The Geography of Smyrna in 1921

By Pantelis M. Kontogianni
English Translation & Adaptation by Mary Papoutsy

Inhabitants of the city (not including suburbs): 270,000
Greeks: 140,000
Turks: 80,000
Armenians: 12,000
Hebrews: 20,000
Europeans and Levantines: 15,000

Few cities, says the German, Roth, have such beautiful and magnificent suburbs and countryside as Smyrna. Her beauty and grandeur appear clearly when one views her form the southeast, atop Mt. Pagus, on whose heights an acropolis was situated in ancient times. Very often in the summer, when the setting sun shines its slanted rays upon the wondrous environment of Smyrna, and lets shadows and colors play alternately, one can drink in the panoramic view of the charming countryside of Smyrna. From the acropolis, where medieval walls were built in solitude and quiet upon ancient remains, echoes of the human population resound as they lag behind the deep, loud noise of the great city. Steam ships whistle as they coincidentally prepare for departure amid calls of the muezzin to evening prayer.

The Turkish neighborhood beneath Mt. Pagus has numerous quiet streets punctuated by minarets and white domes of mosques and baths. The streets clamber up to the heights of the mountain with their houses and walled courtyards within which cypresses and thickly-leafed trees reach skyward, shady, between the stony masses of the dwellings.

The Hebrew quarter follows the Turkish neighborhood.

The main city spreads out upon the expanse of the plain. Transportation connections throughout Smyrna radiate from the harbor, chiefly during the months of exportation--June through September. Amid the cosmopolitan din of the many diverse languages of western and eastern nations, shouting vendors jostle and upset carts. Huge burdened camels walk with raised heads. Lines of ships exporting produce noisily rattle while making way in the harbor.

According to the season, export ships may carry sacks of cereals (chiefly barley), yellow dye, boxes of grapes or figs, bundles of tobacco leaves, cotton, opium, carpets from other countries, and sponges from the islands.

Further along, north of the harbor, the quay, paved with broad, squared stones, presents another spectacle for the viewer. Opposite the mercantile offices, the agents of the ships' lines, and the steam plants of the harbor, there are beer halls, coffeehouses, music cafes, and theaters lined up. Here, usually in the evening hours, idle workers, who have finished work for the day, jostle about. They spend their time conversing animatedly at small tables in front of the coffeehouses or strolling and enjoying the cool sea breezes. In a single glance, one can easily observe Europeans, Levantines, Greeks with European attire, peasant Turks wearing many-hued "ipokamisa" and wide-belted short breeches, islanders with deep blue breeches, Albanians, Montenegrans, Arabs, Dervishes with their various picturesque garb, uniformed Turkish officers, and Christian Smyrniot ladies outfitted in the latest Parisian fashions. It is a flow so perfect and a crowd and a life so diverse and rich in contrast. Although only possible in the East, even her one doesn't see such diversity everywhere, but only on the quay of the great mercantile city. Still further to the north, where a delta forms, is the isolated "Pouda" with its baths. Here are the elegant and well-constructed homes of rich Europeans and Levantines and most of the embassies.

A traveler enters the city from the broad quay by narrow, suffocating, and meandering streets. On the north side of the harbor the "bazaar" adjoins, sharing common borders with the Turkish and Hebrew neighborhoods. It isn't as large as the bazaar of Constantinople, but nevertheless it has a particular character to its traffic, because of exposed merchandise. North of this, extending parallel to the quay, is the street Frangomahala, the principal street of the European buildings, a street which stretches behind the quay and up to the Pouda. These neighborhoods made a very good impression with their regular, clean streets and with their all-white houses. To the east of the bazaar extends the Armenian district, where the railroad station, Pasma-hane, is located; it is the final station of the French line Smyrna-Kasamba-Afion-kara-hisar, which oddly doesn't extend to the harbor. Since it is difficult for carts to advance into the narrow streets of the interior of the city, camels usually transport merchandise between this station and the harbor.

One street extends further toward the east to the bridge of the caravans, from where the only central road passes eastward onto the bridge of the Melitos River. Another street, branching off from it, follows the flow of this river southward. Near the bridge is a great, open square where the caravan camels stop. The English rail line Smyrna-Aidiniou-Diner runs nearby and has as its last stop at the Pouda, while the French line crosses it and has a second stop here at "the Bridge," as it is called. The English line advances through gardens and cemeteries, where the Turks had constructed a munitions factory during World War I. This line ends at the eastern boundaries of the city after passing neighborhood hospitals.

So while this triangularly shaped city has Mt. Pagus as its foundation, on the west it ends at the sea, toward which one side of the triangle extends, and the other spreads out to the east, toward the land and the plain which forms the delta of the Melitos River. Here a narrow valley ends at the mouth of the Melitos, a valley whose northern end joins with the plain of Vournova, formed by the silting of small streams. The two plains unite and concentrate though the pass, but are still further narrowed by the great spring of Halka-bouar, which wells in the foothills of the mountains and bogs down the plain of Vournova.

Smyrna has four entrances to its landward side, through which four streets run along four central courses. One street reaches Smyrna from the west, that is, from the Erythraian peninsula, which crosses through the suburbs Grios-tepe and Karatas. Beyond these suburbs it advances on the coastal plain (the southern coast of the gulf) almost to the Vrioulon. Another street arrives from the south extending across the valley of the Melitos around Mt. Pagus to the bridge of the caravans. A third comes from the east through Halka-bounar and the bridge of the caravans. This latter is the street that runs straight to the valley of Ermou. The fourth street enters Smyrna from the north, from Ermou westward around to Sipylon and to the plain of Kordelio on the coastal plain of Vournova, just like the cartpath from Pergamo to the coast at Menemani. Its entrance into the city is near the Pouda.

As it is evident, Smyrna occupies a central place along all of the chief central roads of western Asia Minor. Situated almost in the middle of the western coast of the peninsula, in the innermost part of a deep, penetrating gulf--which a person can particularly defend from attach by sea--accessible today to the largest steamships, this city enjoys the most convenient system of public transportation in all directions, even though it is surrounded by mountains. In the south, the valley of the Melitos River pierces the mountains (here we have the valley of Tzimovasi) and opens an entrance, completely flat and broad, to the valley of Kaistrou. From there a thoroughfare, extending out to this street, advances only 231m over into the great valley of the Meander River. It extends through it to southwestern Asia Minor on one side, to the interior of the plateau from the other side. In the east again the small plain of Smyrna near the Nymphaiou, at a height of 263m, is able to reach straight to the valley of Ermou. The small plain continues through the valley to the foothills of the central plateau, affording a gentle ascent between Philadelphia and Ousak. On the north a coastal road runs all around the western Sipylou (Yiamanlar-dag) to the Ermou. From here the road runs northward, until it reaches Mt. Ida passing only through hills with isolated downward slopes. Besides, one advances to Ermou, to its upper heights, easily to Magnesia and from there further to the upper valley of Ermou, either to the north through the valley of Yllou to Kaiko (Pergamon) and to the relatively high and low passes to Mysia and Propontis. And if a person doesn't want to leave the road system of Sipylou, he can reach Magnesia over the mountains through Sapantza-bali.

Thus, Smyrna is the center of the rail network of eastern Asia Minor, a network which runs without the territory presenting unsurpassed difficulties.

So, Smyrna has an excellent site for public transportation. The land immediately around it, however, is not broad, and the plain, which it dominates, is insignificant. Nevertheless, the advantage is great because of it. There isn't a large river in the immediate vicinity of Smyrna. The result is that there isn't a fear that her harbor would be entered by flooding waters. Swampy areas are negligible and the climate healthy because of this. During the summer, strong sea winds blow across the oblong gulf and cool the city. Not having a broad plain like the hinterlands, Smyrna hasn't suffered from river flooding, just as Ephesus and Miletos (from the Kaistros and the Maeander), which were ruined by them in the end. It is true that the same fate also threatened Smyrna because of the mouth of the Ermou River from the north. But the river deposits had shifted primarily to the north, far from the gulf of the city and this danger then vanished.

The present-day Smyrna has excellent drinking water, coming from Mt. Olympus. Of course infectious illnesses spread to it and cholera, just as the plague, visits her often. People indeed claim that they are always providing hospitality. Compared to other large cities of the East, nevertheless she must be considered healthy. Her climate is Mediterranean and the whole year colder than Athens. It rains more in Smyrna than at Athens during all months except for June, July, August, September, and October. And the difference in the winter between Athens and Smyrna is great. The drought of the summer is as great as in Athens, but somewhat shorter in duration. It begins in June and ends in September. In the months of November, December, [and] January, half of the water for the entire year falls. Because there is more water on the land in the beginning of the summer, germination is stronger in the land of eastern Greece, even though the amount of rain is greater in western Greece than in Smyrna. This advantage of Smyrna holds even across a great part of the western coast of Asia Minor, not only within her city limits. The summer heatwave and period of drought are more bearable at Smyrna, on account of the breeze which blows almost daily in the summer during midday and midafternoon hours, and sometimes stiffly, from the gulf toward the city. In no place on the western coast of Asia Minor is this phenomenon present with such regularity and strength as in Smyrna, which a picturesque mountain formation, forming a funnel, forcing and directing the salt air toward the city. And the cool ocean air is of the greatest hygienic importance for the city. To this, the city owes that, with the whole site of the inner bay, the heat is not so perceptible as in the interior lands of the country, and on account of this she is sought even by the Greeks of Egypt as a summer residence.

Although the roads from the interior encourage trade, commerce is nevertheless considered to be likewise noteworthy with the outside world by sea. Steamships of various lines (Austrian, German, Russian, French, Italian, Greek, Egyptian) keep Smyrna connected with Constantinople, with the Black Sea, with Greece, with western Europe, with Syria and Egypt, while Turkish (Greek with Turkish flag) and Greek coastal ships connect Smyrna with the small ports of the eastern Mediterranean. For, of these, many have offices at Smyrna, cargo-vessels of all races enliven the harbor during the season of produce export. Numerous, small, caiques conduct small shipping, chiefly the export of small amounts of produce as, for example, the export of combustible timber and charcoal.

Smyrna is both the largest city of Asiatic Turkey and her greatest trade center, and the second largest city of Turkey, the capital of her wealthiest vilayet, which even today is called officially by the ancient name of the vilayet, Aidinioiu. And this vilayet is the most populous and productive of Asia Minor. It stretches out over nearly all of the western section of the peninsula except the coastal lands of Propontis. There to the west of the central mountain plateau except the coastal lands of Propontis. There to the west of the central mountain plateau the lands meet, lands though which Smyrna and Constantinople connect. The latter draws the central mountain plateau to itself through the eastern railroad. Among these the construction of the French line, Smyrna-Afion-kara-hisar, its consequent extension to the railroad line of the east, already had drawn toward Smyrna a significant portion of the public transportation and of the central mountain plateau. Otherwise the conditions, with which trade and shipping are carried out at Smyrna, are better than at Constantinople, where the city is separated into sections because of the Bosporus, where the quays don't afford convenience, where the political irregularity in particular and the rather strong interference of the leaders adversely effect this.

Apart from the relatively insignificant European element, the Greek native element prevails not only in numbers, but also in strength. Native Greek population holds, together with the few Europeans, almost all the commerce and the shipping in its hands and excels the other races in its wealth and relative education. On account of this, the prevailing language is Greek, but the international language is French. Nearly all Smyrniots of all nationalities speak Greek. Likewise, many suburbs and their environs are entirely or nearly all Greek. However, there are also Turkish villages before the gates of the city. But because Smyrna has a Christian character, the Turks don't like her. They mockingly and enviously call her Giaour (unbelieving) Izmir. However, Smyrna is an indispensable port for all of the Turkish population inland and was for the Turkish government its chief source of income.

Concerning her commerce activity, we have to remark the following. The value of the imported merchandise amounts yearly to about 80,000,000 francs, of the exported, 110,000,000, of the inland trade, 40,000,000. Groceries and almost all other merchandise of European industry are imported, because industry is not cultivated in the city, although propitious conditions are not absent for the development of it. And the person sailing to Smyrna doesn't notice the crowd of chimney smoke stacks, which rise beyond those of Piraeus, evidence of the progress of the industry of the city, although it should hardly need to be said, that in the last decades the Greeks of Smyrna applied themselves also to the installation of industrial machinery for processing raw materials essential for the country. Best known of the exported products are carpets and figs. Carpets are exported yearly of values from 7.5--9.0 million francs (drachmas), namely 500,000 square feet. These carpets are constructed not principally in Smyrna, but in the interior (Ousak, Giordes, Kioutahia, Pergamos, Axarion, Demertzi, Koula, Mulasa, Sparti, Ikonion, Kaisareia, Moutzour, Sevasteia, Lakis, etc.). In the production of the carpets, each year 1,250,000 kgs of spun wool thread were used, which is spun at local spinning-places and obtained from the vilayets Ikonion, Ankara, Sevasteia, Aidinio, from where the yield of yarn rises to 5,000,000 kilograms. In the country, silk textiles are likewise produced. The trade of figs is most significant. Nearly 330,000 hundredweights are exported annually and 70,000 in that land are sold. The figs are derived chiefly from the district of Aidinio. Likewise, raisins (currants), wine, tobacco, opium, olive-oil, wool, cotton, and emery are exported. More than 3,500 sailing ships put in at Smyrna and 2,500 steamships of 2,500,000 tons. Of these ships, in 1911, 348 were British (581,405 tons), 128 German (222,621 tons), and the Greek vessels made up the most tonnage, with two-thirds of the entire amount.

The quay of Smyrna, because it is a new harbor, was constructed by a French company (1868-1880). At that time, the city took another firm into consideration. Of course, this harbor doesn't meet modern demands of public transportation. Not only is it very small, but it is stil lacking all the newer facilities, as convenient and inexpensive as possible, which the safeguarding, loading, and unloading of merchandise requires (warehouses, customs houses, winches, distribution of goods, transportation, etc.). Despite these disadvantages, Smyrna has a monopoly on all of the commerce of eastern Asia Minor, and has rendered useless all the small harbors of the eastern coast, above all because of her railroad lines, which approach no other harbor even where it would be possible through a small bend or branching of the tracks. Thus the entire remainder of the coast from the mouth of the Maeander to the Hermes and to the mouth of the Kaikos lacks a connection to the interior lands. Because of this Smyrna has profited.

Europeans visit the city, as severely as they judge the merchandise and compare the condition of the city with their own, they are quick to perceive that the intellectual life in the city doesn't exist in terms of the European concept of the matter, because in one city, they have concentrated so much commercial activity and life, so large a populace and so much wealth, that there doesn't exist a greater leisure time, with the result that it would correspond to the current intellectual needs, and so there wasn't an intellectual activity, balancing the bad things, which spring from a unilateral attachment of the populace to a material life. Antithetical to Athens, the great cultural center of Hellenism, where a lively scientific activity is observed, supported also by learned people of all races, chiefly archaeologists, the material progress at Smyrna is cultivated. It is true that many European races, chiefly the French, maintain better schools. But the work, nevertheless, is basic and mediocre. Only the Greeks cultivated letters, from the beginning, in ancient times, up to the 19th century, namely, since their awakening and desire began when they had been enlightened. From that time, Smyrna gave patronage to the spreading of Greek letters and served as a beacon, emitting its comforting light in the shadow of Asia Minor. In this point of view, the city acquired indisputable importance and offered valuable service to Hellenism.

Historical Background

Smyrna was founded in the 11th century BC by the Aeolians, about 3.5 km from the sea on the north side of the plain and on the heights of Sipylos. But the Ionians of Colophon conquered the city through commerce in the beginning of the 7th century and added her as the 13th city in the Ionian league. After these things, Smyrna was attacked by the kings of Lydia, who wished to win her, too, through commerce. She revolted against Gyges and in 575 succumbed to Alyattes. The strong city was destroyed at that time and her inhabitants scattered. But the kings Antigonos and Lysimachos (end of 4th century), completing the design of Alexander, founded the city again where it lies today. Smyrna became, from that time, one of the most beautiful cities of Asia Minor. There where the bazaar is situated today there was "the closed harbor," in other words, there was a bay between the Delta of the Melitos River and Mt. Pagus, today vanished. Strabo called Smyrna in his days, "the most beautiful of all" and in general praised her and described her (the street plan is varied, with its strength in straight streets and there are stone-paved streets, and large four-sided stoas, both level and lofty; and there is a library and the Omeiron, a four-sided stoa, having a statue of the young Homer" Strab. 14.646). Undoubtedly, Smyrna, in the Alexandrine and Roman years, rivaled the more ancient metropolises of Commerce, Ephesus and Miletos. And while these two cities fell into ruin and disappeared in the Middle Ages, Smyrna alone remained. Ever since the first Christian years she was one of the seven Churches of the Apocalypse (Rev. 1.11, 2.8), and here her second Bishop, Polycarp, suffered a martyr's death in the stadium refusing to reject Christianity (155). Turkish pirates seized the city from the Byzantines (1084), just as the Seljuks had seized them. Under  Frankish occupation it constituted a portion of the vilayet of Nicaea. Tamerlane (1042) conquered her and laid waste to her, and in 1424 the Ottomans seized her. From that time the "Jewel of the East," as she was called by the Turks, remained a possession under a conqueror's influence. Moreover, she suffered from many earthquakes even in more ancient times (178 and 180 A.D.), from fires, from revolts, and from epidemics. During the Turkish occupation, however, the city formally preserved her commerce, conducted important commerce with western Europe, as she had always done in the past, through trade with European quarters. And tourists visited Smyrna. According to them, the city, in the first half of the 19th century, had narrow and unclean street, vile houses, and wretched harbor agreements. With the construction of the railroad (by 1858), a new renaissance began. At that time, the regular northern quarters were constructed, and the quay and the harbor were built.

Suburbs and Countryside of Smyrna

Smyrna has many suburbs, rural centers, and towns spread out either at the northern and southern coast of the gulf, or on the plain between Sipylos, Olympos and Pagus. These suburbs, easily communicating with the city, belonging to it, are charming, and especially in the summer when they are frequented a great deal. Of these, some are cities worthy of note today. The most important of them are the following.

Cordelio (Karsiakos)

Inhabitants: 30,000

Lies on the north coast of the gulf in the middle of gardens, has many luxurious villas belonging to Greeks. No rail line goes into Cordelio (from the station Pasma-hane it's one-half hour, from which it is a distance of 11 km, or by boat, making the connection through the gulf). Cordelio has many popular sea-bath.

Vournovas (Prinovaris in the Middle Ages)

Inhabitants 15,000

Lies northeast of Smyrna in the southern foothills of Sipylos, in the middle of the most beautiful gardens, is a large and well-watered, shady village, has elegant villas, and is the oldest of all of the countryside locales of Smyrna. It is 9 km from Smyrna and is connected through its own line of the French railroad line of Smyrna-Kassamba (with the station Pasma-hane). Vournovas has Anglican, Catholic (with Austrian protection) and Orthodox Churches, as well as a mosque with ancient remains of art. Vournova also has beautiful and recreational centers at the railroad station and within the town itself.

Bounarmasi (chief source, as if a head-source of a spring)

Lies in the foothills of Kourou-tepe on the east of Smyrna, whose inhabitants enjoy making excursions there. It owes its name to its mamy-branched streams and springs, which irrigate their beautiful gardens. In their square, ancient plane-trees cast welcome shade during the summer, trees on which the storks build their nests.


Inhabitants: 10,000

Lies southeast of Smyrna and is frequented in the summer chiefly by the British who live in Smyrna. It has a British club and a race course, where races begin yearly at Eastertime. Connection with the suburb is accomplished through the British railroad from the Pouda station (a distance of 9 km) on the length of the eastern side of the city from north to south, then toward the east, and within one-half hour.

Karatas, Karantina, Gios-tepi, Lintzia, Narli-dere

Departing from the administrative building of the city on a ground tramway and through the old Hebrew cemetery of the village, one approaches the two seaside suburbs of the city, Karatas and Karantina, today joined with the city and stretching out beyond it to the south coast of the gulf. Afterward, the tramway advances to Gios-tepe, a suburb having an elegant location and being 5 km distant from the city, with Catholic and Greek Orthodox Churches (there is a connection also by sea). The tramway which advances another 2 km to the west, ends up at Resadie (Kokar-yiali). If a person were to advance 3 km farther westward, then he would reach Lintzia, where there are thermal mineral baths. Lintzia lies in the foothills of the mountains Two Sisters within a valley and in a picturesque location. And near here is Narli-dere, from where people ascend the Two Sisters and enjoy a beautiful view.

Of the many other suburbs and villages surrounding Smyrna, we mention Bairakli east of Cordelio, Mersinli, Narli-kioi and Hatzilar to the south of Vournova, and Koukloutza east of Smyrna.

"The Geography of Smyrna in 1921" is one small translated section of a larger Greek work, The Geography of Asia Minor. Written by Pantelis M. Kontogianni originally in 1921, this monumental and valuable work was reprinted in 2000 by the Syllogos Pros Diadosin Ophelimon Biblion (The Society for the Dissemination of Useful Information), Odos Akademias 34, Athens 10679 [ISBN 960-7133-79-X]. The English translation has preserved the general vintage style and punctuation of the original Greek text.

HCS maintains a permanent, extensive archives of articles which readers are invited to browse. For more information about Smyrna or Asia Minor Greeks, see the webpage located at the URL or click on the button "Smyrna and Asia MInor" on the Home Page of HCS to read brief synopses of many of these articles at the webpage

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