Great Fire of Smyrna
Plumes of smoke rising from Smyrna on 14 September 1922
|Location||Smyrna (today Izmir, Turkey)|
|Also known as||Catastrophe of Smyrna|
|Outcome||Exodus of the Greek and Armenian population of the city|
The Great Fire of Smyrna or the Catastrophe of Smyrna (Greek: Καταστροφή της Σμύρνης, "Smyrna Catastrophe"; Turkish: 1922 İzmir Yangını, "1922 Izmir Fire"; Armenian: Զմյուռնիոյ մեծ հրդեհ) was a fire that destroyed much of the port city of Smyrna (modern Izmir) in September 1922. Eyewitness reports state that the fire began on 13 September 1922 and lasted until it was largely extinguished on 22 September. It occurred four days after the Turkish forces regained control of the city on 9 September 1922, effectively ending the Greco-Turkish War in the field, more than three years after the Greek army had landed troops at Smyrna on 15 May 1919. Estimated Greek and Armenians deaths resulting from the fire range from 10,000 to 100,000.
Approximately 50,000 to 400,000 Greek and Armenian refugees crammed the waterfront escaping from the fire and were forced to remain there under harsh conditions for nearly two weeks, while Turkish troops and irregulars started committing massacres against the Greek and Armenian population, before the outbreak of the fire.
The subsequent fire completely destroyed the Greek and Armenian quarters of the city; the Muslim and Jewish quarters escaped damage. There are different accounts and eyewitness reports about who was responsible for the fire; according to some, uniformed Turkish soldiers set fire to Greek and Armenian homes and businesses, while according to others, Greeks and Armenians started the fire.
- 1 Background
- 2 Events
- 3 Historiography
- 4 Sources claiming Turkish responsibility
- 4.1 George Horton's account
- 4.2 American eyewitnesses
- 4.3 Non-contemporary sources
- 4.4 Turkish sources claiming Turkish responsibility
- 5 Sources claiming Greek or Armenian responsibility
- 6 Casualties and refugees
- 7 Aftermath
- 8 In art, music, and literature
- 9 Notes
- 10 Bibliography
- 11 Further reading
- 12 External links
The ratio of Christian population to Muslim population remains a matter of dispute, but nevertheless the city was a multicultural center until September 1922. Different sources claiming either Greeks or Turks as constituting the majority in the city. For instance, according to Katherine Elizabeth Flemming, in 1919-1922 the Greeks in Smyrna numbered 150,000, forming just under half of the population, outnumbering the Turks by a ratio of two to one. Alongside Turks and Greeks, there were sizeable Armenian, Jewish, and Levantine communities in the city. According to Trudy Ring, before World War I the Greeks alone numbered 130,000 out of a population of 250,000, excluding Armenian and other Christians.
According to the Ottoman census of 1905, there were 100,356 Muslims, 73,636 Orthodox Christians, 11,127 Armenian Christians, and 25,854 others; the updated figures for 1914 give 111,486 Muslims compared to 87,497 Orthodox Christians.[verification needed]
According to the U.S. Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire at the time, Henry Morgenthau, more than half of Smyrna's population was Greek, while according to the American Consul General in Smyrna at the time, George Horton, before the fire there were 400,000 people living in the city of Smyrna, of whom 165,000 were Turks, 150,000 were Greeks, 25,000 were Jews, 25,000 were Armenians, and 20,000 were foreigners—10,000 Italians, 3,000 French, 2,000 British, and 300 Americans.
Moreover, according to various scholars, prior to the war, the city hosted more Greeks than Athens, the capital of Greece. The Ottomans of that era referred to the city as Infidel Smyrna (Gavur Izmir) due to its strong Greek presence and large non-Muslim population.
Entry of the Turks
As the last Greek troops evacuated Smyrna on the evening of Friday 8 September, the first elements of Mustafa Kemal's forces, a Turkish cavalry squadron, made its way into the city from the northern tip of the quay the following morning, establishing their headquarters at the main government building called Konak. Military command was first assumed by Mürsel Pasha and then Nureddin Pasha, General of the Turkish First Army. At the outset, the Turkish occupation of the city was orderly. Though the Armenian and Greek inhabitants viewed their entry with trepidation, they reasoned that the presence of the Allied fleet would discourage any violence against the Christian community. On the morning of September 9, there were no less than twenty-one Allied warships stationed in Smyrna's harbor, the British flagship battleship HMS Iron Duke and her sister King George V, along with their escort of cruisers and destroyers under the command of Admiral Osmond Brock, the American destroyers USS Litchfield, Simpson, and Lawrence (later joined by the Edsall), three French cruisers and two destroyers under the command of Admiral Dumesnil, and an Italian cruiser and destroyer. As a precaution, sailors and marines from the Allied fleet were landed ashore to guard their respective diplomatic compounds and institutions with strict orders of maintaining neutrality in the event that violence would break out between the Turks and the Christians.
As it happened, on 9 September, order and discipline began to break down among the Turkish troops, who began systematically to target the Armenian population, pillaging their shops, looting their homes, separating the men from the women and carrying away and sexually assaulting the latter. The Greek Orthodox Metropolitan bishop, Chrysostomos, was tortured and hacked to death by a Turkish mob in full view of French soldiers, who were prevented from intervening by their commanding officer, and much to Admiral Dumesnil's approval. Refuge was sought wherever possible, including Paradise, where the American quarter was located, and the European quarters. Some were able to take shelter at the American Collegiate Institute and other institutions, despite strenuous efforts to turn away those seeking help by the Americans and Europeans, who were anxious not to antagonize or harm their relations with the leaders of the Turkish National movement.
The first fire broke out in the late afternoon of 13 September, four days after the Turkish Army had entered the city. The blaze began in the Armenian quarter of the city, and spread quickly due to the windy weather and the fact that no effort was made to put it out. According to author Giles Milton:
One of the first people to notice the outbreak of fire was Miss Minnie Mills, the director of the American Collegiate Institute for Girls. She had just finished her lunch when she noticed that one of the neighboring buildings was burning. She stood up to have a closer look and was shocked by what she witnessed. "I saw with my own eyes a Turkish officer enter the house with small tins of petroleum or benzine and in a few minutes the house was in flames." She was not the only one at the institute to see the outbreak of fire. "Our teachers and girls saw Turks in regular soldiers' uniforms and in several cases in officers' uniforms, using long sticks with rags at the end which were dipped in a can of liquid and carried into houses which were soon burning."
Others, such as Claflin Davis of the American Red Cross and Monsieur Joubert, director of the Credit Foncier Bank of Smyrna, also witnessed the Turks putting buildings to the torch. When the latter asked the soldiers what they were doing, "They replied impassively that they were under orders to blow up and burn all the houses of the area." The city's fire brigade did its best to combat the fires but by Wednesday September 13 so many were being set that it was unable to keep up. Two firemen from the brigade, a Sgt. Tchorbadjis and Emmanuel Katsaros, would later testify in court witnessing Turkish soldiers setting fire to the buildings. When Katsaros complained, one of them commented, "You have your orders...and we have ours. This is Armenian property. Our orders are to set fire to it." The spreading fire caused a stampede of people to flee towards the quay, which stretched from the western end of the city to its northern tip, known as the Point. Captain Arthur Japy Hepburn, chief of Staff of the American naval squadron, described the panic on the quay:
Returning to the street I found the stampede from the fire just beginning. All of the refugees that had been scattered through the streets or stowed in churches and other institutions were moving toward the waterfront. Steadily augmenting this flow were those abandoning their homes in the path of the fire...It was now dark. The quay was already filled with tens of thousands of terrified refugees moving aimlessly between the customs house and the point, and still the steady stream of new arrivals continued, until the entire waterfront seemed one solid mass of humanity and baggage of every description.
The heat from the fire was so intense that Hepburn was worried that the refugees would die as a result of it. The refugees' situation on the pier on the morning of September 14 was described by the British Lieutenant A. S. Merrill, who believed that the Turks had set the fire to keep the Greeks in a state of terror so as to facilitate their departure:
All morning the glow and then the flames of burning Smyrna could be seen. We arrived about an hour before dawn and the scene was indescribable. The entire city was ablaze and the harbor was light as day. Thousands of homeless refugees were surging back and forth on the blistering quay - panic stricken to the point of insanity. The heartrending shrieks of women and children were painful to hear. In a frenzy they would throw themselves into the water and some would reach the ship. To attempt to land a boat would have been disastrous. Several boats tried and were immediately stopped by the mad rush of a howling mob...The crowds along the quay beyond the fire were so thick and tried so desperately to close abreast the men-of-war anchorage that the masses in the stifling center could not escape except by sea. Fortunately there was a sea breeze and the quay wall never got hot enough to roast these unfortunate people alive, but the heat must have been terrific to have been felt in the ship 200 yards away. To add to the confusion, the packs belonging to these refugees – consisting mostly of carpets and clothing – caught fire, creating a chain of bonfires the length of the street.
Turkish troops cordoned off the Quay to box the Armenians and Greeks within the fire zone and prevent them from fleeing. Eyewitness reports describe panic-stricken refugees diving into the water to escape the flames and that their terrified screaming could be heard miles away. By September 15 the fire had somewhat died down, but sporadic violence by the Turks against the Greek and Armenian refugees kept the pressure on the Western and Greek navies to remove the refugees as quickly as possible. The fire was completely extinguished by September 22, and on September 24 the first Greek ships entered the harbor to take passengers away, following Captain Hepburn's initiative and his having obtained permission and cooperation from the Turkish authorities and the British admiral in charge of the destroyers in the harbor.
The evacuation was difficult despite the efforts of British and American sailors to maintain order, as tens of thousands of refugees pushed and shoved towards the shore. Attempts to organize relief were made by the American officials from the YMCA and YWCA, who were reportedly robbed and later shot at by Turkish soldiers. On the quay, Turkish soldiers and irregulars periodically robbed Greek refugees, beating some and arresting others who resisted. There were also many reports of well-behaved Turkish troops helping old women and trying to maintain order among the refugees, but these reports are heavily outnumbered by those describing gratuitous cruelty, incessant robbery and violence.
American and British attempts to protect the Greeks from the Turks did little good, with the fire having taken a terrible toll. Some frustrated and terrified Greeks took their own lives, plunging into the water with packs at their back, children were stampeded, and many of the elderly fainted and died. The city's Armenians also suffered grievously, and according to Captain Hepburn, "every able-bodied Armenian man was hunted down and killed wherever found, with even boys aged 12 to 15 taking part in the hunt".
The fire completely destroyed the Greek, Armenian, and Levantine quarters of the city, with only the Turkish and Jewish quarters surviving. The thriving port of Smyrna, one of the most commercially active in the region, was burned to the ground. Some 150,000-200,000 Greek refugees were evacuated, while approximately 30,000 able-bodied Greek and Armenian men were deported to the interior, many of them dying under the harsh conditions or executed along the way. The 3,000 year Greek presence on Anatolia's Aegean shore was brought to an abrupt end, along with the Megali Idea. The Greek writer Dimitris Pentzopoulos wrote, "It is no exaggeration to call the year '1922' the most calamitous in modern Hellenic history."
A number of studies have been published on the Smyrna fire. The most thorough is Professor of literature Marjorie Housepian Dobkin's Smyrna 1922, which concludes that the Turkish Army systematically burned the city and killed Greek and Armenian inhabitants. Her work is based on extensive eyewitness testimony from survivors, Allied troops sent to Smyrna during the evacuation, foreign diplomats, relief workers, and Turkish eyewitnesses. A recent study by historian Niall Ferguson comes to the same conclusion. Historian Richard Clogg categorically states that the fire was started by the Turks following their capture of the city. In his book Paradise Lost: Smyrna 1922, Giles Milton addresses the issue of the Smyrna Fire through original material (interviews, unpublished letters, and diaries) from the Levantine families of Smyrna, who were mainly of British origin. All the documents collected by the author during this research are deposited in Exeter University Library. The conclusion of the author is that it was Turkish soldiers and officers who set the fire, most probably acting under direct orders.
The main critics of Horton and Housepian are Heath Lowry and Justin McCarthy, who argue that Horton was highly prejudiced and Housepian makes an extremely selective use of sources. Lowry and McCarthy are members of the Institute of Turkish Studies and have in turn been strongly criticized by other scholars for their denial of the Armenian Genocide and been described as being on "the Turkish side of the debate."
Turkish author and journalist Falih Rifki Atay, who was in Smyrna at the time, and the Turkish professor Biray Kolluoğlu Kırlı have agreed that the Turkish Army was responsible for the destruction of Smyrna in 1922. More recently, a number of non-contemporary scholars, historians, and politicians have added to the history of the events by revisiting contemporary communications and histories.
There are other accounts that contradict some of the facts presented in the above accounts. These include a telegram sent by Mustafa Kemal, articles in contemporary newspapers, and a short non-contemporary essay by Turkish historian Reşat Kasaba of the University of Washington briefly describes events without making clear accusations.
The accounts of Jewish teachers in Smyrna, letters of Johannes Kolmodin (a Swedish orientalist who was in Smyrna at the time), and Paul Grescovich's report says that Greeks or Armenians are responsible for the fire. R.A. Weight stated that "his clients showed that the fire, in its origin, was a small accidental fire, though it eventually destroyed a large section of the town".
Sources claiming Turkish responsibility
George Horton's account
George Horton was the U.S. Consul General of Smyrna. He was compelled to evacuate Smyrna on 13 September, and arrived in Athens on 14 September. In 1926, he published his own account of what happened in Smyrna. He included testimony from a number of eyewitnesses and quoted a number of contemporary scholars. Heath Lowry and Biray Kolluoğlu Kırlı claim that the account is one-sided, selective in the choice of testimonies, and unreliable.
Horton's account states that the last of the Greek soldiers had abandoned Smyrna during the evening of 8 September since it was known in advance that Turkish soldiers would arrive on 9 September.
Origins of the fire
Horton noted that Turkish soldiers, on 13 September, first cleared the Armenian quarter and then torched a number of houses simultaneously behind the American Inter-Collegiate Institute. They waited for the wind to blow in the right direction, away from the homes of the Muslim population, before starting the fire. This report is backed up by the eyewitness testimony of Miss Minnie Mills, the dean of the Inter-Collegiate Institute: "I could plainly see the Turks carrying the tins of petroleum into the houses, from which, in each instance, fire burst forth immediately afterward. There was not an Armenian in sight, the only persons visible being Turkish soldiers of the regular army in smart uniforms."
This was confirmed by the eyewitness report of Mrs King Birge, the wife of an American missionary, who viewed events from the tower of the American College at Paradise.
Contemporary scholars quoted
Horton quoted contemporary scholars within his account including the historian Wllliam Stearns Davis: "The Turks drove straight onward to Smyrna, which they took (9 September 1922) and then burned." Also, Sir Valentine Chirol, lecturer at the University of Chicago: "After the Turks had smashed the Greek armies they turned the essentially Greek city (Smyrna) into an ash heap as proof of their victory."
Summary of the destruction of Smyrna
The following is an abridged summary of notable events in the destruction of Smyrna described in Horton's account:
- Turkish soldiers cordoned off the Armenian quarter during the massacre. Armed Turks massacred Armenians and looted the Armenian quarter.
- After their systemic massacre Turkish soldiers, in smart uniforms, set fire to Armenian buildings using tins of petroleum and flaming rags soaked in flammable liquids.
- To supplement the devastation, small bombs were planted by the soldiers under paving slabs around the Christian parts of the city to take down walls. One of the bombs was planted near the American Consulate and another at the American Girl's School.
- The fire was started on 13 September. The last Greek soldiers had evacuated Smyrna on 8 September. The Turkish Army was in full control of Smyrna from 9 September. All Christians remaining in the city who evaded massacre stayed within their homes, fearing for their lives. The burning of the homes forced Christians into the streets. This was personally witnessed by Horton.
- The fire was initiated at one edge of the Armenian quarter when a strong wind was blowing toward the Christian part of town and away from the Muslim part of town. Citizens of the Muslim quarter were not involved in the catastrophe. The Muslim quarter celebrated the arrival of the Turkish Army.
- Turkish soldiers guided the fire through the modern Greek and European section of Smyrna by pouring flammable liquids into the streets. These were poured in front of the American Consulate to guide the fire, as witnessed by C. Clafun David, the Chairman of the Disaster Relief Committee of the Red Cross (Constantinople Chapter) and others who were standing at the door of the Consulate. Mr Davis testified that he put his hands in the mud where the flammable liquid was poured and indicated that it smelled like mixed petroleum and gasoline. The soldiers that were observed doing this had started from the quay and proceeded towards the fire, thus ensuring the rapid and controlled spread of the fire.
- Dr Alexander Maclachlan, the president of the American College, together with a sergeant of the American Marines, was stripped and beaten with clubs by Turkish soldiers. In addition, a squad of American Marines was fired on.
One of the witnesses in Marjorie Housepian Dobkin's account was the American industrial engineer Mark Prentiss, a foreign trade specialist in Smyrna, who was also acting as a freelance correspondent for The New York Times. He was an eyewitness to many of the events which occurred in Smyrna. He was initially quoted in The New York Times as putting the blame on the Turkish military. Prentiss arrived in Smyrna 8 September 1922, one day before the Turkish Army returned to Smyrna. He was a special representative of the Near East Relief (an American charity organization whose purpose was to watch over and protect Armenians during the war). He arrived on the destroyer USS Lawrence, under command of Capt. Wolleson. His superior was Rear Admiral Mark Lambert Bristol, U.S. High Commissioner to the Ottoman Empire from 1919–1927, present in Constantinople. His initial published statements were as follows:
Many of us personally saw – and are ready to affirm the statement – Turkish soldiers often directed by officers throwing petroleum in the street and houses. Vice-Consul Barnes watched a Turkish officer leisurely fire the Custom House and the Passport Bureau while at least fifty Turkish soldiers stood by. Major Davis saw Turkish soldiers throwing oil in many houses. The Navy patrol reported seeing a complete horseshoe of fires started by the Turks around the American school.
Critics of Prentiss point out that Prentiss changed his story, giving two very different statements of events at different times. Initially, Prentiss was printed in The New York Times on 18 September 1922 (partially disavowed in the same paper on 14 November) as having cabled an article titled "Eyewitness Story of Smyrna’s Horror; 200,000 Victims of Turks and Flames". Upon his return to the United States, he was pressured by Adm. Bristol to put a different version on record, where he claimed that it was the Armenians who had set the fire. According to Housepian, Bristol was notoriously anti-Greek, describing Greeks in his correspondence as "the worst race in the Near East".
U.S. High Commissioner Adm. Bristol, senior American in Istanbul, reported that during the Turkish capture of Smyrna and the ensuing fire, the number of deaths due to killings, fire, and execution did not exceed 2,000.
Professor Rudolf J. Rummel
Genocide scholar Rudolph J. Rummel blames the Turkish side for the "systematic firing" in the Armenian and Greek quarters of the city. Rummel argues that after the Turks recaptured the city, Turkish soldiers and Muslim mobs shot and hacked to death Armenians, Greeks, and other Christians in the streets of the city; he estimates the victims of these massacres, by giving reference to the previous claims of Dobkin, at about 100,000 Christians.
Historians Lowe and Dockrill
The short-sightedness of both Lloyd George and President Wilson seems incredible, explicable only in terms of the magic of Venizelos and an emotional, perhaps religious, aversion to the Turks. For Greek claims were at best debatable, perhaps a bare majority, more likely a large minority in the Smyrna Vilayet, which lay in an overwhelmingly Turkish Anatolia. The result was an attempt to alter the imbalance of populations by genocide, and the counter determination of Nationalists to erase the Greeks, a feeling which produced bitter warfare in Asia Minor for the next two years until the Kemalists took Smyrna in 1922 and settled the problem by burning down the Greek quarter.
British author Giles Milton's Paradise Lost: Smyrna 1922 is a graphic account of the sack of Smyrna (modern Izmir) in 1922 recounted through the eyes of the city's Levantine community. Milton's book is based on eyewitness accounts of those who were there, making use of unpublished diaries and letters written by Smyrna’s Levantine elite: He contends that their voices are among the few impartial ones in a highly contentious episode of history.
Paradise Lost chronicles the violence that followed the Greek landing through the eyewitness accounts of the Levantine community. The author offers a reappraisal of Smyrna’s first Greek governor, Aristidis Stergiadis, whose impartiality towards both Greeks and Turks won him considerable enmity amongst the local Greek population.
The third section of Paradise Lost is a day-by-day account of what happened when the Turkish army entered Smyrna. The narrative is constructed from accounts written principally by Levantines and Americans who witnessed the violence first hand, in which the author seeks to apportion blame and discover who started the conflagration that was to cause the city’s near-total destruction. According to Milton, the fire was started by the Turkish army, who brought in thousands of barrels of oil and poured them over the streets of Smyrna with the exception of the Turkish quarter. The book also investigates the cynical role played by the commanders of the 21 Allied battleships in the bay of Smyrna, who were under orders to rescue only their own nationals, abandoning to their fate the hundreds of thousands of Greeks and Armenian refugees gathered on the quayside.
The book won plaudits for its impartial approach and historical balance regarding a contentious episode of history. It has been published in both Turkish and Greek. The Greek edition has received widespread coverage in the Greek press. It received publicity in the USA when the New York Times revealed that Presidential candidate John McCain was reading it while on the campaign trail in 2008. It featured on a 2008 list of books considered by David Cameron’s Conservative Party to be essential reading by any prospective Member of Parliament.
Jeremy Seal, writing in The Daily Telegraph, called Paradise Lost: 'A compelling story… Milton's considerable achievement is to deliver with characteristic clarity and color this complex epic narrative, Milton brings a commendable impartiality to his thoroughly researched book.
Historian William Dalrymple, writing in The Sunday Times, praised the book for both its impartial approach and its use of original source material written by the Levantine families of Smyrna.
'It is the lives of these dynasties, recorded in their diaries and letters, that form the focus for Giles Milton’s brilliant re-creation of the last days of Smyrna...Milton has written a grimly memorable book about one of the most important events in this process. It is well paced, even-handed and cleverly focused: through the prism of the Anglo-Levantines, he reconstructs both the prewar Edwardian glory of Smyrna and its tragic end. He also clears up, once and for all, who burnt Smyrna, producing irrefutable evidence that the Turkish army brought in thousands of barrels from the Petroleum Company of Smyrna and poured them over the streets and houses of all but the Turkish quarter. Moreover, it is clear that it was done with the full approval of Atatürk, who was determined to find a final solution to his “minority problem” to ensure the future stability of his fledgling Turkish republic. A relatively homogenous Turkish nation state was indeed achieved; but as Milton shows, the cost was suffering on an almost unimaginable scale and one of the most horrific humanitarian disasters of the 20th century'.
Writing in the Spectator, Philip Mansel called the book 'an indictment of nationalism … Milton has gone where biographers of Atatürk 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.
Despite its widespread acclaim the book strangely has since gone out of print. It usually available from used book store vendors.
Turkish sources claiming Turkish responsibility
Falih Rifki Atay
Falih Rıfkı Atay, a Turkish journalist and author of national renown, is quoted as having lamented that the Turkish army had burnt Smyrna to the ground in the following terms:
Gavur [infidel] İzmir burned and came to an end with its flames in the darkness and its smoke in daylight. Were those responsible for the fire really the Armenian arsonists as we were told in those days? ... As I have decided to write the truth as far as I know I want to quote a page from the notes I took in those days. ‘The plunderers helped spread the fire ... Why were we burning down İzmir? Were we afraid that if waterfront konaks, hotels and taverns stayed in place, we would never be able to get rid of the minorities? When the Armenians were being deported in the First World War, we had burned down all the habitable districts and neighbourhoods in Anatolian towns and cities with this very same fear. This does not solely derive from an urge for destruction. There is also some feeling of inferiority in it. It was as if anywhere that resembled Europe was destined to remain Christian and foreign and to be denied to us.
If there were another war and we were defeated, would it be sufficient guarantee of preserving the Turkishness of the city if we had left Izmir as a devastated expanse of vacant lots? Were it not for Nureddin Pasha, whom I know to be a dyed-in-the-wool fanatic and rabblerouser, I do not think this tragedy would have gone to the bitter end. He has doubtless been gaining added strength from the unforgiving vengeful feelings of the soldiers and officers who have seen the debris and the weeping and agonized population of the Turkish towns which the Greeks have burned to ashes all the way from Afyon.
Falih Rifki Atay implied Nureddin Pasha was the person responsible for the fire in his account: "At the time it was said that Armenian arsonists were responsible. But was this so? There were many who assigned a part in it to Nureddin Pasha, commander of the First Army, a man whom Kemal had long disliked..."
Professor Biray Kolluoğlu Kırlı
Biray Kolluoğlu Kırlı, a Turkish professor of Sociology at Bogazici University, published a paper in 2005 in which she argues that Smyrna was burned by the Turkish Army to create a Turkish city out of the cosmopolitan fabric of the old city, and she focuses on the extensions of this viewpoint on the Turkish nationalist narrative ever since.
Sources claiming Greek or Armenian responsibility
Mustafa Kemal's telegram
On 17 September, when the massacre and the fire in the city had come to an end, Mustafa Kemal, Commander-in-Chief of the Turkish armies sent the Minister of Foreign Affairs Yusuf Kemal the following telegram, describing the official version of events in the city:
FROM COMMANDER IN CHIEF GAZI MUSTAFA KEMAL PASHA TO THE MINISTER OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS YUSUF KEMAL BEY
Tel. 17.9.38 (1922) (Arrived 4.10.38)
To be transmitted with care. Important and urgent.
Find hereunder the instruction I sent to Hamid Bey with Admiral Dumesmil, who left for İstanbul today.
Commander-In-Chief Mustafa KEMAL
Copy To Hamid Bey,
1. It is necessary to comment on the fire in İzmir for future reference.
Our army took all the necessary measures to protect İzmir from accidents, before entering the city. However, the Greeks and the Armenians, with their pre-arranged plans have decided to destroy İzmir. Speeches made by Chrysóstomos at the churches have been heard by the Muslims, the burning of İzmir was defined as a religious duty. The destruction was accomplished by this organization. To confirm this, there are many documents and eyewitness accounts. Our soldiers worked with everything that they have to put out the fires. Those who attribute this to our soldiers may come to İzmir personally and see the situation. However, for a job like this, an official investigation is out of the question. The newspaper correspondents of various nationalities presently in İzmir are already executing this duty. The Christian population is treated with good care and the refugees are being returned to their places.
The Grescovich Report
Paul Grescovich, the commander of the Smyrna Insurance Company Fire Brigade, seen by Prentiss as "a thoroughly reliable witness", wrote a report putting the blame on Greeks and Armenians, stating especially that “his own firemen, as well as Turkish guards, had shot down many Armenian young men disguised either as woman or as Turkish irregular soldiers, who were caught setting fires during Tuesday night [12 September] and Wednesday [13 September] morning”.
Accounts of Jewish teachers
The director of the school of the Alliance israélite universelle wrote in a letter of 18 September 1922, "It is sufficient for you to know that if the city was not completely destroyed by fire, it is thanks to Turkish army, who could arrive in time." The director of the school of Tireh wrote, on 29 September: "To make matters worse, Smyrna did not escape to the catastrophe: more than the half of the city was burned by the Armenians, another reason to aggravate the misfortune of Jewish and other refugees."
Letters of Johannes Kolmodin
Johannes Kolmodin, a Swedish orientalist, was in Smyrna in those days. He wrote that the Greek army was responsible for the fire, as well as fires in 250 Turkish villages.
Contemporary newspapers and witnesses
The first defeat of the nationalists had been this enormous fire. Within forty-eight hours, it had destroyed the only hope of immediate economic recovery. For this reason, when I heard people accusing the winners themselves of having provoked it to get rid of the Greeks and Armenians who still lived in the city, I could only shrug off the absurdity of such talk. One had to know the Turkish leaders very little indeed to attribute to them so generously a taste for unnecessary suicide.
Alexander MacLachlan, the missionary president of the International College of Smyrna who witnessed the fire states in an article in The Times of 25 September 1922 that the Turkish soldiers seen to set the fire were actually disguised Armenians:
Turkish soldiers protected International College during the disruption of the occupation; a Turkish cavalryman rescued MacLachlan from irregulars who nearly beat the missionary to death while trying to loot the agricultural buildings of the college. A three-day Smyrna fire (13–15 September), which Turks made every effort to control, destroyed nearly a square mile in Greek and Armenian areas and made two hundred thousand people homeless. Included in this loss was the American Board's Collegiate Institute for Girls. MacLachlan's investigation of the fire's origin led to the conviction that Armenian terrorists, dressed in Turkish uniforms, fired the city. Apparently the terrorists were attempting to bring Western intervention. Informing Washington of a three million Dollars claim by the American Board against the Ankara government ...
Note that this is the same Alexander Maclachlan in George Horton's account, spelt "Maclachlan" in that account, who was stripped and beaten by Turkish soldiers with clubs.
An individual witness, art historian and long time inhabitant of Smyrna Bilge Umar, suggested that both Turkish and the Armenian sides were guilty for the fire: "Turks and Armenians are equally to blame for this tragedy. All the sources show that the Greeks did not start the fire as they left the city. The fire was started by fanatical Armenians. The Turks did not try to stop the fire."
Donald Webster's version
According to US scholar Donald Webster, who taught at the International College in Izmir between 1931–1934:
All the world heard about the great fire which destroyed much of beautiful Izmir. While every partisan accuses enemies of the incendiarism, the preponderance of impartial opinion blames the terror-stricken Armenians, who had bet their money on the wrong horse – a separatist national rather than a cultural individuality within the framework of the new, laïque Turkey.”
Lord Kinross's study
Devoting an entire chapter of his Atatürk's biography to the fire, Lord Kinross argues:
The internecine violence led, more or less by accident, to the outbreak of a catastrophic fire. Its origins were never satisfactorily explained. Kemal maintained to Admiral Dumesnil that it had been deliberately planned by an Armenian incendiary organization, and that before the arrival of the Turks speeches had been made in churches, calling for the burning of the city as a sacred duty. Fuel for the purpose had been found in the houses of Armenian women, and several incendiaries had been arrested. Others accused the Turks themselves of deliberately starting the fire under the orders or at least connivance of Nur-ed-Din Pasha, who had a reputation for fanaticism and cruelty. Most probably it started when the Turks, rounding up the Armenians to confiscate their arms, besieged a band of them in a building in which they had taken refuge. Deciding to burn them out, they set it alight with petrol, placing cordon of sentries around to arrest or shoot them as they escaped. Meanwhile the Armenians started other fires to divert the Turks from their main objective. The quarter was on the outskirts of the city. But a strong wind, for which they had not allowed, quickly carried flames towards the city. By the early evening several other quarters were on fire, and a thousand homes, built flimsily of lath and plaster, had been reduced to ashes. The flames were being spread by the looters, and doubtless also by Turkish soldiers, paying off scores. The fire brigade was powerless to cope with such a conflagration, and at Ismet’s headquarters the Turks alleged that its hose pipes had been deliberately severed. Ismet himself chose to declare that the Greeks had planned to burn the city.
Resat Kasaba's essay
It has been noted in a short essay by Turkish historian Resat Kasaba that various pro-Turkish sources offer different and even contradicting explanations to this event. Some of them completely ignore the event or they claim that there wasn't a fire at all. Additional pro-Turkish accounts claim that the Greeks set the fire, but others suggest that both Greeks and Turks did it. Nevertheless, the local population was in fear that violent acts will be committed by Turkish troops, as soon as they enter the city, as retaliation to the earlier scorched earth policy of the Greek Army during the last stage of the war.
According to an account of Mr. H. Lamb, the British Consul General at Smyrna, who reported that he "had reason to believe that Greeks in concert with Armenians had burned Smyrna". This was also stated by the correspondent of the Petit Parisien at Smyrna in a dispatch on 20 September 1922.
There were not only Greeks and Armenians but also British citizens taking refuge from the Turkish Army and the fire. While some fled to Constantinople, which they believed to still be administered by the British, some fled directly to the UK. There was no record of missing British nationals during the fire. There were also eyewitnesses to the fire among the British refugees. According to The Times dated 6 October 1922:
Thirty-six refugees from Smyrna arrived at Plymouth to-day, having been sent home from Malta ... Mr. L. R. Whittall, barrister-at-law, who has been in Smyrna for some years said there was no evidence as to who set fire to the town, but the consensus of opinion was that it was Greek and Armenian incendiaries.
Casualties and refugees
The number of casualties from the fire is not precisely known, with estimates of up to 100,000 Greeks and Armenians killed. American historian Norman Naimark gives a figure of 10,000–15,000 dead, while historian Richard Clogg gives a figure of 30,000. Larger estimates include that of John Freely at 50,000 and Rudolf Rummel at 100,000.
Despite the fact that there were numerous ships from various Allied powers in the harbor of Smyrna, the vast majority of ships, citing "neutrality", did not pick up Greeks and Armenians who were forced to flee from the fire and the Turkish troops retaking the city after the Greek Army defeat. Military bands played loud music to drown out the screams of those who were drowning in the harbor and who were forcefully prevented from boarding Allied ships. A Japanese freighter, however, dumped all of its cargo and filled itself to the brink with refugees, taking them to the Greek port of Piraeus.
Many refugees were rescued via an impromptu relief flotilla organized by Asa Jennings. Other scholars give a different account of the events; they argue that the Turks first forbade foreign ships in the harbor to pick up the survivors, but, then, under pressure especially from Britain, France, and the United States, allowed the rescuing of all the Christians except males 17 to 45 years old, whom they aimed to deport into the interior, which "was regarded as a short life sentence to slavery under brutal masters, ended by mysterious death".
The number of refugees changes according to the source. Some contemporary newspapers claim that there were 400,000 Greek and Armenian refugees from Smyrna and the surrounding area who received Red Cross aid immediately after the destruction of the city. Stewart Matthew states that there were 250,000 refugees who were all non-Turks. Naimark gives a figure of 150,000–200,000 Greek refugees evacuated, with some 30,000 Greek and Armenian men deported to the interior of Anatolia, where most of them died under brutal conditions. Edward Hale Bierstadt and Helen Davidson Creighton say that there were at least 50,000 Greek and Armenian refugees. Some contemporary accounts also suggest the same number.
Aristotle Onassis, who was born in Smyrna and who later became the richest man in the world, was one of the Greek survivors of Smyrna. The various biographies of his life document aspects of his experiences during the Smyrna catastrophe. His life experiences were recreated in the movie called Onassis, The Richest Man in the World.
During the Smyrna catastrophe, the Onassis family lost substantial property holdings, which were either taken or given to Turks as bribes to secure their safety and freedom. They became refugees, fleeing to Greece after the fire. However, Aristotle Onassis stayed behind to save his father, who had been placed in a Turkish concentration camp. He was successful in saving his father's life, but during this period Onassis lost three uncles and one aunt with her husband Chrysostomos Konialidis and their daughter, who were burned to death when Turkish soldiers set fire to a church in Thyatira where 500 Christians had found shelter to avoid Turkish soldiers and the Great Fire of Smyrna.
The entire city suffered substantial damage to its infrastructure. The core of the city literally had to be rebuilt from the ashes. Today, 40 hectares of the former fire area is a vast park (Kültürpark) serving as Turkey's largest open air exhibition center, including the İzmir International Fair, among others.
After the war according to the first census in Turkey, in 1927 the total population of the city was 184,254 (88% were Muslims), Muslims were 162,144, others were 22,110.
In art, music, and literature
The novel Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides opens with the Great Fire of Smyrna. Additionally, Eugenides' first novel The Virgin Suicides makes mention of the horrors witnessed by the Greeks at Smyrna during this catastrophe.
Part of the novel "Birds Without Wings" by Louis De Bernieres takes place during the Great Fire of Smyrna.
Part of the novel "The Titan" by Fred Mustard Stewart takes place during the Great Fire of Smyrna.
The strange thing was, he said, how they screamed every night at midnight ... We were in the harbour and they were on the pier and at midnight they started screaming. We used to turn the searchlight on them to quiet them. That always did the trick.
Mehmet Coral's İzmir: 13 Eylül 1922 ("Izmir: 13 September 1922"), which was also published in the Greek language by Kedros of Athens/Greece under the title: Πολλές ζωές στη Σμύρνη (Many lives in Izmir).
Greek-American singer-songwriter Diamanda Galas's album Defixiones: Will & Testament is directly inspired by the Turkish atrocities committed against the Greek population at Smyrna. Galas is descended from family who originated from Smyrna.
Dr Jack Kavorkian a part-time painter in his time was known to be heavily inspired by the genocide committed against both Armenians and Greeks at Smyrna and featured these themes vividly in his works.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Great Fire of Smyrna.|
- Association of Smyrneans
- Remembering Smyrna/Izmir: Shared History, Shared Trauma
- Footage of the city before and after the Fire
- Smyrna 1922, a rare 35mm edited nitrate film, on Vimeo