On this day in 1922, the Great Fire of Smyrna ended, having raged for nine days. Smyrna, modern day Izmir, was a historically diverse city in Turkey which had a large Greek and Armenian population, with a Christian majority. In September 1922, towards the end of the Greco-Turkish War, Turkish forces under the command of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk regained control of the city from Greece, and initiated a campaign of violence against non-Muslims. By this time, 700,000 people were in Smyrna, including thousands of refugees from the war. On September 13th, troops set the Armenian quarter alight, and went on a rampage of rape, pillage, and murder, hoping to drive the Christian population out of the city. Half a million Greeks and Armenians were forced to the quayside, where they gathered for protection from the spreading flames and sought a way to escape. There were 21 international battleships in the harbour - from Britain, France, and America - but they had orders not to intervene for fear of jeopardising trade interests with Turkey, leaving the Greeks and Armenians to perish on the waterfront. As more refugees arrived in Smyrna, Atatürk ordered new arrivals to be deported, leading to forced marches which killed thousands of people. The fire finally ended on September 22nd, but the damage was permanent. The ancient Armenian and Greek quarters of the city were completely destroyed, tens of thousands of Greeks and Armenians had been killed, and many more were left homeless. After the fire, around 150,000 refugees were evacuated. While some sources insist the Greeks started the fire, eyewitness reports and subsequent historical investigations have concluded that the fire was a deliberate act by the Turkish army, and the final event of the Armenian Genocide. The Great Fire of Smyrna is little acknowledged in historical memory, mostly due to a cover-up attempt by Turkish and western governments.
The Great Fire of Smyrna or the Catastrophe of Smyrna, 13th September 1922
At the beginning of the 20th century, the great city of Smyrna on the Anatolian coast was one of the world’s richest, most cosmopolitan and ethnically diverse metropolises – containing large Armenian and Jewish communities, as well as twice as many Greeks as then lived in Athens. Indeed, as the possible birth place of Homer himself, Greece had a long and deeply-embedded history with this most ancient city. But on September 13th 1922, victorious Turkish soldiers at the end of the three-year-long Greco-Turkish War lit fire to Smyrna’s Armenian and Greek quarters and went on a rampage of rape, pillage and mass murder.
One of the first people to notice the outbreak of fire was Miss Minnie Mills, the director of the American Collegiate Institute for Girls. She had just finished her lunch when she noticed that one of the neighboring buildings was burning. She stood up to have a closer look and was shocked by what she witnessed. “I saw with my own eyes a Turkish officer enter the house with small tins of petroleum or benzine and in a few minutes the house was in flames.” She was not the only one at the institute to see the outbreak of fire. “Our teachers and girls saw Turks in regular soldiers’ uniforms and in several cases in officers’ uniforms, using long sticks with rags at the end which were dipped in a can of liquid and carried into houses which were soon burning.”
Soon, all but the Turkish quarter of the city was in flames as hundreds of thousands of refugees crowded the waterfront, desperate to escape. In the harbour were no less than twenty-one international battleships – including eleven British, five French and three large American destroyers. But on orders of their respective governments anxious to protect oil and trade interests in the area, all watched on passively as thousands of people were massacred in cold blood.
All morning the glow and then the flames of burning Smyrna could be seen. We arrived about an hour before dawn and the scene was indescribable. The entire city was ablaze and the harbor was light as day. Thousands of homeless refugees were surging back and forth on the blistering quay - panic stricken to the point of insanity. The heartrending shrieks of women and children were painful to hear. In a frenzy they would throw themselves into the water and some would reach the ship. To attempt to land a boat would have been disastrous. Several boats tried and were immediately stopped by the mad rush of a howling mob…The crowds along the quay beyond the fire were so thick and tried so desperately to close abreast the men-of-war anchorage that the masses in the stifling center could not escape except by sea. Fortunately there was a sea breeze and the quay wall never got hot enough to roast these unfortunate people alive, but the heat must have been terrific to have been felt in the ship 200 yards away. To add to the confusion, the packs belonging to these refugees – consisting mostly of carpets and clothing – caught fire, creating a chain of bonfires the length of the street.
The British poured boiling water on desperate refugees who swam up to their vessels, while America’s official representative insisted that journalists cable home reports favourable to the Turks.
The strange thing was, he said, how they screamed every night at midnight … We were in the harbour and they were on the pier and at midnight they started screaming. We used to turn the searchlight on them to quiet them. That always did the trick.
In a week of utter bloody carnage, the ancient city of Smyrna was entirely snuffed out; by the time its dying embers cooled, as many as 100,000 people had been killed and millions left homeless. There followed a massive cover-up by tacit agreement of those same Western Allies who had defeated the Ottoman Empire just four years earlier in World War I. The destruction of Smyrna – one of the great atrocities of the early 20th century – has subsequently been all but expunged from historical memory.