A brief look at the Smyrna fire (September 1922)


Great clouds of smoke were engulfing the consulate when an officer arrived to prod Horton to the ship. In ten more minutes they would be unable to get a car through. Horton, who had been signing safe-conduct passes up to the last available moment, took up his personal files, grabbed a roll of rugs that were still encased in their summer wrapping, and ran to the car with his wife and a Greek servant. His priceless books, paintings, and classical objects, the collection of a lifetime, were left behind.

The spectacle along the waterfront haunted Melvin Johnson for the rest of his life. "When we left it was just getting dusk", he remembers. "As we were pulling out I'll never forget the screams. As far as we could go you could hear 'em screaming and hollering, and the fire was going on ... most pitiful thing you saw in your life. In your life. Could never hear nothing like it any other place in the world, I don't think. And the city was set in a -- a kind of a hill, and the fire was on back coming this way toward the ship. That was the only way the people could go, toward the waterfront. A lot of 'em were jumping in, committing suicide. It was a sight all right".

The *Simpson* lifted anchor at 7:45 P.M. Horton, too, was on deck, watching the flames bearing relentlessly down on a human wall nearly two miles long. Banks of smoke rose so high that days afterward travelers on the Sea of Marmara, one hundred and forty miles away, mistook the spectacle for an immense mountain range. The glow and flame of the burning city were plainly visible for fifty miles, according to passengers on the *Simpson*.

Among them was reporter John Clayton, whose latest dispatch was at that moment on Chicago news stands: "After forty-eight hours of Turkish occupation the population has begun to realize there is not going to be any massacre. Remembering the horrors of the Greek occupation in 1919, when more than four thousand Moslems were butchered, the Christian population has been clamouring for protection". Clayton's article referred to a little looting and a few victims of private feuds ("Turks, Greeks, and Armenians"), but announced that "the discipline and order of the Turks were excellent".

But now Clayton was pounding a new epic on his portable typewriter, without mincing words: "Except for the squalid Turkish quarter, Smyrna has ceased to exist. The problem of the minorities is solved for all time. No doubt remains as to the origin of the fire ... The torch was applied by Turkish regular soldiers". Clayton had a scoop. His story, sent from Athens at dawn, was the first to reach print. Constantine Brown's dispatch in the *Chicago Daily News* was to be no less frank: "A crime which will brand the Turks forever was committed yesterday when Turkish soldiery, after finishing pillaging, set this city on fire".

George Horton thought that only the destruction of Carthage by the Romans could compare to the finale of Smyrna in the extent of its horror, savagery, and human suffering. "As the destroyer moved away from the fearful scene and darkness descended, the flames, raging now over a vast area, grew brighter and brighter, presenting a scene of awful and sinister beauty", he wrote. "Yet there was no fleet of Christian battleships at Carthage looking on at a situation for which their governments were responsible". The Turks had plundered, slaughtered, and now burned the city "because they had been systematically led to believe that they would not be interfered with".

"One of the keenest impressions which I brought away with me from Smyrna was a feeling of shame that I belonged to the human race".

[From "Smyrna 1922: the destruction of a city", by Marjorie Housepian- Dobkin (Kent State University Press, 1988), pp. 166-167]





Back to "Anatolia" or "Anatolian Bibliography"