Why would anyone go to Izmir, willingly at least? It’s a port on the Mediterranean, but there are no great beaches in or near the city. It’s smack in the center of the great Greek and Roman civilizations, but there are no eye-popping ruins. A century ago it was a great multi-cultural melting pot, but much of that was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1922.Turns out that’s a question I asked 40 years ago when the ship I was on, home-ported in Naples, sailed to Izmir for a couple of weeks. I mean, no one’s even heard of Izmir! At the time I didn’t understand it, but I have a little better sense of it now. Izmir, you see, was known as Smyrna for many centuries and it was one of most important ports in the eastern Mediterranean. So yeah, no one’s ever heard of Izmir, but Smyrna was a major city for many hundreds of years. It played a key role in the Greek-Turk war that followed World War I and that led to the creation of the modern Turkish state. Today, then, it’s Turkey’s third-largest city (after Istanbul and Ankara), and a nice little place to land for a couple of days. To be sure, you don’t need a lot of time to see Izmir, but for a couple days it’s got a little feel of Europe in Anatolia, somewhat more liberal than the rest of Turkey.
The quick history: Smyrna was founded by Greek colonists some 3,000 years ago. The Persians took control, but Alexander the Great recovered it for Greece. Alexander, in fact, is given credit in legend at least for Smyrna/Izmir’s current location; he allegedly had the city moved based on a message he received in a dream nearby. In Roman times it was, along with nearby Ephesus (Izmir is maybe 55 miles north of Ephesus), one of the major cities in Rome’s Asian province.
Fast forward a couple thousand years; Smyrna has been an important center of commerce under the Ottoman Empire. But the Ottomans were on the wrong side of World War I, and in the subsequent treaty the Sultan gave away huge amounts of his Empire. With Western support Greece invaded Anatolia, taking Smyrna on May 15, 1919, and headed up towards Istanbul; it appeared as though even the rump territory ceded to the Ottomans was going to be taken over.
Enter Mustafa Kamal (known to history as Ataturk, Father of the Turks) at the head of the Young Turks. They had effectively gone to war with the Sultan over his capitulation after the War, but now mobilized to stop the Greeks. Surprisingly, just years after having been all but wiped out in World War I, they did in fact stop the Greeks and pushed them back to Smyrna. Kamal’s troops retook Smyrna on September 9, 1922, more than three years after the Greeks had first captured the city; that day is now celebrated as the victory of the Turkish War of Independence.
Unfortunately – but perhaps not surprisingly, given the realities of war – victory was followed quickly by catastrophe. While the Greeks and Armenians were trying to escape Smyrna (the Armenian Genocide had occurred less than 10 years earlier) an enormous fire started, destroying most of the Old City and killing anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000 people. Surviving Greeks, then, were eventually shipped to Greece as part of the final treaty that ended the war: Greece agreed to send Turkish Muslims to Turkey while Turkey shipped Greek Christians to Greece. Thus little of the genuinely multi-ethnic spirit of Smyrna remains in today’s Izmir.
That’s the city’s story, then. For us, there was one historic site that we enjoyed. The Agora – the central part of the ancient city – was built originally for Alexander the Great, then rebuilt after an earthquake in the second century AD by Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. At first the site looked pretty boring, particularly after touring Ephesus just days earlier, but eventually we discovered the excavated basement of a great basilica on the site. That was fun, and very photogenic.
All in all, Izmir made a nice little stop. There’s a long walkway along the coast that’s pleasant. There’s a huge Culture Park near the center of the city, occupying a big part of what had been the Old City before it was destroyed by the Great Fire, where I spent a few hours reading and watching Izmir go by. There’s a busy market area that I remember from my visit in 1975 (though it seemed a lot less exotic now than it did then, when it was the first time I’d ever seen anything like it). And there was some decidedly good food, which always makes for a place we would like.
Otherwise there’s not that much to do in Izmir; it’s the sort of place that’s probably worth a visit every 40 years or so. The relative low-key nature of our stop may have been a good thing, though, as it gave us time to start thinking seriously about our winter plans. For a while we’ve had a general notion that we would spend the winter in Africa, but now we’re starting to put some meat to those sketchy ideas. It is a little strange, I’ll admit, to be dreaming of Africa while sitting in a café in Izmir, that I can attest that it does happen.