I once made the mistake of saying to my cousin Elli that I wanted to go to Turkey one day. When she asked me why, I said that I had heard that it was very beautiful. “Of course it is beautiful” she replied, “It used to be Greece!”
Sunset across the bay from Izmir
What was a vague aspiration before 1974 became impossible after the Turkish invasion of Cyprus when the “bastard Turks” seized the most fertile third of the island. One hundred thousand Greek Cypriots were forcibly removed from their homes and dispossessed of their lands while thirty thousand Turkish Cypriots were forced to move north. As a result of the fighting, over one thousand Greeks disappeared and were never heard of again, leaving yet another layer of hate and mistrust between the two communities. These thoughts were in the forefront of my mind as Grande Mediterraneo docked in the Turkish port of Izmir or Smyrna, as all Greeks remember it.
For hundreds of years, Smyrna had been a thriving cosmopolitan city made up of an eclectic mix of Greeks, Turks, Jews, Arabs and black Africans brought there as slaves. Wealthy and dominated by Greek merchants, it regularly changed hands over the centuries but in 1415 was wrested from the Byzantines by the Ottomans where it enjoyed five hundred years of stability until the collapse of the caliphate at the end of the First World War.
Subsequently, it was awarded to Greece by the League of Nations when it became the forward base for an ill-considered attempt by Greece to take back Asia Minor into their control. At the end of a disastrous two-year campaign, Kemal Attaturk and his Nationalist forces entered the city, where they engaged upon a three-day orgy of murder, rape and pillage of the non-Islamic people. This action left thousands of Christians and Jews butchered, destroyed 70% of the city and displaced a quarter of a million people. It remains a symbol the hatred between Greek and Turks that lasts until today.
During the first couple of decades of the 20th Century, there were numerous brutal examples of ethnic cleansing across the Levant and the Balkans and these often featured Turks and Greeks, both as victims and perpetrators. In 1915, tens of thousands of Christian Armenians living in Asia Minor were killed by Turkish Islamists, including the husband of my Grandmother’s midwife. My father [born in 1918] was named “Louis” in memory of him.
As a British passport holder, I could have travelled to Turkey at any time but since 1974 but I felt constrained from doing so, as it would genuinely distress my Cyprus family. Then a few years ago, Greek Cypriots were allowed to travel to the North of the island for the first time since the troubles and finally in 2008, to cross into the Turkish end of Ledra Street in Lefkosia from the Greek south. It seemed like a thaw in relations was on its way but in 2007, Greek Cypriots rejected the Koffi Annan plan to reunite the island and in 2009, a hard-line Greek Cypriot President was elected, making a united island seem once more a distant dream.
Now I am unlikely to live to be a thousand years old and even if I did, there is no guarantee that the Cyprus problem will have been solved, so I decided that it was time for me to visit Turkey. For symbolic purposes, there could be no better place for my first footfall than Izmir.
I was very anxious as I stepped off the boarding ramp and onto the loading dock. Only partly was this due to the huge lorries and container movers that rushed dangerously around us. Sandra, Rudolph and I made our way across the huge and very busy port to the exit as heavy set, moustached drivers pointed our way from their cabs. Many of these men looked like Greeks I have met as much as some of my relatives [if I am honest] look like Turks. Read Birds Without Wings by Louis de Berniers if you would like to know how this could come about…
A fragment of traditional Levantine architecture
After a cup of Turkish coffee and pastries in the old bazaar, we took a taxi to the Museum of Art and History where it became apparent that the history of Izmir was not as simple as some people would have you believe. Turkey is made of cultural layers added like varnish to a wooden surface, each showing partially through the one beneath. Hittite, Greek, Roman, Azeri, Kurdish and Arabic influences have all had their effect on the history of Asia Minor. Islam has held sway for the past half a millennia while the modern world of commercialism, materialism and capitalism adds it’s dubious charm the final mixture.
The modern city bustles around you in a friendly and confident way and very little of old Smyrna remains. Outside of the bazaar, a few forlorn Levantine buildings and the odd church stand out, while the city gets on with the serious business of making money. Turkey, like Greece knows how to build ugly urban environments and Sony outlets and Starbucks jostle for position with donner kebab joins, while Taxis and private cars clog the streets.
Now, I do not support Zionists who claim the land of Israel as their own because they believe God gave it to them three-thousand years ago any more than I believe the Serbs were right to try and take back Bosnia from the people of Turkish decent who had lived there since the middle ages. Why then should I support the idea that Greeks had the right to claim back Turkey for themselves in 1920? After all, Hitler used the excuse of “liberating” two million people of German decent as the reason for invading the Czech Republic in 1934.
That being said, the Turks that entered Smyrna on the 9th September 1922 acted like militant jihadists, killing innocent women and children for revenge and personal gain as much as for religious fervour. The Turkish government still has not accepted that the massacre of Greeks at Smyrna in 1922 was a war crime and the murder of thousands of Armenians in 1915 genocide but if we continue to fight old wars and harbour hatred in our hearts where will that get us? Nothing will change except the technology we use to tear the flesh from each other’s bodies.
Ancient Greek Grave Marker at the Museum of Art & History – Izmir
As I sat in the shade with Sandra and Rudolph having an afternoon ice cream on the corniche after a pleasant day together in this friendly city, these thoughts crowded through my mind and I tried to come to some conclusion. I’m still trying but it’s difficult. All I can say for certain is that the world would have fewer wars without religion and that you should never forget the lessons of the past while remembering to live in the present…