Sydney Morning Herald (Australia)
July 12, 2008 Saturday
Remembering paradise: forever lost in the flames;
Reviewed by Michael Sexton Michael Sexton, SC, is the NSW Solicitor-General.
By Giles Milton
Sceptre, 426pp, $35
The Bridge: A Journey Between Orient And Occident
By Geert Mak
Harvill Secker, 151pp, $29.95
The Collector Of Worlds
By Iliya Troyanov
Faber & Faber, 454pp, $32.95
Paradise Lost: Smyrna 1922: The Destruction Of Islam’s City Of
THESE three books are about the East – a different world, as Kipling
In 1920, Smyrna was a flourishing city on Turkey’s Aegean
coastline. Its population of more than half a million was a mixture of
Greeks, Levantines, Jews, Armenians and Turks. In September 1922 the
Turkish army razed it to the ground.
Giles Milton has written a vivid and moving account of the events
leading up to the city’s extinction and the experiences of its
inhabitants when it was occupied. Smyrna’s fate had its origins in
Turkey’s involvement in the Great War on the losing side.
In 1920, the victors awarded the city and the surrounding hinterland
to Greece. But in September 1922, the Greek army foolishly advanced
deep into the Turkish interior and suffered a massive defeat. Greek
soldiers and administrators were evacuated from the coast but Smyrna’s
population was swollen by refugees when the Turkish cavalry entered
the city. These soldiers represented a regime that had killed up to
1.5 million Armenians in 1916 by driving them into the desert. It was
hardly a surprise, therefore, when the killing and looting started.
Soon there were half a million people on the city’s quay, trapped
between the harbour and the huge fire behind them. The Turkish troops
had sprayed petrol on buildings and torched them. Most people were
ultimately evacuated on Greek ships, largely through the efforts of
Asa Jennings, an American working in Smyrna with the YMCA. As the book
makes clear, Jennings was the real hero of those dreadful days but he
was not able to save the 100,000 men and boys who were deported to the
interior and never seen again.
Smyrna itself was effectively burnt to the ground. Photos of the ruins
look like the aftermath of an atomic blast. The coda to this terrible
tale was that in 1923, Turkey’s remaining non-Muslim population of 1.2
million were removed to Greece and 400,000 Muslims living in Greece
were transported to Turkey. As the author remarks, this was probably
the largest ever exercise in ethnic cleansing.
By writing about Smyrna, Milton has added his name to a list of
authors, including Nobel Prize-winner Orhan Pamuk, who have written
about the city. In Pamuk’s work, one finds a Turkish perspective,
albeit that of a Westernised intellectual: for him, the city is a ruin
haunted by the ghosts of old Turkey’s cosmopolitan past and a reproach
to its nationalist and militarist present.
Geert Mak’s small book is also a tale of Turkey. It takes its title
from the bridge over the river that divides the old city of Istanbul
from its more Western quarter. The city itself climbs up the hills
along the Bosporus, the passage between the Black Sea and the
The book looks at those who inhabit the bridge in daylight hours –
fishermen, tea merchants, booksellers, pickpockets. The bridge was
first built in 1845 and has had its own daily life ever since.
But the book is not only about the bridge. It is also a short history
of Istanbul in its previous guises of Constantinople and Byzantium. In
looking at some aspects of modern Turkey, Mak notes particularly the
absence of the Western notions of freedom of speech and freedom of
opinion. They simply do not exist in this world where any criticism of
state institutions is met by criminal prosecution.
Iliya Troyanov’s novel is based on the life of Sir Richard Burton, one
of the most extraordinary products of Victorian England. In the early
1850s he was one of the first Westerners, disguised as an Arab, to
make the Hajj – the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina. As an
explorer in the late 1850s, he discovered Lake Victoria and Lake
Tanganyika while searching for the sources of the Nile in central
Africa. He was also a soldier, a poet and a linguist who made the
first translation of The Arabian Nights into English.
The novel is told through the eyes of Burton’s Indian servant, then
his African guide. Burton’s exploits are the stuff of legend but in
many ways, this is not an easy book to read. The final third, which
deals with the journey into central Africa, carries the reader along
on the journey but in the earlier parts of the book, the narrative
often seems becalmed. This may be partly the result of the novel being
a translation from German but, even allowing for this, there are many
examples of overwriting.