The Great Fire of Smyrna is the name commonly given to the fire that ravaged İzmir/Smyrna starting 13 September 1922 and lasted for four days until the 17 September. It occurred four days after the Turkish army regained control of the city on 9 September 1922, thus effectively ending the Greco-Turkish War (1919-1922) in the field, more than three years after the Greek army had landed on Smyrna on 15 May 1919. The reason of the fire is not fully determined and is still a widely disputed subject. There have been accusations from all sides, blaming the Turks, Greeks or Armenians, conflicting press reports at the time as well as analyses later, and there is also a theory that it was an accident caused by chaos.
Marjorie Housepian Dobkin work concluded that the Turks systematically burned the city and killed Greek and Armenian inhabitants. This is based on extensive eyewitness evidence from Western troops sent to Smyrna during the evacuation, foreign diplomats/relief workers based at Smyrna and for the first time in such work-- Turkish sources. Recent work by Niall Ferguson comes to the same conclusion.
Against this, Turkish authors cite various documents; for example the official report drawn by the Chief of Smyrna Fire Fighting Department, Paul Grescowich, an Austrian national of Serbian origin, as well as a telegram from Turkish commander in chief Mustafa Kemal. Turkish sources also point out to information given by Mark Prentiss, an American industrial engineer present in Smyrna during the time of the events and who also acting as a free-lance correspondent for the New York Times. Critics of Prentiss point out that Prentiss changed his story, giving two very different statements of events at different times. Initially, Prentiss was printed in the New York Times on 18 September 1922 (partially disavowed in the same paper on 14 November) as having cabled an article titled "Eyewitness Story of Smyrna’s Horror; 200,000 Victims of Turks and Flames". Upon his return to the United States, he was pressured by Rear Admiral Mark Lambert Bristol to put a different version on record where he claimed that it was the Armenians who had set the fire. Bristol was notoriously anti-Greek, describing Greeks in his correspondence as "the worst race in this part of the world".
The New York Times in an article published on the 18th of September 1922 titled "Smyrna's ravagers fired on Americans" document the relentless destruction of the Christian quarters of the city and the massacre of its Christian population by the Turkish army. The article gives special emphasis to the attacks against American soldiers and volunteers when they tried to help Armenians and Greeks while they were being attacked.
Mark Prentiss, an American foreign trade specialist in Smyrna and an eyewitness to many of the events which occurred in Smyrna, was initially quoted in the New York Times as putting the blame on the Turkish military. Prentiss set foot in Smyrna 8 September 1922, one day prior to Turkish Army setting foot in Smyrna after 3 years of Greek rule, as a special representative of the Near East Relief (an American charity organization whose sole purpose is to watch over and protect Armenians during the event of the war) along with USS Destroyer Lawrence carrying the committee, under command of Capt. Wolleson. His superior was Rear Adm. Mark Lambert Bristol, U.S. High Commissioner to Ottoman Empire between 1919-1927, present in Constantinople. His initial published statements were as follows:
Many of us personally saw-- and are ready to affirm the statement-- Turkish soldiers often directed by officers throwing petroleum in the street and houses. Vice-Consul Barnes watched a Turkish officer leisurely fire the Custom House and the Passport Bureau while at least fifty Turkish soldiers stood by. Major Davis saw Turkish soldiers throwing oil in many houses. The Navy patrol reported seeing a complete horseshoe of fires started by the Turks around the American school.
(p. 306) One of the first people to notice the outbreak of fire was Miss Mennie Mills, the director of the American Collegiate Institute for Girls. She had just finished her lunch when she noticed that one of the neighboring buildings was burning. She stoop up to have a closer look and was shocked by what she witnessed. 'I saw with my own eyes a Turkish officer enter the house with small tins of petroleum or benzine and in a few minutes the house was in flames.' She was not the only one at the institute to see the outbreak of fire. 'Our teachers and girls saw Turks in regular soldiers' uniforms and in several cases in officers' uniforms, using long sticks with rags at the end which were dipped in a can of liquid and carried into houses which were soon burning.'
Numerous reliable witnesses would later testify to the role of Kemal's troops in starting the fire. Claflin Davis of the American Red Cross saw Turks sprinkling flammable liquid along a street that lay in the path of the fire. Monsieur Joubert, director of the Credit Foncier Bank of Smyrna, plucked up the courage to ask a band of Turkish soldiers what they were doing. 'They replied impassively that they were under orders to blow up and burn all the houses of the area.' Another senior French businessman- whose business interests required him to testify on condition of anonymity- said that all the shops of Hadji Stamon Street were set alight by soldiers acting under the direction of the former head of Turkish police in Cordelio, a man whose identity he did not reveal but who was known to him personally.
The conclusion of the author is that it was Turkish soldiers and officers who set the fire, most probably following direct orders.
(p. 308) To this day, most Turkish historians persist in claiming that the fire- which was soon to assume terrifying proportions- was an act of sabotage on the part of the Greeks and Armenians. Yet there are scores of impartial accounts that testify to the fact that the Turkish army deliberately set fire to Smyrna.'
Gavur [infidel] İzmir burned and came to an end with its flames in the darkness and its smoke in daylight. Were those responsible for the fire really the Armenian arsonists as we were told in those days? ... As I have decided to write the truth as far as I know I want to quote a page from the notes I took in those days. ‘The plunderers helped spread the fire ... Why were we burning down İzmir? Were we afraid that if waterfront konaks, hotels and taverns stayed in place, we would never be able to get rid of the minorities? When the Armenians were being deported in the First World War, we had burned down all the habitable districts and neighbourhoods in Anatolian towns and cities with this very same fear. This does not solely derive from an urge for destruction. There is also some feeling of inferiority in it. It was as if anywhere that resembled Europe was destined to remain Christian and foreign and to be denied to us.
If there were another war and we were defeated, would it be sufficient guarantee of preserving the Turkishness of the city if we had left Izmir as a devastated expanse of vacant lots? Were it not for Nureddin Pasha, whom i know to be a dyed-in-the-wool fanatic and rabblerouser, i do not think this tragedy would have gone to the bitter end. He has doubtless been gaining added strength from the unforgiving vengeful feelings of the soldiers and officers who have seen the debris and the weeping and agonized population of the Turkish towns which the Greeks have burned to ashes all the way from Afyon.
Falih Rifki Atay implied Nureddin Pasha to be the person who is responsible for the fire in his account: "At the time it was said that Armenian arsonists were responsible. But was this so? There were many who assigned a part in it to Nureddin Pasha, commander of the First Army, a man whom Kemal had long disliked...
Recently, many Turks have begun to question that nationalist narrative that is taught within their own country. Biray Kolluoğlu Kırlı, a Professor of Sociology at Bogazici University , published a paper in 2005 in which she pursues an argument based on the claim that the city was burned by the Turks in an attempt to cleanse the predominantly Christian city in order to make way for a new Muslim and Turkish city, and focuses on an examination of the extensions of this viewpoint on the Turkish nationalist narrative since.
Another work on the subject is the short essay by the historian Reşat Kasaba of Washington University, which briefly goes through on the multiple aspects of the event, without pinpointing clear accusations.
Quoted from his book The Blight of Asia:
THE last act in the fearful drama of the extermination of Christianity in the Byzantine Empire was the burning of Smyrna by the troops of Mustapha Khemal. (...)
(...) Sir Valentine Chirol, Harris Foundation lecturer at the University of Chicago in 1924, made this statement (“The Occident and the Orient”, page 58): “After the Turks had smashed the Greek armies they turned the essentially Greek city (Smyrna) into an ash heap as proof of their victory.”
(...) The main facts in regard to the Smyrna fire are:
1. The streets leading into the Armenian quarter were guarded by Turkish soldier sentinels and no one was permitted to enter while the massacre was going on.
2. Armed Turks, including many soldiers, entered the quarter thus guarded and went through it looting, massacring and destroying. They made a systematic and horrible “clean up,” after which they set fire to it in various places by carrying tins of petroleum or other combustibles into the houses or by saturating bundles of rags in petroleum and throwing these bundles in through the windows.
3. They planted small bombs under the paving stones in various places in the European part of the city to explode and act as a supplementary agent in the work of destruction caused by the burning petroleum which Turkish soldiers sprinkled about the streets. The petroleum spread the fire and led it through the European quarter and the bombs shook down the tottering walls. One such bomb was planted near the American Girls’ School and another near the American Consulate.
4. They set fire to the Armenian quarter on the thirteenth of September 1922. The last Greek soldiers bad passed through Smyrna on the evening of the eighth, that is to say, the Turks had been in full, complete and undisputed possession of the city for five days before the fire broke out and for much of this time they had kept the Armenian quarter cut off by military control while conducting a systematic and thorough massacre. If any Armenians were still living in the localities at the time the fires were lighted they were hiding in cellars too terrified to move, for the whole town was overrun by Turkish soldiers, especially the places where the fires were started. In general, all the Christians of the city were keeping to their houses in a state of extreme and justifiable terror for themselves and their families, for the Turks had been in possession of the city for five days, during which time they had been looting, raping and killing. It was the burning of the houses of the Christians, which drove them into the streets and caused the fearful scenes of suffering which will be described later. Of this state of affairs, I was an eye-witness.
5. The fire was lighted at the edge of the Armenian quarter at a time when a strong wind was blowing toward the Christian section and away from the Turkish. The Turkish quarter was not in any way involved in the catastrophe and during all the abominable scenes that followed and all the indescribable sufferings of the Christians, the Mohammedan quarter was lighted up and gay with dancing, singing and joyous celebration.
6. Turkish soldiers led the fire down into the well-built modern Greek and European section of Smyrna by soaking the narrow streets with petroleum or other highly inflammable matter. They poured petroleum in front of the American Consulate with no other possible purpose than to communicate the fire to that building at a time when C. Clafun Davis, Chairman of the Disaster Relief Committee of the Red Cross, Constantinople Chapter, and others, were standing in the door. Mr. Davis went out and put his hands in the mud thus created and it smelled like petroleum and gasoline mixed. The soldiers seen by Mr. Davis and the others had started from the quay and were proceeding toward the fire.
7. Dr. Alexander Maclachlan, President of the American College, and a sergeant of American Marines were stripped, the one of his clothes and the other of a portion of his uniform, and beaten with clubs by Turkish soldiers. A squad of American Marines was fired on.
The Scottish Historian Niall Ferguson firmly states that it was the Turks, under the orders from authorities, who burned Smyrna: "In September 1922, however, Kemal's occupied the town. They sealed off the Armenian quarter and began systematically butchering the 25,000 inhabitants. They set fire to it, to incinerate any survivors.
The short-sightedness of both Lloyd George and President Wilson seems incredible, explicable only in terms of the magic of Venizelos and an emotional, perhaps religious, aversion to the Turks. For Greek claims were at best debatable, perhaps a bare majority, more likely a large minority in the Smyrna Vilayet, which lay in an overwhelmingly Turkish Anatolia. The result was an attempt to alter the imbalance of populations by genocide, and the counter determination of Nationalists to erase the Greeks, a feeling which produced bitter warfare in Asia Minor for the next two years until the Kemalists took Smyrna in 1922 and settled the problem by burning down the Greek quarter.
As Resat Kasaba has noted some sources claimed the fire to be the continuation of the destruction caused by the Greek army which had been rapidly retreating across the Anatolian inland since the Battle of Dumlupınar and thus the continuation of the Greek scorched earth policy.
Mr. H. Lamb, the British Consul General at İzmir reported that he "had reason to believe that Greeks in concert with Armenians had burned Smyrna". This was also stated by the correspondent of the Petit Parisien at İzmir in a dispatch on 20 September 1922.
There were not only Greeks and Armenians but also British taking refuge from İzmir as the invasion ended. While some fleeing to İstanbul, where they think it can still be held in British hands, some fled directly to Britain. There had been no record of missing British nationals during the fire. There were also eyewitnesses to the fire among the British refugees. According to The Times dated 6 October 1922:
Thirty-six refugees from Smyrna arrived at Plymouth to-day, having been sent home from Malta.
Mr. L. R. Whittall, barrister-at-law, who has been in Smyrna for some years said there was no evidence as to who set fire to the town, but the consensus of opinion was that it was Greek and Armenian incendiaries.
FROM COMMANDER IN CHIEF GAZI MUSTAFA KEMAL PASHA TO THE MINISTER OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS YUSUF KEMAL BEY
Tel. 17.9.38 (1922) (Arrived 4.10.38)
To be transmitted with care. Important and urgent.
Find hereunder the instruction I sent to Hamid Bey with Admiral Dumesmil, who left for İstanbul today.
Commander-In-Chief Mustafa KEMAL
Copy To Hamid Bey,
1. It is necessary to comment on the fire in İzmir for future reference.
Our army took all the necessary measures to protect İzmir from accidents, before entering the city. However, the Greeks and the Armenians, with their pre-arranged plans have decided to destroy İzmir. Speeches made by Hrisostomos at the churches have been heard by the Muslims, the burning of İzmir was defined as a religious duty. The destruction was accomplished by this organization. To confirm this, there are many documents and eyewitness accounts. Our soldiers worked with everything that they have to put out the fires. Those who attribute this to our soldiers may come to İzmir personally and see the situation. However, for a job like this, an official investigation is out of the question. The newspaper correspondents of various nationalities presently in İzmir are already executing this duty. The Christian population is treated with good care and the refugees are being returned to their places.
Despite the telegram, the fire could not be contained and much of the city was destroyed.
A French journalist who had covered the war of independence arrived in Smyrna shortly after the flames had died down, she wrote:
The first defeat of the nationalists had been this enormous fire. Within forty-eight hours, it had destroyed the only hope of immediate economic recovery. For this reason, when i heard people accusing the winners themselves of having provoked it to get rid of the Greeks and Armenians who still lived in the city, i could only shrug off the absurdity of such talk. One had to know the Turkish leaders very little indeed to attribute to them so genereously a taste for unnecessary suicide.
Alexander MacLachlan, the missionary president of International College of İzmir who has also been an eyewitness to the fire states that Turkish soldiers seen to have setting the fire were actually disguised Armenians. An article posted on The Times of September 25 1922 about MacLachlan is quoted as follows:
The Turks did not massacre Greeks, as Greeks had done to Turks in May 1919. About the worst the Turkish Army did was force captured Greek soldiers to shout "Long live Mustafa Kemal" (in return to their forcing Turks to shout "Zito Venizelos" when they entered Smyrna) as they marched into detention. Turkish soldiers protected International College during the disruption of the occupation; a Turkish cavalryman rescued MacLachlan from irregulars who nearly beat the missionary to death while trying to loot the agricultural buildings of the college. A three-day Smyrna fire (September 13-15), which Turks made every effort to control, destroyed nearly a square mile in Greek and Armenian areas and made two hundred thousand people homeless. Included in this loss was the American Board's Collegiate Institute for Girls. MacLachlan's investigation of the fire's origin led to the conviction that Armenian terrorists, dressed in Turkish uniforms, fired the city. Apparently the terrorists were attempting to bring Western intervention. Informing Washington of a three million Dollars claim by the American Board against the Ankara government, Barton requested through an aide that the U.S. participate in any conference planned by the Allies to rewrite the Treaty of Sevres. As the West talked of negotiating with the Kemalists, part of the American public began to realize that Armenianism and godliness were not identical. Ever since missionaries in the nineteenth century had become the dominant U.S. concern in the Ottoman Empire, opinion in America increasingly favored Christian minorities.
The entire city suffered substantial damages in its infrastructure. The core of the city literally had to be rebuilt from the ashes. Today, 40 hectares of the former fire area is a vast park (Kültürpark) serving as Turkey's greatest open air exhibition center (for İzmir International Fair, among others).
Mehmet Coral's IZMIR: 13 Eylul 1922 (IZMIR:13 September 1922). It is also published in Greek by Kedros of Athens/Greece under title: Πολλές ζωές στη Σμύρνη