then, Turkish government officials and politicians have continued to bring the issue of Kardak to the attention of the Turkish public in a tone that calls on Greece to “know its place.”
The latest Turkish political leader who offered his opinions on the issue was Devlet Bahçeli, chairman of Turkey’s Nationalist Movement Party, the third-largest party in Turkey’s parliament.
“If the Greeks want to fall in the sea again, the Turkish nation is ready,” Bahceli said in his parliamentary speech on February 28.
Bahceli was referring to incidents that occurred in September 1922, when the armed forces of Greece – together with Christian residents of the city of Smyrna, on the Aegean shore in Ottoman Turkey – were literally thrown into the sea by Turkish forces. The current Turkish name of that city is Izmir.
Smyrna: A Historical Background
Christians in Turkey and the rest of the Middle East are often thought of as immigrants or communities that have always been minorities in the region. But nothing could be further from the truth.
Asia Minor and Smyrna have enormous importance for Christianity. The Metropolis of Smyrna, an ecclesiastical territory (diocese) of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, retained its ecclesiastical autonomy until 1922. Smyrna was also one of the Seven Churches spoken of by St. John in the biblical book of Revelation. Janene Keeth, a scholar of Christian education, wrote that “Smyrna has been described as the most beautiful of the seven cities. Presumably, this church was founded during Paul’s ministry in Ephesus (Acts 19:10).”
Greek culture has never been some foreign way of life in Anatolia. On the contrary, the region was predominantly Greek before Turkic people began to invade it in the 11th century.
According to the International Dictionary of Historic Places: Southern Europe, ancient Greeks were the ones “who raised Smyrna to heights of power and glory in the seventh century B.C. Smyrna passed into the hands of the Christianized, Greek-speaking Byzantine realm following the formal division of the Roman Empire.”
Smyrna was ruled by Christians for centuries. The Eastern Roman (or Byzantine) Empire fought fierce defense wars against Arabic, Seljuk and Ottoman Islamic armies. Riding from the steppes of Central Asia, the Seljuk Turks targeted Asia Minor by combining their long-held “tradition of invasion” with newfound Islamic zeal. The Islamic invasion of Asia Minor was completed by the Ottomans.
During the Middle Ages, Smyrna was the scene of many struggles, the fiercest of which was directed by Timur against the Christians. Timur – historically known as Tamerlane – a Turco-Mongol conqueror, stormed and sacked Smyrna in 1402 (then held by the Knights of St. John, who had recaptured it from the Ottoman Turks in 1344). A mass beheading was carried out in Smyrna by Timur’s soldiers. The city was then captured by the Ottomans in 1424.
The 1922 Great Fire of Smyrna
The events surrounding the Greek landing at Smyrna in 1919 and the great fire in the city in 1922 could be better understood if analyzed as part of the systematic campaign against Christians by Ottoman Turkey.
During World War I, the decaying Ottoman Empire adopted a policy that many scholars have called “the forced Turkification of Asia Minor.” Author George Makredes described the period as follows:
Imagine a life where it’s a crime to celebrate or reveal your ethnic heritage; where the law requires you to abandon your ways and culture and meld invisibly into one indistinguishable mass with the majority, or suffer the consequences. And woe to anyone caught reading, speaking, dressing as, or playing music of another culture.
Welcome to Asia Minor during the early part of the 20th century. It was during this grim period when over 1.5 million Armenians were systematically exterminated. Whether you were an Armenian man, woman or infant, you were fair game to be cut down on sight, per order of the state. Unarmed and powerless, Greeks witnessed this horror, terrorized with the fear that they were next.
What they feared soon became a reality.
Greeks also fell victim to the same Ottoman campaign of systematic extermination of Christians before, during and after World War I (1914–1923). According to the Greek Genocide Research Center, atrocities against Greek people during that period “included massacres, forced deportations and death marches, summary expulsions, boycotts, rape, forced conversion to Islam, conscription into labor battalions, arbitrary executions, and destruction of Christian Orthodox cultural, historical and religious monuments.”
At the end of World War I and with the Armistice of Mudros that ended the Ottoman front in the war, the allies launched a series of peace talks that focused on the future of the Ottoman Empire. According to James Marketos, an American Hellenic Institute board member,
By 1919, the allied winners of World War I – England, France, Italy and the U.S. – were still arguing over how to divide up the defunct Ottoman Empire, which had sided with Germany. In May that year, the Greek army was permitted to land at Smyrna and establish an administrative zone.
Scholars Evangelia Boubougiatzi, Ifigenia Vamvakidou and Argyris Kyridis write in Greeks’ Identities in Smyrna, 19th – 20th Century Local and Global Parameters that “In that society, Greeks had the dominant position, both in a demographic and economic level.” Smyrna was also one of the centers of Greek enlightenment culture, with several schools erected, such as the Evangelical School and the Philological Gymnasium.
“From ancient times, and through the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman ages, the city remained essentially Greek,” Marketos said. “The later centuries saw the advent of Armenian, Turkish, Jewish, European and American influences, but through it all, the predominant spirit remained Greek.”
But this ended when Turkish military forces attempted to take back Smyrna from Greek administration on September 9, 1922.The military attacks against the Greeks and Armenians of Smyrna began with looting, rape and murder.
They started in the Armenian quarter and then spread through the Greek portion of the city. This drove even more people to the narrow seafront. Then, on September 13, a fire started in the Armenian part of the city. A strong breeze blew the fire away from the Turkish quarter and quickly spread it to the rest of the city, driving still more horrified thousands of Greeks and Armenians to the harbor where they were now trapped between the raging flames at their backs and the harbor in front. And still the Allied warships watched as the refugees on the seafront were subjected to unspeakable atrocities by Turkish soldiers and residents.
After four days, the fire burned itself out. Beautiful Smyrna lay in ruins. Thousands of Greeks and Armenians had perished, either in the fire, or through slaughter in one form or another, or through simple exposure. Hundreds of thousands of others were eventually evacuated. But either way, the 20th century’s first holocaust effectively ended the Christian presence in Asia Minor.
And all the while, Allied warships, pledged to neutrality, watched from their anchorages as an immense humanitarian tragedy rapidly unfolded a few hundred yards away.
Sadly, this dark page of history remains mostly forgotten or ignored. Only a handful of scholars have shed light on and exposed the persecution of Christians in Smyrna in 1922. One is Lou Ureneck, Boston University professor and journalist, who penned The Great Fire: One American’s Mission to Rescue Victims of the 20th Century’s First Genocide. In it, he described the harrowing story of an American Methodist minister – Asa Kent Jennings – and an American naval officer – Arthur J. Hepburn – who helped rescue more than 250,000 Christian refugees during the burning of Smyrna by Turkish forces.
“A half a million people, packed into a narrow strip of pavement, maybe a mile and a half, two miles long, as a giant fire comes at them, basically pushing them into the sea,” Ureneck said in an interview with the Bostonia magazine. “And many of them did jump into the sea, either trying to swim to ships, or committing suicide, or their clothes and packages had caught on fire.”
Turkish soldiers burned and plundered Smyrna’s Christian neighborhoods, murdering defenseless residents. According to the statistics of the church, of the 459 bishops, metropolitans and clergy of Smyrna, some 347 were murdered in an atrocities manner. Scholar Speros Vryonis reported that among them was Chrysostomos, the last metropolitan of Smyrna.
Men, women and children – none were spared. Turkish soldiers forced Greek men to join labor battalions. Some were sent on death marches to the interior. The “lucky” ones were able to flee their homes in the city to seek shelter in Greece and other states.
This was no ordinary city fire. Huge even by the standards of history’s giant fires, it would reduce to ashes the richest and most cosmopolitan city in the Ottoman Empire. The fire would ultimately claim an even more infamous distinction. It was the last violent episode in a 10-year holocaust that had killed 3 million people – Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians, all Christian minorities – on the Turkish subcontinent between 1912 and 1922.
Before it burned itself out, the fire would destroy 13,100 buildings – homes, hospitals, school, warehouses, businesses, churches and factories – and cause $250 million in damage, billions of dollars in today’s terms. Only the Turkish and small Jewish quarters of the city and a few patches at the perimeter would remain unburned. The number of dead would never be firmly established, though some would place it on this night in the tens of thousands.
Due to the persecution of the Christians, Anatolia was almost completely cleansed of its Christian population by the time the Turkish republic was founded in 1923.
Journalist Ioanna Zikakou wrote that “the great fire of Smyrna was the peak of the Asia Minor catastrophe, bringing an end to the 3,000-year Greek presence on Anatolia’s Aegean shore and shifting the population ratio between Muslims and non-Muslims.”
But discrimination against the tiny minorities of Greeks, Armenians, Assyrians/Syriacs and Jews who remained has continued up until the present day.
In addition, the Turkish government has been trying to cover up its role in the fire and the slaughter of Greek and Armenian Christians. For decades, the Turkish official state ideology has glorified September 1922. “We have buried the Greeks in the sea” is a common and proudly used expression in Turkey.
“If they [the Greeks] want to fall into the sea again – if they feel like being chased after again – they are welcome. The Turkish nation is ready and has the faith to do it again. Someone must explain to the Greek government what happened in 1921 and 1922. If there is no one to explain it to them, we know how to stick like a bullet on the Aegean, rain from the sky like a blessed victory, and teach history to the couriers of ahl al-salib [the people of the cross] all over again,” the MHP leader, Bahceli, said in his parliamentary speech.
Even 95 years after the unspeakable crime committed in Smyrna, many Turks – including state authorities, politicians and academics – not only distort the facts surrounding the fire and other genocidal attacks against Ottoman Christians, but they also take pride in and attempt to justify them. And some openly threaten Greece with a repeat of the atrocities that the Turks perpetrated on hundreds of thousands of innocent people.
Uzay Bulut is is a Turkish journalist and political analyst based in Washington, D.C. This article was first published by the Philos Project, a hub positive Christian engagement in the Middle East.