A Century After the Burning of Smyrna:

Recognizing Turkish Genocide of Greeks in Asia Minor

By Anastasia Kaliabakos

When most people think of Greece, the names of beautiful islands such as Santorini, Mykonos, and Corfu often come to mind. However, Greece is famous for more than its attractive landscapes: it is also known as the birthplace of democracy, the home of philosophers, and the land of countless wars and struggles. The people of Hellas have undergone much torment to preserve the cultures of their poleis, from the reign of the Persians from the sixth through fourth centuries B.C., to the domination of the Ottoman Empire from the 13th through 19th centuries. Even after Greece declared independence from the Turks in 1822, the struggle was not over. A century later, a devastating act of genocide would be brought against the Greek people—an event known today as the Burning of Smyrna, or the Smyrna Catastrophe.

Smyrna, now called “Izmir,” believed to have been settled around the start of the third millennium B.C., was one of the most prominent city-states in Ionia throughout antiquity. Because of its strategic location on the Aegean coast of Anatolia, citizens became very prosperous and rich by the seventh century B.C. Smyrna is also rumored to be the birthplace of Homer.

Even Alexander the Great recognized the prestige of Smyrna, and sought to have the city strengthened and enlarged. The renovations he and his generals set in motion established Smyrna as a model for the “Hellenistic city.” After the advent of Christianity, a church was established there. Though the city suffered destruction due to an earthquake in 178 A.D., it was considered so important that Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius had the city rebuilt.

Smyrna’s relevance eventually faded over the ensuing millennium; it was ripe for the taking when the Ottoman Empire began conquering Greece in the 14th century. However, the Turks would have a difficult time maintaining an ideological hold over this historic polis. The influence of Greek culture was so salient that the Turks began calling the city “Smyrna of the infidels.” They were then forced to divide control of the city between Christians and Muslims.

PHOTOGRAPH OF THE BURNING OF THE SMYRNA taken from an Italian ship in 1922. Credit: Wikipedia.

After the liberation of Greece, Smyrna once again became a financial and cultural hub of the nation. Although the Ottomans continued to control the area, technically, most of the factories, banks, and schools were run and backed by Greeks, who were the majority of the population, numbering around 320,000. 10,000 Armenians also lived in the city, and had established themselves as significant players in its development, particularly regarding their involvement with the Iranian silk trade.

After WWI, Greece (re)occupied Smyrna, hoping that overthrowing unjust Turkish rule was at hand. However, the Greeks did not stop with Smyrna: they decided to begin a military campaign that took them deep into Asia Minor. What followed over the next two years were complex and unsuccessful attempts to beat the Turks, and the Greek effort would ultimately end in disaster.

By August 1922, the Greek army was in shambles. The Turkish leader Kemal Ataturk had forced them to recall thousands of soldiers, putting the exhausted people of Hellas on the defensive. Additionally, Smyrna’s previously beneficial location was now at risk. Around 150,000 refugees poured into the coastal city, quickly thrusting Smyrna into chaos. On September 9, 1922, the Turkish cavalry entered Smyrna. By the end of the day, the Turkish army began killing not just soldiers, but regular citizens and refugees—both Greek and Armenian. Metropolitan Chrysostomos, the leader of the Greek Orthodox diocese in Smyrna, was brutally tortured and murdered in the street. Meanwhile, the last battalion of Greek soldiers surrendered and, subsequently, were imprisoned. Despite the carnage raging through the polis, some Greeks and Armenians believed that Ataturk would have mercy on them and peacefully annex Smyrna and its people into his republic. They were wrong.

The Turkish troops soon set the Armenian section of the city on fire. The city burned for four days, and thousands of people burned alive. The cruelty of this act finally motivated a British admiral to send boats out to evacuate people. The ships overflowed with Greeks and Armenians trying to escape the fate of being flayed or burned to charcoal in the streets of their once beautiful homeland.

Soon, Ataturk decreed that any refugee remaining in Smyrna by October 1st would be deported to central Anatolia. But this was a lie. Deportations began immediately. It is estimated that 160,000 people were deported to central Anatolia and possibly 100,000 Greeks and Armenians were murdered during a few days.

100 years after this act of genocide, the Turkish government still refuses to admit to the atrocities. In 2021, the Turkish news outlet Yeni Safak published a piece blaming “Armenian gangs” for the fires, and actually referred to the event as the “Liberation of Izmir.” The article begins by stating, “Armenian gangs broke out among the perpetrators of the great fire that destroyed 25 thousand real estates and killed 10 thousand people in Izmir, which was experiencing the joy of liberation from the Greek occupation a hundred years ago.” It is shameful this kind of misinformation is allowed to remain on the internet, and therefore necessary to make the true history of the Smyrna Catastrophe as accessible as possible; the innocent people who lost their lives long ago must be justly vindicated.

When you think of Greece, instead of thinking of summer vacations and even philosophical theories, I propose that you think of strength in the face of suffering. Remember the innocent refugees in Smyrna who did not take part in military operations but still were brutally murdered for their religion and ethnicity.

Anastasia (Stacey) Kaliabakos, a graduate of the Brearley School, is currently a Dana Scholar at the College of the Holy Cross, majoring in classics and philosophy. She is an opinions editor for Holy Cross’ newspaper, The Spire, editor-in-chief of the Parnassus Classical Journal, and an avid matcha latte consumer. Anastasia has been featured in NEO Magazine, The Villager, and The National Herald. She has contributed to WestView News since 2018.

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