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End of an era
May 1st 2008
The Economist print edition
WHEN Smyrna-modern Izmir-fell to the Turkish army in 1922, and much of
it was destroyed by fire, the city’s role as a bastion of Greek and
Christian culture, going back nearly 2,000 years, came to an abrupt
end. Before that, the port had been home to a diverse and cosmopolitan
population; by the standards of the region, it was a beacon of
tolerance and prosperity.
In addition to the Greeks, Armenians, Jews and Turks, there were also
Americans and Britons and what Giles Milton calls the "Levantines",
rich families of European descent, who spoke half a dozen languages
and occupied vast villas. Their dynasties dominated the trade and
industry of the region. Some (like the Whittalls) retained British
nationality over generations of Ottoman life, and it is their
English-language diaries, letters and documents that provide Mr Milton
with his best material. Although this slant is unrepresentatively
British and privileged-lots of parties and picnics-it allows the
author to be fair towards the Greeks and the Turks, who still blame
one another entirely for the disaster.
The city’s destruction-still known in Greece as "the catastrophe"-had
its roots in the first world war and the effort by the great powers
to grab pieces of the disintegrating Ottoman empire.
Britain, America and France backed Greece’s charismatic leader,
Eleftherios Venizelos, in his pursuit of the megali idea ("great
idea"), the dream of creating a greater Greece by occupying Smyrna and
swathes of Anatolia. Having licensed a war by proxy, the allies in
varying degrees turned cool on it. They looked on passively as Mustafa
Kemal (later Ataturk, republican Turkey’s founder) and his troops
routed the Greeks from Anatolia and reoccupied Smyrna, bent on revenge
for Greek atrocities in the city and further east.
The port was ransacked and looted for days. Women were raped and
mutilated, children were beheaded and more than 100,000 people
killed. Meanwhile, 21 allied warships sat in the harbour. Hundreds of
thousands of refugees were trapped on the city’s quayside, yet
officers on the ships still dressed for dinner and ordered louder
music to drown out the screams. "Paradise Lost" is a timely reminder
of the appalling cost of expansionist political ambitions; it tells a
fascinating story with clarity and insight.