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Sunday, September 15, 2002


Smyrna Burns No More

I Smyrni, Mana, kaigetai/Kaigetai kai to vios mas (Smyrna is burning, Mother/Our life is burning, too), goes the song. It laments the fire that destroyed the city in 1922, an image that epitomizes the haunting memories of what the Greeks call the Asia Minor Disaster. On its eightieth anniversary, however, a group of revisionist Greek and Turkish historians are flouting conventional wisdom about the event.

End of an era
Just over 80 years ago, Smyrna was a flourishing, cosmopolitan, commercial port. Greeks, the majority of the population, lived side by side with Armenians, Jews, Turks, and a range of Europeans, including those whose natural habitats were the trading posts of the eastern Mediterranean, the Levantines. Smyrna was the export center of the immense, fertile Anatolian hinterland. Those exports – dried fruit, cotton, currants, silk, tobacco – made their way to Europe’s great cities. T.S. Eliot wrote in The Waste Land of a certain “Mr. Eugenides, the Smyrna merchant/Unshaven, with a pocket full of currants/C.i.f. London.” The poem was dated 1922.

By the end of that year, there were no Mr. Eugenideses left in the city; in fact, there was not much left of the city itself. The trouble had begun back in 1919, when the victorious Allies of the recently ended First World War had allowed the Greek army to land in and occupy Smyrna. Thus, Greece had joined the Great Powers, Britain and France, and a not-so-great power, Italy, in setting foot on Ottoman soil to share the spoils from the imminent demise of the Sick Man of Europe. But the Sultan was already dead in the minds of many Turks, long before losing his authority to foreign powers. In his place arose Mustafa Kemal, the nationalist leader who would soon be called Atatürk, father of the Turks.

The Greek army received an enthusiastic welcome from the Greek denizens of Smyrna, but the local Turkish population was much less happy. They grew even less enamored of the occupying force when they found themselves on the wrong end of some violent repression during the first days of the new regime. As far as the Greek Smyrniotes were concerned, this was merely payback for the harassment that Greeks had suffered all along the Asia Minor littoral over the previous decade.

Beyond the city, Turkish irregulars retaliated against the Greek presence with hit-and-run tactics to breach the perimeter that the occupying force had established around the city. Soon, the Greek army was forced to venture out of its cordon sanitaire in order to pursue the armed bands. After an 18-month stalemate during which the status of the Ottoman empire remained undecided, the Greek army embarked on a fateful full-scale offensive against Turkish forces, driving deep into Anatolia.

The beginning of the end
The Greek attack began in January 1921. After several successes in the summer, it ground to a halt in the fall, close to central Anatolia. By this time, the army had left the Greek-populated coastline behind and had ventured into the Turkish heartland. This represented a dramatic change from acting as protector of the Greeks to becoming the enemy of the Turks.

The Greek army was in a questionable no-man’s-land, politically and morally. Worse, it was in a military no-man’s-land, its troops exhausted, its communication lines over-stretched, its resources depleted. Ahead of its lines lay the core of the new Turkish nationalist army commanded by Kemal and inspired by the cause of liberating its homeland from the foreign invader. The inevitable took place in late August 1922. The Greek front crumbled and a hasty retreat began back to the coast, dragging with it an increasing number of Asia Minor Greek refugees.

On September 6, the retreating columns reached what were the natural defensive lines of Smyrna, having marched for over a week in horrible conditions that claimed many lives. To the alarm of the city’s Greeks, however, the troops did not encamp there in order to confront the advancing Kemalist forces. Instead, they swung south, heading for the Chesmeh peninsula, from which they would be evacuated. Meanwhile, the Greek civil servants that had arrived with such pomp back in 1919 had quietly packed their bags and papers, and had slipped out of the city aboard a Greek warship.

Smyrna was an open, undefended city. Terrified, Armenians and Greeks massed on the waterfront, hoping to board one of the few Greek or European vessels that remained in the harbor. But there was no Greek evacuation plan, the Greek ships were too few, and the Allied ships were committed to assuming the role of neutral bystanders. The seething mass grew day by day as stragglers from the hinterland brought news of a rapid Turkish advance.

On September 9, 1922, the Turkish troops entered the city and established control. There was, initially, against all odds, a deceptive sense of order. Looting and killing began that very evening, however, and prominent Armenians and Greeks were rounded up and shot, while others were killed in the street, in their houses, or, ultimately, in their churches in which they had sought refuge. American and European consuls looked on, unable to intervene and making plans to evacuate themselves and their own nationals. The lynching death of the Greek Orthodox metropolitan, Chrysostomos, confirmed that the new regime was bent on the ethnic cleansing of the city’s Armenians and Greeks.

The fire broke out in the early hours of September 13, pushing any remaining Armenian and Greek inhabitants of the city to the waterfront, where the civilian mass was still huddled. As the flames swept through the waterfront’s once majestic buildings, hundreds spilled into the water, fearful that they would be burned alive or in a last futile attempt to reach Allied warships. Very few would make it to safety. Of those remaining, some would be marched into the interior never to be seen again, others would make it over to Greece as part of the million and a half refugees that crossed the Aegean. A Greek presence of 3,000 years along the Asia Minor coast had come to an end.

Pictures of the crowded waterfront, with smoke billowing in the background, adorn most stories of the events. Subsequent Greek accounts of this enormous tragedy depicted the fire as the final chapter in the city’s destruction. After all, the fire had destroyed the Armenian, Greek, and European quarters, and the buildings that were the landmarks of Smyrna’s cosmopolitan wealth. Greek and Armenian, as well as several American and British, observers share the concept of the fire as symbolizing the uprooting of the non-Turkish presence in Asia Minor.

Making sense of history
But there is a Turkish version to the story of the fire. It blames Armenians or Greeks for torching what they realized they were going to lose. After all, the fire broke out several days after the Turks had arrived, so why would they wish to destroy what was about to become theirs? These two opposite versions of the fire’s origins have prevailed for many decades on either side of the Aegean. Now, however, revisionist historians are challenging these nationalistic narratives. The revisionists are both Greeks and Turks, and they have been rethinking the history of Greek-Turkish contacts in several joint projects and academic meetings, the most recent of which was held at Haverford College and discussed recently on

The product of these exchanges, and of the re-conceptualization of the Greek-versus-Turk image, has made for a novel commemoration of the eightieth anniversary of the events – including the fire – that took place in Smyrna. Rather than two starkly opposed versions, the revisionists are offering a range of alternative interpretations of what happened and, as important, the meaning of what took place.

Among Turkish historians, for example, Resat Kasaba of the University of Washington suggests that the fire was the work of Turkish troops from the interior of Anatolia, who were attacking the concept of Armenian-Greek-Turkish cohabitation in the cosmopolitan city. Halil Berktay of Sabanci University in Istanbul challenges the official Turkish version, showing that it was constructed days after the event occurred. He also points out that there is a range of Turkish sources that appear to skirt around the issue of who committed the arson, reflecting an uncertainty in regard to the version of the events that blames Armenians or Greeks.

On the Greek side, historian Antonis Liakos of the University of Athens questions the sanctity of the official Greek version. He points out that in France’s official records there is a range of contemporary eyewitness accounts. Those French arriving in Athens blamed the Turks, but the French arriving in Istanbul blamed the Armenians and Greeks. The French, he adds, faced with conflicting reports, declined to arrive at any definitive explanation as to the fire’s causes.

These revisionist accounts of the origins of the fire are supplemented by the work of other Greek and Turkish historians whose research yields a history of Greeks and Turks that encompasses a great deal of contact and cooperation and even a common sense of Smyrniot or Anatolian identity. Placed in this newly minted context, the fire is losing its emotive and symbolic heat. Rather than the confirmation of how mutually exclusive the Greeks and Turks were, it figures now more as the sad outcome of things gone wrong.

Alexander Kitroeff teaches history at Haverford College and is a contributing editor to, which published his most recent book, Wrestling With the Ancients: Modern Greek Identity and the Olympics.
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