Out of the Ashes of Smyrna: The Jewell of Asia Minor

Since the 18th century, the city of Smyrna, on the western shores of Asia Minor, was the most important commercial port in the Eastern Mediterranean. Through the early 20th century, both raw materials for industrial textiles as well as agricultural products were exported from Smyrna to the West. The resulting economic prosperity brought diverse populations to the region, such that by the early 20th century, Smyrna had become a multicultural society comprising Greeks, Ottomans, Armenians, Jews, Europeans, and Levantines. Within this multicultural society, it was the Greeks who dominated, both demographically and economically. This was at least partially facilitated by the Treaty of Paris (1856). When European powers assisted Turkey in the Crimean War with Russia, their help came attached with demands of the Ottoman government: reasonable rights and benefits for the Jewish and Christian citizens of the Ottoman Empire. Once these conditions were in place, non-Turkish elements were given the opportunity to thrive.

Thus, by the beginning of the 20th century, Asia Minor Greeks, who had demonstrated numerous special abilities in language, adaptability, creativity, and industriousness, applied these skills to systematic engagement in international commerce. This resulted in their quickly surpassing the level of mere collaborators with foreign merchants and European companies to becoming worthy rivals.

More generally, the continuous operation of eleven banks, interrupted just a few years before the destruction of Smyrna, the presence of 50 foreign insurance companies, petroleum and agricultural commodities companies, industry representatives and commercial houses from Europe and America, as well as Asia Minor Greeks’ investments in the purchase of land, all bear witness to the commercial and economic flourishing of Smyrna and its broader region. This dominance of the Greek element is due in great degree to the establishment of branch offices of the National Bank of Greece there. Thus Smyrna, an exceptional gravitational center for Greeks, presented the image of an international cosmopolitan city with the Greek element paramount in a modernized economy and an urbane society. 

Culture and Education

Within Greek identity, cosmopolitan Western cultural elements also blossomed in Smyrna. The French, British, Dutch, and other Western Europeans (who had settled in Smyrna since the 16th century mainly for commercial reasons) imported their cultures and customs as well. In the American, German, and French educational institutions of the city, children with foreign citizenship as well as those with Ottoman citizenship—nevertheless with Greek identity—all studied together. Such collaboration of Greeks and Europeans, combined with expanded economic growth and industrialization, led to greater urbanization of the ethnic-religious Greek community, a phenomenon reflected in customs, clothing, housing, social events, and music.

Other performing arts also contributed to this cultural ecosystem; Athenian drama troupes would come to Smyrna every year, performing new works of European theater repertory. As theater education had developed steadily since the 19th century, companies of excellent local actors also presented both European and Greek works.

Thus Greek culture and identity flourished in Smyrna in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, built on a foundation of Orthodox Christianity, the Greek language, education, and a historical connection to ancient culture. The awakening of a Greek national consciousness during the twilight of the Ottoman Empire developed mainly through the teaching and use of the Greek language, supported by the Orthodox Church. There were also a number of Associations and Fraternities that cultivated this Greek identity in Asia Minor. Their goal was to support Greek intellectual culture, the Greek language, and both new and traditional arts, in order to preserve their ancestral identity. Their work within the community promoted cultural, scientific and artistic endeavors as well as political impact. They strived to create a particular national consciousness to survive within the Ottoman state, resisting the homogenization and Turkification imposed by the political activists known as the Young Turks. Active support of the Church’s local archbishop, Metropolitan Chrysóstomos of Smyrna, was crucial to the flourishing of education and to the cultivation of a Greek national consciousness.

The Young Turks and Ethnic Homogeneity

Founded upon the principles of “Liberty, Equality, and Brotherhood” in 1908, the Young Turks Committee’s primary objective was the ouster of the Ottoman Sultanate, and initially included some Greeks and other non-Turkish Ottoman citizens among its ranks. However, there quickly formed two factions with vastly different priorities: for one, it was the cultivation and general implementation of equal rights for all; for the other, equal rights for Turks only, and removal of any non-Turkish ethnicities and identities from Turkey. The second faction won out, and their official motto soon abandoned any notion of brotherhood, changing to “Liberty, Equality, and Justice.” A young officer of the Sultanate named Mustafa Kemal (later dubbed “Atatürk”) would later take over the Young Turks’ movement and establish his own army.

In 1908, the Committee began preparations for political and economic measures which would gradually put increasing pressure on the Asia Minor Greek population, compelling some to flee. The Young Turks were determined to change the demographic map of the region drastically, a homogenization that would take place by assimilation, expulsion, or elimination of non-Turkish peoples—beginning with Greeks and Armenians, due to their high level of ethnic awakening. This phase of persecutions reached its climax in late May, 1914 in the massacre at Phocaea, Asia Minor where, having endured indescribable atrocities, none of its 8,000 resident Greek families would remain, having either fled or been killed.

Because of these continued persecutions, the Greek communities of Asia Minor desperately requested assistance and protection from the governments of Greece, from their fellow Orthodox Christians in Russia, and from the European Powers. Although these elements sent investigatory committees, they were presented a white-washed version of reality by local authorities, and ultimately took no measures. With the beginning of the Great War, their attention and forces were focused elsewhere, and the Greeks of Asia Minor were abandoned.

World War I, Foreign Flight, and Intense Persecution

During the First World War, Turkey sided with Germany. The Consuls General of the Entente or “Allied” countries left Turkey, allowing for even harsher measures of persecution of Greeks. This included the formation of so-called “work battalions” for Christian citizens who, although drafted into military service, were not allowed to carry weapons or to serve in the Ottoman army. Hardly work battalions, they were actually a slow death sentence.

While the world raged in war, in Turkey the Ottoman police force was reinforced by gang leaders. They operated unimpeded under specific orders that each one kill four to five Greeks, trumpeting that they would try to exterminate the “wretched nation of the Greeks.” Word of these orders reached the Greek government in February, 1919, greatly alarming Prime Minister Elefthérios Venizélos. He immediately requested the Paris Conference of Allied Powers to dispatch a detachment of forces to the cities of Smyrna, Aydin, Kydonies, and other Greek centers.

The Allies agreed to deploy a Greek campaign corps to Smyrna with Allied command of the area in May of 1919. Incidents of mass violence within the zone of Greek control were thus prevented, but the Asia Minor Greek population continued to live in uncertainty from 1919 to 1922. There was confusion as to the precise area to which the Supreme Allied Council authorized Greek military forces to advance. By late August 1921, they had reached the Sakarya River. The Ottomans, who never let go of the plan of expelling the Greeks, took advantage of this advance to inflame local fanatics and carried out violent attacks against the residents of Greek villages and cities in western Asia Minor. The Nationalist Kemal Movement was established (named after Mustafa Kemal Atatürk), elevating the fight against Greeks as its supreme goal.

In the international arena, Allies justified part of the Greeks’ claims with the signing of the Treaty of Sevres but immediately the intention to revise or cancel it was made clear. Meanwhile, in Greece, the elections of November 1920 saw the defeat of the political party of Venizélos and the return of King Constantine. This gave the Allies the pretext they needed for release from their obligations to the Greek mission and their abandoning Asia Minor. Repercussions for the Greek population of Asia Minor were especially dire: without Allied support, defeat of the Greek army and subsequent threat to Greek life from Turkish nationalist fanaticism loomed. Ultimately, for various reasons and in different ways, the European Powers and Soviet Republics would support Kemalist policies.

Smyrna is Terrorized

On Saturday, September 9, 1922, the Kemalist army entered Smyrna. Before its arrival, local Turkish loyalists went out equipped with weapons, bombs, flags, and clubs to join the army in the marketplace. They gave themselves over to pillaging and attacked many Christians they met on the street, beating them to death. With the pretext of inspecting for weapons and explosives, a crowd burst into Greek and Armenian homes and shops and forced the owners to hand over their money and jewels. Within three days, the entire marketplace of Greeks and Armenians had been robbed and emptied of all merchandise.

Kemalist soldiers stood on the corners of the streets and abused any passing Greeks, Armenians, and foreigners, stealing under threat of death whatever valuables they had on them. Greeks and Armenians holed up in their houses while poor persecuted refugees from the interior—those who were not hosted in the homes of friends or relatives—tried in desperation to get out of the streets. They sought shelter within the already-full churches, in schools and the Greek houses which would open doors to save their brethren. The Metropolis Cathedral of Saint Photeiní was one such sanctuary known to the Greek population. Also offering protection and aid were Catholic institutions, consulates, the Intercollegiate Educational Institution (an American entity), the Y.M.C.A. and Y.W.C.A, Saint Anthony Catholic hospital, and the British and Dutch hospitals. And yet, the joint mob of Kemalists and locals nevertheless broke into Greek public buildings and into Greek and Armenian churches and robbed, tormented, raped and murdered mercilessly before the eyes of the rest.

Murders of Christians were carried out heinously and reached severe proportions, as testified by witnesses. Counting Greek and Armenian corpses that morning, they saw streets painted in blood. These had suffered torture and atrocities, slaughter and gunfire. In methodical door-to-door attacks, many young girls and ladies were assaulted by Kemalists, both soldiers and civilians. Some were abandoned in a pitiful state, others disappeared into harems.

At midday on Sunday the 10th of September, Metropolitan Chrysóstomos was called to the Command Hall. That morning he had served liturgy in Saint Photeiní Cathedral. Under the guard of a Kemalist officer and from outside of the Cathedral he addressed a dense crowd of Smyrna residents and refugees. He commended them to fortitude and courage in their common ordeal; immediately he was led before Nouredin, the Smyrna Chief of Police, who handed him over to a frenzied mob. They dragged him through Turkish neighborhoods and to the marketplace; they pilloried him, they struck him, they humiliated him. Finally they dismembered his body and carried it around, cheering wildly through various districts.

The American Consul G. Horton had urged the Metropolitan to leave by an American Naval Destroyer, by which he would have arrived with his own convoy. The Catholic Archbishop had also begged him to leave and had secured for him a place on the ship. The French Consul finally offered him refuge in the French Consulate, but Chrysóstomos refused all of them, even though he knew well a martyr’s death awaited him. He did not abandon his flock in these tragic moments.

In the last days of the Greek presence in Asia Minor, fanatics inflicted martyrdom on more Orthodox bishops, whose works as religious and ethnic leaders had always been a stumbling-block to Turkicization. They buried alive Bishop Gregórios of Kydonion, they slaughtered Bishop Prokópios of Iconium and nailed horseshoes to the feet of Bishop Ambrose of Moschonesia. They showed particular rage at hundreds of Greek priests who had sought refuge in Smyrna. They skewered alive Father Archantzikákis member of the Hierarchical Council of Boutza, they strangled Deacon Gregórios of the Church of Saint Anna of Kordelios, they poured burning oil, covering the priest of the church of Saint Marina at Kokaryialí, they butchered the priest Neílo of the church of the Dormition of the Theotokos in Bournova and they drove nails into Deacon Melétios of the Church of Panayia Evangelistria. Armenian clergy suffered equally brutal torture. Over the course of those days, out of the 459 priests of the Province of Smyrna, 347 were killed.

The Burning of Smyrna

According to American eye-witnesses, on the 13th of September at noon, the Kemalists set fires in the Greek and Armenian districts of the city, forcing its 400,000 Greeks to run toward the wharf. At night, on the narrow strip of the Quai, the inhospitable night sea ahead and flames approaching behind, the Greeks were in a living Hell. Ships of the allied fleet in the open sea, following orders which they had received from their countries, observed “systematic political neutrality.”

There followed a mass arrest of Greek males aged 18-55 years—150,000 captives—taken away under torture into the interior with a “work battalion” as their destination. Finally, the command was given to empty Asia Minor of its Greek population within a 14-day timeline.

Now refugees, they arrived in Greece decimated and immediately passed through decontamination and quarantine. They settled in squalid facilities while disease literally plagued them. The Greek state was forced to receive the entire Greek surviving population of Asia Minor, Thrace and Pontos. This reception and resettlement of 1,222,000 refugees was the greatest challenge and simultaneous debt the Greek state had to face in 1920s. The work of this first settlement was taken up by a state which, having already endured ten years of endless military encounters, was in a pitiable economic state and unprepared for the magnitude of the problem.

From the moment the refugee population regained strength, however, it took on significant responsibilities. The community organization system of the Greeks from Asia Minor, Pontos and Thrace guided a unifying sense of organization and joint solution for their problems within Greece. Their education, their knowledge of languages and their level of spirituality contributed to the cultivation of sciences, of arts and letters, and to the creation of the new Greek spirit of contemporary Greece which, in the end, evolved from the marriage of the Asia Minor element with the native Greek.

The Asia Minor Greeks’ persecution is not merely an issue of bilateral Greek-Turkish relations; neither is it simply a point of determining the spheres of influence of various international Powers. Rather, above all, it speaks to the innumerable crimes against humanity committed during the creation of nation-states in southeastern Europe.

—Evangelia Boubougiatzi Boyer, Ph.D.


Byzantine Chant in Asia Minor

This long, harrowing, tragic story is our backdrop as we perform “Out of the Ashes of Smyrna.” Asia Minor’s cultural vibrancy with which we began our narrative produced a flurry of composition and publication of Byzantine Chant in the mid-to-late 19th and early 20th centuries. Containing both traditional Byzantine Chant and new work by composers working within the tradition, these publications served to conserve the art form on the one hand while expanding its creative boundaries on the other. The cantors and composers from Smyrna and other areas in Asia Minor, Pontos, and Eastern Thrace—wholly connected to, yet ultimately outside the central, conservative presence of Constantinople—cultivated and developed a style of composition which unabashedly incorporated musical elements from outside the central tradition, both from East and from West. The result is a musical form which, although still in the idiom of Byzantine Chant, tests (and occasionally breaks) its boundaries of modal theory, tuning structure, vocal range, and virtuosity. If the Patriarchal cantors of 19th-century Constantinople were the stalwart defenders of the citadel, then the Smyrnean cantors of the same era were the explorers and scouts, expanding the range and reach of their musical kingdom. They regularly composed ecclesiastical chant in the Maqam system of Ottoman classical music, incorporating not only its modal structures, but often its melodic turns and rhythmic nuances. During the 19th century, they considered Ottoman classical music to be theirs as much as Byzantine Chant was. It was all part of their sound world and culture.

This contrast of approach was not always seen in a positive light by the Patriarchal cantors. Angelos Voudoúris, first Doméstikos, or assistant cantor, to the Protopsáltis of the Patriarchate, gives us this account from a visit to Smyrna:

For the months of June, July, and August of 1919, the Greek community went to Smyrna. To benefit from this opportunity, we would regularly visit the churches there every Sunday and feast day in order to listen to the music teachers [cantors] of Smyrna. I made note of the fact that all of them had, in general, departed significantly from the cantors of Constantinople in their execution of ecclesiastical psalmody. I cannot understand why, but their approach to ecclesiastical music here in Ionia [the region including and to the south and west of Smyrna (today, İzmir)] is melodically different. There is something eastern, oriental, that dominates it. And the cantors here simply do not have the voice or the instrument [voice] that Constantinopolitan cantors have. Smyrna is a great city by all accounts. It has passed on its lights to other cities and towns in its area; it has also passed on its hearth and music to the cantors of the region. Here they persist in this peculiar way of executing the ecclesiastical hymns. It is clear that this approach has been maintained and passed on from the time of Protopsáltis Nikólaos of the Metropolis Church of St. Photeiní, and later by his student, Protopsáltis M. Misailídis. In my opinion, the character of this different approach to the execution of the music is a result of these two teachers. The subsequent cantors of Smyrna and the surrounding areas were their direct students. It seems no cantor is able to chant in Smyrna for any length of time without this musical environment affecting him. The Smyrnean cantorial style has distanced the melody of the music from the style of the Great Church. The Smyrnean cantors—no matter how beautiful their voices—simply do not sound good to the Constantinopolitan ear; they all chant, but they chant “Smyrneïká.” (Μουσικολογικά Απομνημονεύματα “Musicological Memoirs,” τ. 18, §53 Athens, 1998)

Indeed, the difference is striking, as will be evident in our program’s repertoire.

It was precisely the multicultural, eclectic way of life that developed in Smyrna and its surrounding areas that allowed for the music’s development in its expansive, experimental way. The cantors of Constantinople had ownership of the musical tradition and guarded it closely; the Smyrnean cantors, it seems, likewise had ownership of the tradition, but were fearless about testing its boundaries. When the Greek-Turkish population exchange was implemented in 1923, cantors from both the Constantinopolitan and Smyrnean traditions suddenly found themselves in mainland Greece, a country which, due to its self-reinvention as a member of Western Europe, had all but lost its musical connection to its Byzantine heritage. The most popular music was operetta, and most churches in Greece had cantors or choirs singing either the heavily Slavic-influenced music of the Greek Royal Chapel, or the harmonized melodies of John Sakellarides, the great westernizer. The few cantors that chanted both in Smyrna and in Greece, including Pétros Manéas and Michaél Perpiniás, not only brought the Smyrnean tradition with them, but also recorded it for posterity, both in written scores and in sound recordings.

As horrific as the burning of Smyrna, the Greco-Turkish War, and the population exchange were, had it not been for the resulting influx of refugees into mainland Greece, Byzantine Music likely would have never found a foothold there again. One hundred years later, we now benefit from those cantors’ holding fast to their traditions in their particular ways. Had it not been for both the Constantinopolitan and Smyrnean approaches, we would not have the melodic tradition we have today.

—John Michael Boyer