A Turkish newspaper considered close to the ruling government repeated a controversial theory on Thursday that blames Armenians for the Great Fire of Smryna in 1922.
Smyrna, now called Izmir, in southwestern Turkey, at the time was caught between the Greek Army and the Turkish nationalists led by Mustafa Kemal. As the Greek Army left the city and the Turkish one began to enter, a massive fire broke out that raged across the city for nine days.
The city’s quarters belonging to Greeks and Armenians were completely destroyed, leaving millions of residents forced to flee as refugees.
The Greskovic account of the fire in Smyrna
Yeni Safak, a pro-government Turkish outlet, made its assertion using a report by the head of the city’s fire department, Paul Greskovic. His is a commonly cited account by Turkish sources who pin the blame for the fire on Armenians, who they contend worked with Greeks to taint the reputation of Turkey.
According to Greskovic, spontaneous fires began to be reported in the days leading up to the one that consumed the city. He cites eyewitness reports of Armenians supposedly on the roofs of buildings with binoculars at the time of these fires.
This was a repeated accusation in Greskovic’s account — an uptick in fires across the city and Armenians always appearing not far away. In one episode, Greskovic recounts how “Greek women and children curse the Armenians and asked the soldiers to blockade the Armenian neighborhoods.”
The exact number of Armenians living in Smyrna at the time is not known. One Greek census taken in 1914 put the number of Armenians at 17,853, and large numbers were murdered after the city fell to the Turks. The number of Greeks in the city was also considerably large and they contributed to Smyrna’s status as one of the Ottoman Empire’s wealthiest cities.
Most of the city’s Greek and Armenian population were forced to flee Smyrna after Turkey retook the city and as the fire devoured everything they had ever known, along with their livelihoods. Anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000 Greeks and Armenians may have died as a result of the fire.
Turkey’s history of blaming Greeks, Armenians for the catastrophe
Turkish scholars and politicians who recount the Great Fire reject the notion that it was started by Turkey’s Army after they recaptured Smyrna on September 13.
In 2018, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan put the blame on Greek soldiers for starting the fire, despite the fact Greek forces abandoned the city on September 8.
“The biggest blow given to this beautiful city is by the Greek soldiers who burned Izmir as they retreated,” he said.
“Our ancestors”, Erdogan said, did not want to destroy or burn. They always wanted to build and create, and this is proved by the rapid development of Smyrna after the war of independence, he added.
Observers at the time recounted that the fire began in the Armenian section of Smyrna on that fateful day. Americans in the city chronicled how they saw Turkish soldiers set Armenian homes and buildings ablaze. A British naval officer assessed that the fire was started to intimidate the Greek population in the aftermath of the Greco-Turkish War.
The Great Fire of Smyrna, as it is now known, nearly annihilated the Greek presence that went back many centuries. It was an extension of what later became the wholesale destruction of any major Greek presence in Anatolia during the population exchanges that took place between Greece and Turkey after the war.
Greeks previously lived there for thousands of years, but the fire, killings, war and subsequent deportations put an end to it in the span of only several years.