Wednesday, October 10, 2007


Izmir, Turkey. Photo by my nephew, Thomas Shaw.

One of the stories in the news today is that President Bush is urging Congress to reject a resolution that would officially recognize the Armenian genocide, the slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians in Turkey during World War I. Bush recognizes that the "mass killings" took place, and that the Armenians suffered tragically, but he's concerned that recognizing the killings as "genocide" will harm U.S.-Turkish relationships. I'm particularly interested in those relationships at the moment because my eighteen-year old nephew is currently an AFS exchange student in the Turkish city of Izmir (known to the Greeks as Smyrna).

The treatment of the Armenians in Turkey is a contentious issue. To get a sense of the history and the passions on both sides, I highly recommend Canadian director Atom Egoyan's brilliant 2002 film Ararat, which in a deeply textured and thought-provoking way explores how our identities and actions are shaped by our partial and often partisan understanding of history. Another place to look for a sense of the heated debate over the Armenian question is among the customer reviews for Marjorie Housepian Dobkins' Smyrna 1922: The Destruction of a City (1998).

First, let me give a little historical background. The story begins more than 3,000 years ago, with the founding of a village on the coast of Asia Minor, in what is now Turkey. The village may have been founded by the Lelegians, a seafaring people who, according to Homer, inhabited the southern coast of the Troad, the region surrounding Troy in northern Anatolia. By the seventh century B.C.E, however, the coastal village of Smyrna had become a prosperous Greek colony, an important outlet to the Mediterranean for trade routes stretching eastward across Anatolia. This position made it a coveted prize for the rulers of the Lydian empire, who controlled the interior of Asia Minor between the Greek coastal cities and the Assyrian Empire to the east. In the early sixth century B.C.E., Smyrna was conquered by the Lydian king Allyates II.

Over the next three hundred years, Smyrna fell into decay and insignificance, until in the third century it was rebuilt by Antigonus I, one of the generals and successors of Alexander the Great. For the next thousand years, it was a Greek city, becoming part of the Greek Orthodox empire of Byzantium which evolved from the eastern half of the Roman Empire. Then, in the fourteenth century, Smyrna was conquered and incorporated into the Ottoman Empire. The population remained a potentially volatile mixture of Greeks, Armenians, and Muslims, each group living in its own district of the city. This is how things stood when World War I hastened the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and left the Paris peace conference with the task of deciding what to do with the former Ottoman territories. (For a fascinating account of the Paris peace conference and its far-reaching consequences, see Margaret MacMillan's Paris 1919.)

At the peace conference, the Italians and the Turks also claimed the coast of Asia Minor, but the leaders of the conference decided in favor of the Greeks, and ratified their decision with the Treaty of Sèvres in 1920. The Greek army moved in to occupy Smyrna. At the same time, the Turks were positioning themselves to reclaim the coastal cities. In September 1922, a Turkish army under Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk) entered Smyrna, sending the Greek army into retreat. At some point during the Turkish reoccupation of Smyrna, fire broke out in the Armenian quarter and quickly spread to other sections of the city. (For a fictional account of the evacuation of Smyrna in 1922, see Jeffrey Eugenides' Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Middlesex.)

In the fall of 2004, I taught a history class for a homeschool cooperative in Edina. On the first day of class, I brought in several eyewitness accounts of the events of September 1922 in Smyrna. I distributed the accounts among the students so that each student had a different account. When they had read their account, I asked them to write down their answer to the question: "Who started the fire that burned Smyrna?" The answers—the Greeks, the Turks, the Armenians—varied depending on which account they had read. Eighty-five years later, competing answers are still being given, and the flames of Smyrna still burn hot in the minds of Turks, Greeks, and Armenians.

Update (6:30 PM): The resolution passed in committee.


Thomas said...

I've done some of my own research here. In terms of Smyrna 1922, I would add that there was a sizeable population of Jews, as well. About the Armenian genocide, I don't think I've done enough research to really pronounce about fault, but here is what I know:
In 1894 - 1896, Sultan Abdul-Hamid II ordered the massacre of many Armenians. This is something that nobody debates. So in 1915 when the Tehcir law was issued, there was already a history of aggression.
The law was proposed as a temporary wartime measure, officially.
I was asked by my brother what I thought about the events. I gave a diplomatic reply that I'd heard both sides and couldn't really give a judgement. His take on it was that the violence that took place during that period was started by the Armenians, who distrusted the turks from the earlier genocide. Turkish retaliation was merely defensive. He said the reason western sources all got this story is because Armenia, being an enemy to the Ottoman Empire, was therefore a friend of the british, french, and americans.
That said, I've seen suspicious arguments on both sides, so I have no idea. I promise to do some research among turkish sources to see what I can see, after I've learned turkish.

tandori said...

My father was not a liar. He was only 13 years old when these events happened. This massacre was not his fault, but he and his entire family (including his 6-year old brother [was this his fault too?]) were almost murdered just because they were greek, and they lived with the scars of this terror for the rest of their lives. Many years later, my father wrote an account of the oppression and massacre that he lived through as a Greek in Turkey. This account is available to anyone who wants to read it, anyone who does not believe that this actually happened, or anyone who does not believe that this was a genocide. Just to let everyone know too, that the American, British, and French turned away refugees in fear of their lives because these countries had oil interests in Turkey...does this sound relevant to anything happening today? IF the Armenians started it, then why did the turks act in "defense" and also kill as many Greeks as they could as well as Armenians? It was a genocide of innocent people.

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