TURKEY’S GLOBAL CITY
By Philip Mansel
Le Monde Diplomatique
March 3 2008
After almost of century of Turkish dominance, and decades of ruination
followed by neglect, Izmir has regained its modern, Mediterranean,
international identity. Europe and Asia intertwined here in the past,
and maybe will do so again in the future.
Izmir – Asian and European, Greek and Turkish, Christian and Muslim –
cannot be categorised. Even its name is of mixed origin. As Istanbul
comes from the Greek eis teen polis, into the city, so Izmir comes
from eis teen Smyrna, into Smyrna. Legendarily founded by ancient
Greek colonists, Smyrna became one of the most brilliant of their
cities in Anatolia, a nursery of mathematics. It was the largest and
most Romanised of the cities of Asia Minor under the Romans, with
many temples and a vast theatre, "the joy of Asia and the ornament
of the Empire". Saint Paul founded an early church there on his visit
in 53-56 AD.
Pillage and decay were to be its fate – attacked by Seljuk Turks
(1082), the Genoese (1261), the Knights of Saint John (1344), Timur
(1402), and Venice (1472); after the 15th century Izmir dwindled to
a small market town in the Ottoman empire, serving the surrounding
region. In 1580 it had just 2,000 inhabitants.
Izmir owed its rebirth after 1600 to its geographical position, at the
end of a long gulf on the coast of Anatolia where the Mediterranean
projects deepest into the westernmost point of Asia.
The gulf has some of the finest anchorage on the coast and can
receive the largest ships. So Izmir enjoyed a second golden age, as
the pearl of the Levant and the eye of Asia. Merchants made Izmir;
they wanted to evade the Ottoman government’s customs dues and price
restrictions. As early as 1574 Istanbul suffered shortages because
Ottoman ships, sailing from Egypt with provisions for the capital,
unloaded them at Izmir, where they could get better prices than those
imposed at official weighing-stations.
Then, as now, cotton and figs were Izmir’s principal products.
Ripened in the valleys of Anatolia, figs were, and still are, dried,
packed and exported from Izmir to Istanbul and Europe. From the
start, the overseas trade was dominated by foreigners. On his way to
Jerusalem in 1621, Louis Deshayes de Courmenin noted that while Turks,
Greeks and Jews lived inland in separate districts, foreign merchants’
residences lined the seafront and they lived in great freedom.
‘Smyrna, what wealth!’ The arrival of consuls confirmed that Izmir
was becoming international and by 1630 it had Venetian, Dutch, English
and French consuls. The French consul lived like a king, with his own
Janissary guards, keeping open house for visiting Frenchmen and running
an elaborate and profitable system to buy back Turkish slaves captured
by the Knights of Malta. In the 1670s the great Ottoman writer Evliya
Celebi was impressed by the wealth of the Franks and the power of the
consuls: "The ships of the Franks come so often that half of the city
of Izmir is like Firengistan [Europe]. If someone hits an infidel,
everyone immediately surrounds him and takes him and brings him to
the consular judge or the infidels execute him… the Muslim people
become invisible so… it seems a dark Frank place."
Evliya praised Izmir as the most celebrated port in the empire because
of the number of ships loading and unloading. When foreign fleets
sailed in from Marseille, Amsterdam or London, thousands of small
boats rushed out, eager to cut out the middle man, and exchange the
produce of Asia – silk and camel hair, opium, fresh mastic, grapes
and figs – for the manufactures of Europe: cloth, tin and household
goods such as mirrors, plates, needles and knives. Izmir was where
Asia came shopping for Europe, and vice versa. It was also the hub
of a vast network of land routes by camel and mule train.
Caravans from Aleppo or Persia might have 1,500 camels. People had to
stand aside in the lanes as they passed, or knelt for unloading. But
even the main street of the Frank district, parallel to the coast,
was dirty, ill-paved and narrow with a gutter down the middle. There
were no large streets or squares.
Izmir was always a city of churches and synagogues, as well as
mosques, and astonished Europeans with its apparent complete freedom of
religion (also true of other cities of the Levant). By 1700 it had 19
mosques, three Latin, two Greek and two Armenian churches, and eight
synagogues. In Frank Street you might be in a Christian country, and
some European merchants never learnt Turkish since they did business
in Italian through Jewish intermediaries. Izmir’s taverns were famous,
especially during carnival. People danced in French, Turkish or Greek
styles with such frenzy that some Turks thought them mad. Izmir’s
women, combining the grace of Italians, the vivacity of Greeks, and the
stately tournure of Ottomans, had an almost irresistible fascination.
The population grew from 5,000 in 1600 to 100,000 in 1700 – perhaps
seven Turks to two Greeks, one Armenian and one Jew. In the 18th
century, France dominated the foreign trade, as it did the foreign
relations, of the Ottoman empire. Between 1748 and 1789 one in four
ships leaving Marseille went to Izmir – the biggest of all ports for
French international trade, and the largest and wealthiest port in
the Ottoman empire. (There are still businessmen living in Izmir,
members of the Guys, Pagy and Giraud families, whose ancestors came
there in the 18th century; though they now feel they are the last of
their kind.) "Smyrna, what wealth!" said Tsar Alexander I to Napoleon
I’s ambassador in 1808, as they were planning the partition of the
The need to reinvent itself Izmir was also a city of earthquakes,
plagues, fires and massacres so frequent that only its inhabitants’
resilience, and the unsuitability of rival ports, can explain its
success. There were constant plague outbreaks – that of 1739-42
killed 20% of the population; another between 1759 and 1765 about
50%; between 1812-15 45,000 died. There were earthquakes in 1688,
and 1788 (in which 15,000 died). Fires swept the city in 1742, 1752
and 1763. Other disasters were man-made.
Below the smiling surface lay a volcano.
The French orientalist Antoine Galland, who visited in 1673, attributed
the relative peace in which the different communities co-existed
to the rigour of Ottoman laws: in their hearts even Christians of
different sects, as well as Muslims, Christians and Jews, hated
each other mortally and all the more fiercely for being obliged to
pretend not to. Three reigns of terror by Muslim mobs or soldiers, in
1770, 1797 and 1821, were provoked by Christian acts of aggression –
a Russian naval victory in the Aegean, a murder, and the Greek war
of independence. Thousands of Christians were killed, proving the
fragility of Levantine cities.
Yet Izmir always reinvented itself. On pilgrimage to Jerusalem
in 1806, Francois-Rene Chateaubriand compared Izmir to Paris, "an
oasis of civilization, a Palmyra in the middle of the deserts of
barbarism." Izmir was also becoming a great Greek city. Trade in the
Ottoman empire was the basis of the Greek revival. Greek merchants of
Izmir became rich enough to found modern schools and companies there.
Even after the proclamation of Greek independence in 1829, thousands
of Greeks came to work in Izmir. They preferred groaning under the
Turkish yoke and making a decent living to independence in poverty.
By the mid 19th century, for the first time since the 14th century,
the number of Greeks in Izmir surpassed the number of Turks – 55,000
to 45,000 (plus 13,000 Jews, 12,000 Franks and 5,000 Armenians). The
Turks called it Gavur Izmir (infidel Izmir), the Greeks sweet-smelling
Lighthouse of the empire As it became richer and larger in the 19th
century, Izmir began to regard itself as the lighthouse of the Ottoman
empire. Against British opposition, a new quay and port were was built
by the great French firm of Dussaud Frères in 1869-75; the biggest such
project in Ottoman history. Soon the Cordon was lined with warehouses,
offices and elegant hotels, cafes and theatres: Cafe de Paris, the
Sporting Club, the Hotel Kraemer, the Hôtel des Deux Augustes.
Colonel Playfair wrote in 1881: "The quay recently constructed of
massive stonework 60 foot wide and nearly 2 miles in length is the
favourite promenade in the evenings and up to a late hour at night.
The numerous cafes along it are brilliantly lit up and form the
rendezvous of motley costumed crowds while strains of oriental as
well as European music are heard on all sides." Cafes offered Turkish,
Arab, Armenian and European music to please customers.
Izmir had the Ottoman empire’s first local newspaper, first American
schools, first racecourse, first railway, first football team,
first motor car and first cinema. Old postcards show the frenetic
shipping activity. The shops along Frank Street – Bon Marche, Petit
Louvre – were so good that Istanbul brides came to Izmir to buy
Turks were also becoming rich through the trade of Izmir: for example,
the Ushakizade family, one of whom, the writer Halid Ziya, became the
sultan’s principal secretary. Another, Muammar Bey, became mayor in
1911 and lived in an elegant French-style villa – now a museum -in the
suburb of Goztepe. His daughter Latife Hanim married Mustafa Kemal –
Ataturk. In no city in the world, remembered the US consul George
Horton, "did East and West mingle physically in so spectacular a
manner as at Smyrna".
Poison of nationalism But Izmir contained the seeds of its own
destruction and history illustrates the poison of nationalism. As
they prospered, some Izmir Greeks became more open in their desire
to undermine the Ottoman empire. In 1897 many volunteered for the
Greek army in a war against the Ottoman empire. Greeks also started
frequent anti-Jewish riots, caused by rumours of the ritual murder
of Greek children. In 1872 the governor had to cordon off the Jewish
quarter with police to protect it from Greek bands who had already
killed several Jews.
The empire generally ruled with a light hand. On some 14 July
celebrations, French consuls boasted, there were so many French
flags and orchestras playing the Marseillaise that Izmir appeared to
be a French city. French-connected families included the Armenian
Balladurs: Edouard Balladur, who became prime minister of France,
was born in Izmir in 1929.
Nevertheless, after the Turkish defeat in the Balkan wars in
1912-13 and the settlement of thousands of Turks from the Balkans
in Anatolia, tensions increased. The end for Gavur Izmir began with
the arrival on 15 May 1919 of ships with 13,000 Greek troops under
British protection. Playing with nations, Lloyd George believed in
"a new Greek empire in the East friendly to Britain". The Greek prime
minister Eleftherios Venizelos believed that "Greece can only find
her real future from the moment when she is astride the Aegean".
After the Greeks landed, hundred of Turkish troops were slaughtered
and humiliated along the quay. Each community thought of its national
interests, not of the future of the city. The Greek occupation of
Izmir and the advance of Greek forces deep into Anatolia was the best
recruiting agent for Ataturk, who had landed at Samsun, on the Black
Sea, four days after the Greeks in Izmir. Without it, he later said,
Turks might have gone on sleeping.
In 1920 Greek officials formally took over administration of the
city and province, although the latter had a Turkish majority. The
outlook seemed brilliant. Of the 27 newspapers published in Izmir
in 1919, 11 were in Greek, seven Turkish, five Jewish (Hebrew or
Ladino), five in Armenian and five in French. That year 7,000 ships
docked. The city had 15 cinemas, 513 cafes, 226 tavernas, 43 beer
halls and eight dance halls. But a British intelligence report said
"the fundamental hostility existing between the two races has been
much intensified by the mere presence of the Greeks [in occupation]".
In August 1922 the Greek army in Anatolia, which had almost reached
Ankara, was defeated by Mustafa Kemal. Greek soldiers, divided,
demoralised and desperate to get home, burnt and looted Turkish towns
and villages, including Manisa and Aydin, killing many inhabitants.
In Izmir life had continued as normal. The fig crop was being unloaded
on the quay. Rigoletto and La Traviata were being performed at the
Sporting Club by a visiting Italian troupe.
The arrival of Ataturk News of the Greek rout filled the city with
dread. The rich began to leave. On 8 September the Greek authorities
and army embarked with their archives, abandoning those they had
come to liberate. On 9 September Mustafa Kemal’s army entered the
city, as photographs make clear, in perfect order. The next day Kemal
entered the city. He had a drink at the Hotel Kraemer on the Cordon,
visited the Konak to confer with Nurettin Pasha whom he had placed
in command of the city, then withdrew to a villa in Karshiyaka,
the other side of the bay.
Looting and killing by Turks began in the Armenian quarter.
On 13 September a fire broke out near the Armenian quarter – possibly
started, certainly encouraged, by Turkish soldiers, regular and
irregular. The Turkish authorities blamed Armenians or Greeks. The
fire brigade was shot at as it tried to put out the fire. A change in
wind and a firestorm helped it spread. Soon the warehouses, hotels
and offices lining the quay, including the Sporting Club and the
Hotel Kraemer, were a wall of fire 4km long and 30 metres high.
As they had during massacres in 1821 and 1797, Christians fled to the
quay, where most Izmir Armenians and many Greeks were killed. The
screams of refugees from inland Anatolia as well as from Izmir and
the rattle of pistol and rifle shots could not drown out the roar
of the fire and the crash of falling buildings. Britain, America,
France and Italy had already evacuated their nationals. Finally, in
some cases compelled by their horrified crews, the foreign battleships
in the harbour took on board those refugees who did not drown while
trying to reach them.
Throughout September, about 221,000 refugees were taken off the
Cordon. Within a month the city had changed character. Surveying the
flames from the Ushakizades’ villa where he was courting Latife Hanim
and celebrating his victory, Mustafa Kemal said, (according to his
recent biographer Andrew Mango): "Let it burn. Let it crash down."
The Turkish journalist Falih Rifki Atay, who had come to interview
Kemal, noted: "Although the burning of the city was a grievous loss,
Muslim Izmir did not lose any of the joy of victory." Turkish flags
were hung in the streets.
Mustafa Kemal later 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 was not a simple
urge to destroy. Part of it depended on a feeling of inferiority –
as if anywhere that resembled Europe was destined to remain Christian
and foreign and be denied to the Turks, although previously the Ottoman
government and Muslim population had enjoyed, protected and profited
from Gavur Izmir.
Another reason was fear. The Greek army had nearly won. The minority
problem could be eliminated forever. After 15 October thousands of
remaining Greek and Armenian men were marched into the interior in
labour battalions, in theory to rebuild villages the Greek army had
destroyed. Most were never seen again.
Greek refugees from Izmir brought many things to Nea Smyrna (a suburb
of Athens where they settled), and elsewhere: radical views which
helped overthrow the monarchy and establish the Greek Communist party;
the haunting Sufi-influenced rembetiko music of Anatolia; commercial
skills; and memories of a paradise lost.
The centre of the city was ruin and rubble for years, but in all only
14,000 of 43,000 houses had been destroyed. Slowly trade revived with
government encouragement. By 1925 the president of the Izmir Chamber
of Commerce stated that Turkish businessmen had opened 54 new stores.
A trade fair started in 1932, in the culture park laid out where the
Greek district had been. The centre was given a more spacious layout
(in part due to the great French urbanist Henri Prost), and new
Today, with a population of three million, Izmir has recovered its
prosperity and identity. The cafe-lined Cordon has more in common
with other Mediterranean, even Greek, cities than with some inland
Turkish cities. Izmir is one of the few cities in Turkey to have
voted against the current post-Islamist government and in favour
of the Republican People’s Party, the heir to Kemal’s modernising
secularism. It is again, as it was for most of the past 400 years,
both a great Turkish and a great European city.