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Armenian Smyrna: Life of the Armenian Community of the Greek City in the Ottoman Empire

Armenian Smyrna: Life of the Armenian Community of the Greek City in the Ottoman Empire

Cover photo: graduates of the Mesropyan Men's Gymnasium

Smyrna (currently known as Izmir) taken over from the Byzantine Empire by the Turks in the XV century, for a long time, until 1922 continued to remain the centre of the Greek lifestyle.  Among other things this town is interesting for the fact that many ethnic-religious communities lived there, including the old Armenian colony.

Smyrna was the second largest city in the Ottoman Empire and the centre of its commercial-economic life due to the location off the Aegean coast.

The Armenian presence in Smyrna has a long history and traces its roots to the XIII century, but the massive influx of Armenian population took place in XVII-XVIII centuries and in XVII-XVIII centuries due to the collapse of the Cilician Armenian kingdom and devastating Turkish-Persian wars (on the territories of Yerevan, Nakhichevan and Kharabakh) respectively.

The evidence of predominantly Christian population of Smyrna is confirmed by (among other things) the fact that the Turks called the town "Gävur Izmir", which is translated as "unfaithful Izmir" (the Turks and other Muslims of the Ottoman Empire called everyone who did not profess Islam). Armenians and Greeks, Jews and Europeans lived in Smyrna; the town was known for its cosmopolite atmosphere and mixed population.

Up until the XIX century the streets of Smyrna were crowded with people walking in costumes from Europe, Turkey, Egypt, Persia and especially Greece and Greek islands located off the coast.  

Smyrna was divided into five residential blocks: Muslim, Greek, Armenian, Jewish and Frankish.  As a rule they cut across one another and the wealthier members from each community preferred to buy or build houses in the European residential block next to the coast.

Panorama with Surb Stepanos church (in the middle)

Armenian residential block Haynots was located in the centre of the city. It was notable for its cleanliness, houses with all modern conveniences and wide streets. The Armenian community of Smyrna had overall reputation of well off community among the non Armenians, as evidenced by the story of one of the former inhabitants of Goztepe (a bourgeois town three miles from Smyrna):

"When you got off the steamer at Goztepe, you saw the houses on the seaside. Among these, one would distinguish those of the Sivrissarians and the Aznavorians. They were real castles: large, beautful and well built."

Armenian quarter

The main Turkish residential block as it was common in a number of towns in the Ottoman Empire with mixed population, was located at the highest point of the town; on the slopes of mountain Pagos. With women wrapped up in hijabs, men calmly smoking hookah, professional scribes sitting at tables in the side streets; this residential block was like the screen adaption of the Arabian story "Thousand and one night."

The main residential blocks of the Greeks were Mortakia and Mezarakie. Like the Armenian blocks they were quite westernized but they looked less modern and elegant as they were not being particularly renovated. 

Smyrna, 1838

Among the population of Smyrna two groups stood out: Franks who were born in the Ottoman Empire, but were ethnic Europeans and Levantines who were half Franks and half native (Armenian or Greek). Despite the fact that these people were born on the territory of Ottoman Empire, they preserved their European citizenship, had certain rights and privileges in compliance with the agreement concluded between the Ottoman Empire and a number of European countries (capitulation of Ottoman Empire).

The basis of the economic security of Smyrna was the commerce, active import and export of goods. In the XIX century Smyrna looked like an average Southern European town and as per its image and lifestyle was much more westernized than Constantinople could ever be.

The Armenians earned the reputation of well off community mainly due to the huge contribution to the economic security of Smyrna, one can say that the city became the Armenian window to the West.  Huge Armenian trading companies were located there and they established connections with the commercial centers in Italy, England, Egypt, India and Russia.  The Armenians exported carpets, leather, wool, grain, dried fruit, tobacco, etc. and imported European industrial goods, equipment and trendy clothing.  The Armenian craftsmen were jewelers, watch repairers and silk producers.   The Armenian peasants who settled in the suburbs around Smyrna grew cornfields, fig gardens and olive groves.

The cultural and educational life was advancing parallel to the economic.  The first Armenian print media was founded in Smyrna in the middle of XVIII century and one of the first Armenian newsletters to be distributed worldwide was "Arshaluys Araratyan."

There were several schools functioning under the auspices of the Armenian Apostolic church, the most famous of which were the Mesropyan Men's Gymnasium and Hripsimyan Women's Gymnasium. There were also educational institutions functioning under the patronage of Catholic Armenians; Mekhitarist congregation and Evangelists. Also there were several private academies founded by intellectuals or individual teachers.

Smyrna was the birthplace of the Western Armenian renaissance of XIX century; this movement arose and had a great influence on Constantinople. The cultural life became more active after the Young Turks overthrew murderous Sultan Hamid and renewed the constitution. Then there was a hope for reforms and the Armenians started to form musical and theater groups and charity organizations more intensely. It is worth noting that the cultural life of Armenians and Greeks living in Smyrna side by side was separated from each other. To the bitter end Smyrna remained a divided city.

Graduates of Hripsimyan Women's Gymnasium 

The members of the Armenian community of Smyrna were both cosmopolite and closed. They actively interacted with the Greek community which was much larger than the Armenian community and also with the huge Jewish community that was living next to the main Armenian residential block; Armenians were also in contact with many European businessmen and Levantines that had mixed European and Middle Eastern origin.

Almost all Armenians could speak Turkish, many knew Greek language; moreover the prominent figures could also speak French, Italian and English that allowed them to do business in Europe, Russian and in the East. Taken all in all, the members of the Armenian community established a clear framework of relationship that allowed them to stay as a separate ethnic-religious community.

Smyrna had a special place in the tragic history of the Armenian people. It is one of the few towns that managed to avoid the bloody massacres of sultan Abdul Hamid II in1894 – 1896 and also the massive deportations and murders during the genocide organized by the Young Turks in 1915. This was largely due to the governor of Smyrna, anglophile Raheem Bey who trying to protects his citizens, submitted to the authorities convincing calculations according to which the deportation of the "infidels" could cause irreparable damage to the economy. 

Raheem Bey

However, the history of the Armenian (as well as the Greek) Smyrna came to an end on September 9th, 1922, when after three years of occupation by the Greek forces the city was taken over by the Turkish troops, plundered and burnt to ashes. The great fire in Smyrna started from the Armenian residential block, embraced and destroyed the prelacy and its archives, the cathedral and the churches, schools and shelters, fashion houses overlooking the Aegean Sea, and then the fire spilled over to the Greek residential block and the coast. The Armenian Smyrna together with the rest of the Christian Smyrna was destroyed forever. 

Today Izmir is an average Muslim and Turkish city where the traces of Armenian and Christian life have been completely wiped off. Today the residential block Haynots has been turned into parks full of streets with public catering next to which are located the fancy hotels and office buildings, fashion boutiques and boulevards. In the north of Izmir in the region of Menemen there stands lonely a big stone church St. Sarkis and it is, probably, the only thing that reminds of one-time Armenian life of Izmir.

Church St. Sarkis

Sources: Essays “Armenians on the Aegean: The City of Smyrna” by Robert H. Hewsen and “Armenian Smyrna” by Richard G. Hovannisian. 


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