CULTURE

The height and decline of Smyrna

French historian Herve Georgelin explores many aspects of the Ottoman Empire and its peoples in his book «Smyrna: From Cosmopolitanism to Nationalism.» Georgelin, who teaches at the University of Berne, spoke to Kathimerini about the book shortly before his trip to Athens for yesterday’s launch of its Greek edition, translated by Maria Malafeka for Kedros Publishers. Could we say that Smyrna is a forgotten city? Certainly, in the sense that the harsh side of that society has been forgotten. It was not a peaceful sphere but a semi-colonial society. Who talks now about the Africans who went there as slaves and who are still there, the descendants of people who had become merchandise? Who talks about the Gypsies who were useful when someone wanted some good musicians or the Greeks wanted to get rid of their fancy food before the Lenten fast? Smyrna had a rigid social hierarchy. Does everyone mourn the old Smyrna or is it only the Greeks who feel the loss? There is no comparing the significance of Smyrna for the Greeks. In those days, the population of Smyrna was comparable to that of Athens. Indeed, according to Richard Clogg, Smyrna was probably a larger Greek city than Athens until 1922. The economic prospects of that cosmopolitan city had nothing in common with those of provincial Greece. But Ottoman Smyrna was also important for other people. For scholars of the Spanish spoken by Sephardic Jews, Smyrna was a unique case that was lost. As for the Armenians, nostalgia not only for Smyrna but also for the Ottoman Empire is in general accompanied by deep guilt and shame. I am sure that the city’s traumatic past cannot be pleasant for Turkish citizens. What the leaders of the new country decided then did not coincide with what most locals wanted. We need to know that until 1950-60 there were gaps in Izmir due to the fire of 1922. How can such misery cause happiness? Old Smyrna reminds us of the Levantines, the Western Europeans of the East. Have they disappeared? The idea of a local Catholicism or Protestantism that has or had connections with Europe or America but is not identified with those foreign powers is a complex one. Historian Bernard Heyberger has demonstrated that there were forms of Catholicism that were part of society in the Near East. The Levantines were a special case. I interviewed two very old women, one a Jew from Izmir with a French passport (who was a child when the city burned) and the other a Catholic nun of the same nationality (who was an adolescent at the time of the disaster). They were not foreigners in Smyrna, far from it. What made you study the Eastern Mediterranean? I felt at ease with the people. There were and still are many of them in my life: Greeks, Armenians, Turks, Kurds, Jews and others. I seek them out unconsciously. I had an intellectual interest in the field, but the first contact always has a human dimension. Then my interests changed and became more abstract. History and literature entered my internal stage. Do Turks nowadays feel a new nostalgia for the old cosmopolitan Smyrna? Yes, undoubtedly. In Izmir there is demand for prints of old Smyrna, for Greek lessons, for old and new history books. The upper classes are proud of their city. If you take the ferry from Izmir to Karsiyaka, formerly Kordelio, you can see how different that Turkish city is from the media cliches. You can meet people who know about the outside world, who have an appetite for life, who think about studying in the West and who have, for better or worse, little interest in what is happening in the Anatolian hinterland. Why do you think that the destruction of Smyrna is a chapter of history that is not very well known the West? In the West, like everywhere else, there is interest in what has directly affected «our» population. What did Europe care then about a fire in a remote city, when the First World War had left such massive material damage and painful human loss on their own territory? What does it care now, when Turkey is a marvelous tourist destination and a big market?