1922-2022: Greece's darkest hour & the Greek cities of Turkey

April 1, 2024

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Greece's neighbour Turkey has several UNESCO sites, the majority of which are Hittite, Trojan, Lydian, Phrygian, Roman and of course Greek.

A region full of Greek sites (but not the only one of course) is the coastline on the eastern side of the Aegean Sea, called Ionia or Western Asia Minor.

These cities were founded or colonized or even taken over by the Greeks since the 11th century BC (yes, over 3,000 years ago) by settlers originating from various regions and tribes of Greece.

The islands on the left
are part of Greece (Aegean Sea);
the mainland is now part of Turkey.
Aeolians, Ionians and Dorians
were three of the Greek tribes.

From the word Ionia (Ιωνία) originates of course the name of the Ionic column (and obviously Doric from the Dorian tribe),
as well as the word for 'Greek' in languages such as turkish or arabic (Yunan-).

Ionic columns on the temple of Nike,
on the Acropolis of Athens

* For non-Greeks, the most famous Greek city of Asia Minor is Ephesus (Έφεσος).

Greek inscription in front of the Library of Celsus,
a Greek governor of Asia, in the Roman Empire.
The lower part reads: 'having set right the doings of Asia,
he has received [this] small recompense for his labours'.

It was famous for the Temple of Artemis (550 BC), which was included in the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Heraclitus, an important philosopher, was born there in the 6th cent. BC.

In that century, the Persians incorporated Ephesus and other Greek cities into their empire but it later goes back to the Greeks.

It was taken over by the Romans (as most of Greece was) in the 2nd century BC,
and lastly it was conquered by the Turks in 1304.

Nevertheless, the city is best-known amongst Christians for one of the Apostles who lived here: St. Paul.
After he left Corinth (in Greece), Paul lived in Ephesus for some years. He wrote the Epistle 1 Corinthians from here and he later wrote the Epistle to the Ephesians while he was imprisoned in Rome.

Ephesians 2:21

* Miletus (Μίλητος) was considered the greatest Greek metropolis, which was said to have founded about 90 colonies (that's a Guinness record right there!),
more than any other Greek city, practically turning the Black Sea into its own private sea...

The Market Gate,
at the Pergamon Museum, Berlin
(Yeah, I know, it looks like the one in Ephesus...)

Several noted people were from Μίλητος:

Aspasia (wife of Athenian leader Pericles during the Golden Age)
Thales (philosopher)
Hippodamus (architect, urban planner)
Isidore of Miletus (6th cent. AD; one of the architects of Hagia Sophia)
and many more such as historians, sculptors and poets.

* Pergamon (Πέργαμον) was one of the most significant and impressive ancient Greek cities...

Well, ok, these ruins don't do it justice.
I could have probably taken better photos...

In the 3rd century BC, the Kingdom of Pergamon was created by a general of Alexander the Great and it would eventually come to rule a large part of Asia Minor.

Kingdom of Pergamon: almost the size of Greece (not bad at all...)

The Attalid Dynasty ruled until the 2nd century BC.

Their goal was to create a city as impressive and important as Athens, with a library that rivalled the very Library of Alexandria, built by a Greek ruler of Egypt.

They built imposing buildings, such as one of the steepest theatres in the world (still in great shape), as well as a stunning altar which the Germans eventually took to Berlin in a museum named after the city itself! (come on people...)

The Attalids even remodeled the city's fortress, where the altar would have stood, after the Acropolis of Athens... (Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery after all. Ask the Romans!)

Pergamon Altar, Berlin:
now that's impressive!

King Eumenes II of Pergamon built a stoa at the Acropolis of Athens, with marble shipped from Pergamon itself. Unfortunately his building hasn't survived.

His brother, King Attalus II, founder of the city of Attalia (Αττάλεια; modern Antalya), also adorned Athens with a magnificent stoa (in the Agora).

Stoa of Attalus, Athens
(quite impressive too)

* For the Greeks the most famous city is Smyrna (Σμύρνη), described by Strabo as the 'fairest of all cities'...
The Turks call it Izmir, from Greek "η Σμύρνη" (i zmirni = 'the Smyrna').

Street in the Agora

It was one of the places that claimed to be the home of Homer, the most famous pre-classical Greek poet, who wrote of course the Iliad and the Odyssey (he was also 'flattered' by the Romans).

Σμύρνη was destroyed by the Lydians in the 6th century BC and was restored by Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC.

By the early 20th century, it had grown into a major financial and cultural centre of the Greek world, and looked very little like a turkish city, although it was part of the Ottoman Empire.

Out of the city's 391 factories at the time, a staggering 322 belonged to Greeks (!), although there were plenty of other foreigners living there such as Americans, Armenians, Italians, British, French, etc.

The most famous Greek shipping magnet, Aristotelis Onassis, was actually born there in 1906.

Panorama ('whole view' in Greek) of the city,
early 1900s

As a result of the defeat of the Ott. Empire in WWI, the city was briefly assigned to Greece by the Treaty of Sèvres (signed in France).
When that happens, Greek ships even reach Constantinople, and on January 19th 1919 (an odd numerical coincidence) a Christian Orthodox service is held in the Hagia Sophia itself for the first time since 1453 (when the city fell to the Turks!). It is the last one to this day.

Notice that Greece's borders at the time reach almost all the way up to Constantinople (renamed 'Istanbul' shortly after, from Greek), the south-eastern islands are occupied by Italy (finally ceded in 1948), and above Greece there's Serbia
(no fake 'North Macedonia'...).

Ironically, exactly 100 years after the Greek Revolution against the Turks, the Greeks have managed to take over nearly 1/3 (!) of modern Turkey and have almost reached the turkish capital Ankara (named from the Greek word for 'anchor'; notice that all famous cities of Turkey have names that come from Greek).

In 1922, the Greco-Turkish War comes to an end, with the Greeks losing though and the Turks eventually burning Smyrna down.
The Muslim and Jewish quarters 'miraculously' escaped damage (the Jews actually sided with the Muslims).
The fire burned for nearly 10 days.

Smyrna in flames
Smyrna in flames

European and American troops that were present were ordered not to intervene as that would have been a hostile act against the Turks...

Of course, some countries, such as Italy (primarily), Russia, Germany and France, had already helped Turkey against Greece in one way or another. (Wait, wasn't Greece their ally in WWI? Oh well...)
Most of them had some interest in the area and already occupied former Ottoman land, though the only ones historically associated with the region were... (you guessed right) the Greeks, and they were also the only ones that lived in the area in millions.

Let's not forget that Hitler himself idolized the Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal and the Nazis admired and drew inspiration from the way the Turks 'dealt' with Greek and Armenian 'minorities' (of millions, as we've said), whom they compared with the Jews (whereas for the Turks, as mentioned above, the Jews were allies).

Nevertheless, few people ignored those orders, such as American pastor Asa Kent Jennings, who reportedly managed to save 350,000 people (!) and became one of the lesser-known heroes of the Asia Minor Catastrophe, as it is still called by the Greeks.

Asa Kent Jennings

The Turks, ironically, called it 'War of Independence'; independence from the Greeks who were trying to get back the land where they had always lived (!), and from other Europeans who were actually on the Turks' side (!) but also tried to take whatever they could. Well, I guess everyone's gotta have an Independence Day, and if they don't they have to invent it...

Greek refugees from Asia Minor

Instead of being directly executed, thousands of Greeks and Armenians were transferred into the interior of Turkey to die in harsh conditions,
while an estimated 1.5 million Greek refugees made it to Greece (Onassis being one of them), changing the country's population overnight.

A 3,000-year-old Greek presence in Asia Minor had just come to an end...

2022 marks that somber centennial.

A Greek movie titled My beloved Smyrna was released in 2021 recounting those horrible events.


These were but a few of those once marvelous Greek cities that never got to be re-integrated into Greece. Had that happened, Greece would now have many many more ancient sites and UNESCO entries. But history had different plans for Ionia, the region where the greatest pre-Socratic philosophers and poets were born...

Click here to see a list Ι made with some of those cities.