– Kea, Greece
We live through history every day. Whether it is a royal wedding, Middle Eastern revolutions or an economic crisis, you cannot escape the feeling that what you watch on the news every evening will shape the future in important but, as yet, unknown ways. Perhaps the most frustrating thing about this, however, is that we are capable of forgetting our history, or choose to remain ignorant of it. Yet there are few resources available to us that can help explain who we are, in such a direct and profound way.
I was reminded of this human weakness recently when I visited the Turkish city of Izmir. It is marketed to tourists as being lively and cosmopolitan, boasting beautiful weather and encircled by stunning ancient Greco-Roman cities like Pergamon and Ephesus. None of this is inaccurate, but there is an almost completely unacknowledged darker side. Unless you knew its history you could spend a week in this city and be completely oblivious to it. Wander down some of Izmir’s central streets and it is like any other Turkish metropolis. Yet occasionally you walk passed a building that looks totally out of place: a nineteenth-century townhouse, for example, with broad windows and ornate masonry. And when you look closer you can see that it has been gutted by fire.
So what actually happened in Izmir? Its history is complicated. The city used to be a prosperous trading port that had large Turkish, Jewish, Armenian, Greek and other European communities. At the end of the First World War, Greece and Turkey fought one another and the conflict reached a climax in Izmir. Here the Turkish army pushed the last of the Greek forces out of Anatolia and occupied the city in September 1922. The large non-Turkish population was terrified that the Turks would take revenge. For a few tense days nothing happened, until smoke started to appear above the Armenian quarter. A fire had been started (the perpetrator of which is still contested) that quickly engulfed most of Izmir; in a scene of total desperation literally thousands of refugees poured onto the dockside until there was barely room to move. Some were pushed into the water and drowned.
A flotilla of British, French and American ships arrived in Izmir’s harbour intent on rescuing their citizens. Once done they did not leave, but observing strict neutrality, refused to take on board any more refugees from the city. Desperate people swam out to the Allied boats and begged to be rescued but were largely ignored. The world’s foremost powers looked on silently as an unimaginable humanitarian disaster unfolded; the brass bands on board even played loudly to drown out the cries. After four days of ceaseless burning and violence, Izmir was in ruins and one of the most shameful chapters of the twentieth century came to a close.
Visit Izmir today and you will see occasional signposts to its history: old buildings that serve as half-buried skeletons revealing a violent past the modern city is unwilling to re-visit. My contact was a local freelance writer who is currently trying to research Izmir’s history during that volatile period. This is dangerous work because it challenges the official narrative of the founding of the Turkish Republic. Authors who venture into these areas can face harassment and prosecution by the authorities, and so I’ve chosen not to name him.
He was eager to show me parts of the city that were, ‘never on the tourist maps’, and drove us to the south-eastern suburb of Buca. Today it is an up-market area popular with students at the city’s university, but in the early twentieth century this was the centre of ‘Levantine’ Izmir, where wealthy French, Italian and Dutch merchant families lived. Their influence is still visible in the narrow streets lined with grand villas and ornate churches. It is one of the most beautiful parts of the city but the local tourist board fails to acknowledge its existence; the only highlighted areas are those that are wholly Turkish, or ancient enough to be historically safe.
The writer wanted me to see an old Protestant church that remains looked after by a solitary priest. We waited by the gates and pressed the buzzer. After a few minutes the priest came out cautiously and politely told us that we could not go in – the police were insisting that he keeps a record of visitors and he suggested that it was better for us if we were not on that list. We walked down a nearby street where my guide showed me more of Buca’s fine Levantine houses, some of which were being unceremoniously torn down to be replaced with modern residences.
It is always sad to see any authority, regardless of motive, suppressing its history and preventing people from understanding it. It felt ridiculous that such a harmless yet beautiful part of the city was being sidelined and slowly destroyed because of its association with uncomfortable events almost a century ago. What happened in Izmir in 1922 was a tragedy and, as with all events like it, there are lessons we should take from it. This is not about blame. Nothing is gained by resorting to such petty exchanges. There is not a country in the world that can honestly say it has never been involved in something as regrettable. But a true display of character comes when a society is able to confront the shadows of its own past. More importantly, as individuals we ought to be aware of our own history, especially when it shows us in a bad light.
I’m glad the UK is a place where negative aspects of history are not suppressed. British children learn about the slave trade and religious persecution in school and, while they could certainly be taught more, I believe this does make us stronger as a society. It is the national equivalent of a person who is able to admit their mistakes and identify their weaknesses; qualities that are always valued. History is priceless, but it is also very vulnerable, therefore, we have a responsibility to take possession of it. Otherwise we face a situation like Izmir, where people literally walk through the ruins of their own past, without ever stopping for a closer look.
Photograph exclusively for The Platform
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