Today marks 92 years since the Catastrophe of Smyrna (Izmir) and the Great Fire that destroyed the city, causing the majority of Greeks in Asia Minor to flee their homes and seek shelter in Greece and other countries.
Smyrna used to be one of the wealthiest cities of the Ottoman Empire and hosted one of the largest populations of Greeks and Armenians. During the Greco-Turkish War from 1919 to 1922, Greek armed forces settled in Smyrna on May 15, 1919. When the Turkish army regained control of the city on September 9, 1922, a large number of Greeks and Armenians were killed as part of the Greek genocide from 1914 to 1923.
Even though no one can know for sure when the Great Fire of Smyrna started, historians believe that it was on September 13, and it burned for almost nine days, until it was finally extinguished on September 22. Greeks and Armenians crammed by the waterfront, where they had to live under horrid conditions for almost two weeks, while others managed to escape. They boarded Greek and international ships which led them to safety. In total, approximately 400,000 Smyrna citizens were forced to abandon their homes, while the total estimated number of Greeks and Armenians who were killed during the Great Fire ranges from 10,000 to 100,000. One of the survivors of the Catastrophe was Aristotle Onassis.
The multicultural city of Smyrna was turned to ashes with its infrastructure suffering substantial damage. The inner center, which housed many commercial and private buildings, had to be completely rebuilt, while several historical monuments were lost in the fire. Turkish soldiers murdered many non-Muslims, while others, mostly strong and capable men, were forced to join labor battalions, the so-called “amele taburu.”
The Great Fire of Smyrna was the peak of the Asia Minor Catastrophe, bringing an end to the 3,000-year Greek presence on Anatolia’s Aegean shore and shifting the population ratio between Muslims and non-Muslims. The first census following the War (1927) showed an 88% Muslim population.
Chronologically, the events that took place and led to the dreadful 1922 catastrophe were:
August 26, 1922
The Turkish army, well-trained and supplied by France and Italy, finally launched a counter-attack and the major Greek defense positions were overrun.
August 30, 1922
Approximately 200,000 strong, the Greek army was routed at the Battle of Dumlupinar, with half of its soldiers captured or slain and equipment lost.
September 1, 1922
Kemal Ataturk issued his famous order: “Armies, your first goal is the Mediterranean, Forward!”
September 6, 1922
There were 21 war ships in the harbor, with 11 British, 5 French, 1 Italian, 2 US and more to come. Some 50,000 Greek troops and thousands of refugees poured into Smyrna and congregated on the quay side. The interior was in complete turmoil. Greek ships in the bay were taking away the soldiers as quickly as they could.
September 7, 1922
The allies had strict orders not to intervene in Turkish internal affairs. Their responsibilities lay with their national citizens. There were some 150,000 homeless refugees in Smyrna.
September 9, 1922
After the resignation of the Greek government in Athens, Turkish cavalry entered into Smyrna. By dusk, the Turkish army had approached the city from all sides and violence broke out. There was looting towards rich and poor alike. A large number of Greek soldiers had not managed to embark and settled old scores in a killing spree.
September 10, 1922
There was large-scale looting, raping, mutilating and killing of Armenians and Greeks. The Armenian quarter was systematically plundered. Kemal’s cortege entered Smyrna through the Turkish quarter where the cavalry awaited him. A battle raged with a battalion of 6,000 Greek soldiers heading to the coast. That last vestige of the Greek army surrendered and taken prisoners. Metropolitan Chryssostomos was murdered by a mob. There was no authority over men brutalized by years of war. Atrocities were committed in full view of the war ships. The streets and harbor were filled with bloated corpses.
September 11, 1922
The situation was deteriorating as more and more refugees made their way to Smyrna.
September 12, 1922
More homeless, terror-stricken, refugees continued to arrive and camp out in the streets. They were immediate victims of lawless elements of the Turkish army. At that time, some 7,000 British troops were stationed in Constantinople. Kemal stated: “We must have our capital and if Western Powers will not hand it over, I shall be obliged to march on Constantinople.” Smyrna was plunged into anarchy – desultory shooting, looting and rape all around. The allied ships remained under orders not to take any Greeks or Armenians. However, it is likely that the Turks would not have permitted them to leave.
September 13, 1922
The allies began evacuating their nationals. The city’s population swelled to over 700,000 people. Yet, Smyrna’s non-Muslims were confident that the warships of the Allied fleet would protect them. They hoped Kemal would view this still prosperous city as an asset to the new republic. They were, however, unprepared for the horror unleashed upon them. Turkish troops set the Armenian quarter alight. The quay side became crowded with half a million refugees with the fires raging behind them. The city burned for four days.
People were in danger of being burned alive as the fire had reached the waterfront. The ships moved 250 yards further out to avoid the intense heat. The ships’ bands struck-up tunes to drown-out the screams and shrill cries of a frantic mob on the quay side. A British admiral had a dramatic change of heart and ordered all available boats to be lowered and dispatched to the quay side. Total chaos followed. Yet, one by one, the ships were overflowing with Greeks and Armenians. The harbor and streets were filled with bloated corpses: people, dogs, horses. The stench of burning flesh prevailed.
September 14, 1922
The rescue mission continued and room was found for 20,000 people. The war ships sailed to Athens which was already crowded with refugees and not equipped to deal with an influx of hundreds of thousands of others.
September 15-18, 1922
Refugees continued to arrive in Smyrna. There was hunger, thirst and a sanitary crisis. Kemal decreed that any refugee in Smyrna on October 1 would be deported to central Anatolia. But deportations began immediately. All Christians of military age were deemed an enemy. The forced marches were similar to those of the deportations of 1915. Ultimately, 100,000 people were killed and 160,000 deported to the interior.