The corniche at Izmir had a magic atmosphere. Lined with cafés and orchestras playing every kind of music — Western, Greek, Turkish, Armenian — it had the reputation for making the gloomiest laugh. Though ‘terribly chee-chee’ (i.e., they spoke with a sing-song accent), the women were famous for their allure. The trade in figs, raisins and opium made the city the richest in the Levant; it had the first cars, first cinemas and first girls’ schools. Nowhere else, it was said, did East and West mingle in so spectacular a manner.
In 1919, as Giles Milton describes in this indictment of nationalism, Izmir Greeks welcomed a Greek army with flowers and an outbreak of looting and killing Turks. Turkish revenge was pitiless. After the entry of Mustafa Kemal’s triumphant Turkish army in September 1922, Izmir became hell on earth. Milton believes ‘the Turkish army deliberately set fire to Smyrna’ (the Greek name for the city, where Greeks, Turks, Armenians, Jews and Western Europeans had lived together for centuries). As the city centre burned behind them, 100,000 refugees or more gathered on the corniche, praying for ships to take them off. They became the target of Turkish ‘irregulars’, looting, raping and killing. All accounts agree that the combination of fire and death, stench and screams was ‘beyond words’.
‘No words can describe the awful effect’ of the wall of flames 100 feet high, remembered an Anglican vicar. ‘Awful, agonising, hopeless shrieks for help’ were heard miles away and remembered years after. The population of the city had trusted in 21 foreign warships moored in the harbour. But they had orders to protect only their own nationals, British, French, Italian or American. In the end the crews obliged their captains to take on board those refugees who did not drown while trying to reach them.
Milton exaggerates the extent of the destruction: some Greek areas and all the Turkish and Jewish districts — perhaps two thirds of Izmir — were spared. He also exaggerates the Europeans’ decline in Izmir — many continued to do business there, living in ‘their own private little Raj’, until the 1970s. Nevertheless Milton has gone where biographers of Ataturk and historians of Turkey, who often want Turkish official support, have feared to tread. He has reproduced accounts by individual Armenian, Greek and foreign eye-witnesses, as well as British sailors’ and consuls’ accounts. It is a much needed corrective to official history.
Few Turks are cited. Would they, if they were unofficial sources, tell a different tale? Falih Rifki Atay, a journalist from Istanbul who visited Izmir that month, wrote:
Why were we burning down Izmir? Were we afraid that if waterfront mansions, hotels and restaurants stayed in place we would not be free of the minorities? …this did not derive from a simple urge to destroy. A feeling of inferiority had a part in it.
The destruction of the centre of Izmir was a result of failure: failure of different races to appreciate their mutual dependence; failure of the architects of the Greek invasion, Lloyd George (‘not a man of detail’) and the Greek Prime Minister Venizelos, to understand geopolitical realities; failure of naval commanders to react; failure of the Greek government to protect the Greeks it had been so keen to ‘liberate’. Not until very late indeed did a few ships sail from Greece and the nearby islands to rescue some of their compatriots. Greeks either refused to sail or preferred to organise a revolution. The only heroes on the Izmir corniche were some doctors, nurses and sailors.
Giles Milton also underlines Mustafa Kemal’s role — still a taboo subject in Turkey today. Kemal had entered Izmir in a car covered in olive branches. Thereafter he spent days up in a villa, courting his future wife Latife Hanim, daughter of one of the many Turkish businessmen who had profited from ‘infidel Izmir’. Down in the town three separate horrors were taking place: massacres; the fire (Milton quotes eye-witnesses who saw Turkish soldiers pouring oil); and the subsequent deportation of thousands of Greek and Armenian men of military age into the interior, in theory to rebuild villages destroyed by the retreating Greek army: few returned. There was no danger of Kemal being detested by Turks, as the Greek High Commissioner Aristides Sterghiades had been by Greeks, for being too kind to the other side, too harsh on his own.
Whereas the Ottoman government had profted from ‘the minorities’, Kemal wanted to be ‘free’ of those whom, even before the trauma of 1919, he regarded as Turkey’s ‘sworn enemies’. Kemal shows that, if nothing succeeds like success, it can also be true that nothing fails like success. The moderniser of Turkey, one of the most admired leaders of the 20th century, helped destroy its most modern city. Partly as a result of the elimination of Greek businesses, the economy of Izmir — therefore of Turkey — languished for many years. Re-Islamisation, Kemal’s nightmare, may have been facilitated. If Izmir had retained even a fraction of its cosmopolitan population, it might have helped Turkey’s entry into the European Union.
Concentration on hatred between races can obscure equally fierce hatreds between classes and parties. Was there more hatred in Izmir before 1922 than in, for example, Istanbul before the coup of 1980, or 19th-century Paris? Even today some believe that Turkey’s ‘hidden tensions’ could explode ‘just like Iraq’. When you ask Turks with whom they would rather live — Greeks, or their fellow-citizens of Kurdish descent — they laugh. ‘Greeks, of course’ is the invariable reply.
Problems of modernisation, and relations with Europe, remain unresolved. In The Bridge Geert Mak, the Dutch journalist and author of In Europe, reproduces some of the many conversations he has had, through an interpreter, with people working on the Galata bridge. It links the more traditional south side of the Golden Horn in Istanbul with its more modern northern side. He calls it ‘a journey between Orient and Occident’. The bridge is a less alluring version of the pre-1922 Izmir corniche, attracting passers-by, street-sellers and fishermen. Many are immigrants from villages in eastern Turkey, who come to Istanbul as there is no work elsewhere. The bridge is ‘one great wicker work of deals’.
Mak quotes remarks made on the bridge, which reflect the tensions and compromises of modern Istanbul. Letting individuals speak for themselves, he is more vivid than many professional travel writers. ‘All these traditions only lead to more chaos’; ‘everyone is pretending’; ‘our pick-pockets are the best in Europe!’ Men boast that ‘closed women’, ‘completely wrapped in sheets’, will do ‘anything’. ‘Open women’ are more likely to be harassed or insulted. Women are most concerned with freedom to work and economic independence. Istanbul is booming, but the poor suffer as prices rise and the textile industry moves to China. No one on the bridge earns more than a subsistence income.
During Ramadan, whatever their feelings about the ‘hirsute hypocrites’ of the mosques, most fast. As soon as the signal is given that the fast has ended, the bridge ‘is transformed into a huge hungry mouth’. The rule of the bridge is: ‘keep your hands to yourself — don’t steal — watch your mouth — and keep your dick in your trousers.’
Glue-sniffing is popular among the young, partly to keep out the cold. The family is the prime social force. You work for your family; it works for you. Towards Europe and ‘the West’ feelings are &
#8216;complicated’. Wounded pride and envy are strong, although Turkey is a well-rewarded ally of the United States and Israel. Yet many dream of escape from Turkish police and family pressures. ‘My god Europe, we’d love to go there,’ says a cigarette-seller .
Philip Mansel is writing a history of Levantine cities.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated May 10, 2008