End of an Era

Giles Milton, Paradise Lost: Smyrna, 1922

May 1st 2008
From The Economist print edition

WHEN Smyrna modern Izmir fell to the Turkish army in 1922, and much of it was destroyed by fire, the city's role as a bastion of Greek and Christian culture, going back nearly 2,000 years, came to an abrupt end. Before that, the port had been home to a diverse and cosmopolitan population; by the standards of the region, it was a beacon of tolerance and prosperity.

In addition to the Greeks, Armenians, Jews and Turks, there were also Americans and Britons and what Giles Milton calls the "Levantines", rich families of European descent, who spoke half a dozen languages and occupied vast villas. Their dynasties dominated the trade and industry of the region. Some (like the Whittalls) retained British nationality over generations of Ottoman life, and it is their English-language diaries, letters and documents that provide Mr. Milton with his best material. Although this slant is unrepresentatively British and privileged lots of parties and picnic sit allows the author to be fair towards the Greeks and the Turks, who still blame one another entirely for the disaster.

The city's destruction still known in Greece as "the catastrophe" had its roots in the first world war and the effort by the great powers to grab pieces of the disintegrating Ottoman empire.

Britain, America and France backed Greece's charismatic leader, Elefthenos Venizelos, in his pursuit of the megali idea ("great idea"), the dream of creating a greater Greece by occupying Smyrna and swathes of Anatolia. Having licensed a war by proxy, the allies in varying degrees turned cool on it. They looked on passively as Mustafa Kemal (later Ataturk, republican Turkey's founder) and his troops routed the Greeks from Anatolia and reoccupied Smyrna, bent on revenge for Greek atrocities in the city and further east.

The port was ransacked and looted for days. Women were raped and mutilated, children were beheaded and more than 100,000 people killed. Meanwhile, 21 allied warships sat in the harbour. Hundreds of thousands of refugees were trapped on the city's quayside, yet officers on the ships still dressed for dinner and ordered louder music to drown out the screams. "Paradise Lost" is a timely reminder of the appalling cost of expansionist political ambitions; it tells a fascinating story with clarity and insight.

(Posting date 9 May 2008)

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