Paradise Lost: Smyrna 1922, The Destruction of Islam’s City of Tolerance, Reviewed by Kathryn

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Overlooking the city of Izmir is the face of Mustafa Kemal carved from the rock mountainside. Kemal’s eyes seemingly keep watch over the city his nationalist forces “liberated”, thereby honoring the sacrifice of the soldiers lost fighting for Turkish independence. However Turkish national history overshadows historical truth: modern Izmir has largely been purged of its past, with the monument itself imposing a state narrative that ignores the darkest episode in the city’s pre-republican history. Nowhere does the structure allude to the arson, ethnic cleansing or other excesses committed by Kemal’s troops as they “reconquered” Smyrna from its Christian inhabitants in the Fall of 1922.

Although the Turkish Republic struggles to acknowledge and reconcile with its past, the destruction of Smyrna is engrained in Greek and Armenian memory as a national horror. Giles Milton’s Paradise Lost: Smyrna 1922, The Destruction of Islam’s City of Tolerance navigates this contention by tacitly exposing the deficiencies—or “silences”—inherent in the Turkish narrative of the “Great Fire of Smyrna”. Through the use of personal testimonies and other intimate records from the Levantine, Greek, Armenian and foreign diplomatic communities, Milton constructs a raw—and often lurid—chronicle of the city’s demise from its period of prosperity prior to 1914 through the holocaust of 1922.[1] By piecing together accounts from a diverse group of Smyrniot survivors, Milton presents an impartial narrative that details the atrocities committed by Turkish belligerents and the Allied powers’ cold-blooded pragmatism that allowed for humanitarian catastrophe.[2] Although Paradise Lost mainly draws upon the records of the societal elite, Milton provides necessary voice to the victims of Turkish nationalism.

            In Silencing the Past: Power and Production of History, author Michel-Rolph Trouillot  traces how historical production serves as a reflection of power.[3] Troulliot identifies that “silences” are built into historical preservation and production by domineering forces that favor certain aspects of historical events. Accordingly, any historical narrative is a “bundle of silences” shaped by particular ideological or political interests.[4] Although Trouillot relates his concepts to a discussion of Atlantic history, Turkish official history is also rife with “silences”. Falsification and misrepresentation of historical memory have been employed to sanctify Atatürk’s republican project and to justify the homogenizing pressures of political nationalism. The destruction of Smyrna and the systematic extermination of the Eastern Christian population is one such event effaced from historical memory. Turkish records—crafted by Mustafa Kemal himself—claim local Greek and Armenian populations set their city alight, attempting to subvert Turkish authority following the defeat of Greek forces. Greek and Armenian histories cite that Kemalists burnt the Christian quarters of the city after systematically assaulting and massacring local populations. Athens commemorates the “Great Fire” as the closing episode of the genocide of the Ottoman Greeks. Official Turkish histories avoid remembering minority accounts altogether.

Given this context, it appears as if Milton stumbled upon a political and ethical minefield. However, Milton’s techniques for obtaining documentary evidence inadvertently prepared him for the challenges of this non-fiction. Milton relates his research process to that of a treasure-hunter at the beach, conducting “metaphorical metal detecting…by delving through letters and personal papers” for evidence that excites his interest. The result is an “idiosyncratic collection” of histories built from personal testimonies, memoirs and letters “of ordinary people who just found themselves attempting to survive extreme situations.”[5] Milton’s works span from the Jacobean era to the present, suggesting that he is not wedded to any particular era or mindset. Although this approach has its shortcomings, Milton is simply concerned with what the documents tell, not how state-sponsored narratives should frame his work. Paradise Lost thus lays the evidence from a diverse group of Smyrniots bare for public scrutiny and provides a vehicle for the documents to “speak” to a broad audience. This honesty allows the reader to draw his or her own impressions from the evidence and to identify the glaring “silences” in preexisting literature. In a discrete and artful manner, Milton helps the reader indict Turkish official history as myth.

Nonetheless Milton’s narrative does not leave any participant in this complex story unscathed. At the opening of his book, Milton provides a “List of Characters”: British, Levantine, American, Greek, Turkish and Armenian actors that were either serving in official capacity during the crisis of 1922 or as “witnesses to the fire and to the violence”. British, non-Ottoman Greek and American characters enter the narrative at the close of the First World War. Their accounts reveal how the Allied powers’ geopolitical aspirations in the Near East sparked and eventually intensified sectarian catastrophe.[6] Milton interweaves American diplomatic cables that warned ethno-religious tension would erupt if Greek forces occupied Anatolia with conversations from the Paris Peace Conference to highlight the political-diplomatic disconnect between the conditions on the ground and ambitions of the imperialists.[7] Most damming are conversations from Admiral Mark Bristol which forbid American cruisers docked in Smyrna harbor to intervene in the impending humanitarian crisis for fear that sheltering the Christian “enemy within the state” would preclude the United States from economic relations with the Turkish victors.[8] Milton also tacitly condemns British inaction by including naval officer accounts that describe how their ship’s band was frequently directed to play so as to drown-out the screams and pleas for help echoing from the city.[9] Although the crimes committed on the part of Turkish troops are the most dramatic elements of the story, Milton also highlights how Smyrna fell “victim to reckless foreign policy”, thus providing a balanced account of how events unfolded.[10]

Milton’s narrative is broken into three parts, each detailing Smyrna in its twilight. Segment one, “Paradise”, offers a romantic account of the city prior to and during the First World War. “Serpents in Paradise” identifies the emerging tensions between Greek and Turk national ambitions through accounts of ethnic violence and the early phases of the Greco-Turkish War. Additionally, this segment suggests double-dealing by the Allied powers, tracing their initial support for Greek Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos’ Megali Idea to their ultimate conversion to pro-Turkish policy when the victor became apparent. Finally, “Paradise Lost” provides a day-by-day account of the arrival of Turkish troops to Smyrna, the destruction of the Armenian and Greek quarters and the ensuing humanitarian crisis.

Milton paints Smyrna as a melting pot through the youthful hyperbole of Petros Brussalis, a Greek Smryniot who was only eight years old in 1922.[11] Brussalis’ description allows the reader to imagine Smyrna as a prospering emporium: “you’d hear about every language under the sun…and see ships from everywhere in the world.”[12] Milton utilizes Brussalis to emphasize the multiethnic character of the Aegean trading hub so that the contrast with later developments is all the more horrific. Brussalis’ accounts also display how the fortunes of Smyrna’s different ethnic and religious groups were intertwined—unlike Anatolia, where sectarian tensions were often easily provoked.[13]  This underscores the differences in perception of Smyrna: an “infidel, majority-Christian city” to leadership in Constantinople, yet an independent “beacon of tolerance” for local populations.[14] At times, however, Milton’s narrative is punctuated with trite commentary about the city’s inevitable destruction. This allows the work to read like a popular drama, yet detracts from the seriousness and focus of the piece. What is most powerful about the witness accounts is that the authors were unaware of their impending fate—a chilling reality the reader can certainly gather for his or herself.

Milton is primarily concerned with the Levantines of Bournabat: the wealthy families of European descent who dominated the city’s commercial activity. The Levantine bourgeoise, “more than any other community”, shaped Smyrna “in their own image—rich, cosmopolitan and of mixed blood heritage.”[15] Unpublished memoirs from the Bell, Giraud, and Wood families provide the backbone of Milton’s work as their charmed existence was well documented and preserved. In many respects, the Levantines’ fall from opulence to destitution parallels that of the city. The “Paradise” portion of the book details the Levantine aristocratic life and how their trading enterprises benefited the city. However, with the outbreak of World War One, Constantinople perceived the Levantines as “enemy aliens” plotting to undermine the war effort in favor of their British homeland.[16] In actuality, the most recent generations “had never set foot in England”: as with the majority of Smyrna’s diverse population, the Levantines did not owe allegiance to the country of their ethnic origin.[17] The notion that the non-Muslim, non-Turk populations of the Empire were a fifth column wrought irreversible damage on ethno-religious relations in Anatolia by provoking hostilities that had long been dormant.[18] The Giraud memoirs illustrate how these cleavages deepened during the Greek occupation of Smyrna and the Greco-Turkish War by recounting events of sporadic ethnic violence and the stories of Turkish troops “reclaiming” the interior from “aliens” that had actually lived in Anatolia for centuries.

However the use of Levantine accounts has its shortcomings. Although Milton details the Levantines’ return to relative normalcy following the 1918 armistice, part three is ill-suited for their accounts. Whilst Hortense Wood remains in Bournabat as Turkish troops enter the city, the majority of her relatives flee on British naval vessels as safe passage from the violence and destruction was guaranteed by their British citizenship and wealth.[19] Certainly their Greek servants were not as fortunate. Although Levantine accounts are moving (for example, the families watched, from the vessel, the bank where they deposited their wealth and jewelry be consumed by fire) Milton realizes the deficiencies in his approach.[20] He then begins to focus on the journey of Garabed Harcherian, an Armenian physician struggling to sneak his family to safety.[21] Harcherian’s accounts detail “Turkish irregulars setting fire under orders” and “dousing” buildings with petrol after executing their inhabitants: descriptions that clearly reveal Turkish intent to destroy. However, Greek accounts are noticeably absent in this section.[22] As the non-Turkish quarters of the city were specifically targeted by Turkish troops, lack of a Greek voice causes this section to feel incomplete.

Milton’s use of witness accounts also provokes broader questions about historical production and memory. Levantine letters, diaries and testimonials clearly reveal their shortcomings in the final section. From a historiographical standpoint, this causes the reader to question how representative the Levantines were of Smyrna society and thus the utility of their accounts. Additionally, Milton’s supplementary characters in part three are still derived from privileged groups, including doctors, nurses and the clergy.[23] Milton details over 150,000 Armenians and Greeks waiting along the harbor for Allied assistance after fleeing their homes, yet none of their accounts are specifically integrated into the narrative. Perhaps they went unrecorded or are inaccessible: Milton does note that the majority of the refugees recovered from Smyrna harbor were literally deposited in Nea Smyrni, one of the poorest municipalities of Athens. However, by excluding these accounts, is Milton perpetuating “silence” himself?

Paradise Lost: Smyrna 1922, The Destruction of Islam’s City of Tolerance is an important contribution to preexisting literature on the “Great Fire of Smyrna.” Milton’s use of personal testimonies and intimate records provides an honest, harrowing account of Smyrna’s history without  implicitly entering the contention surrounding official Greek and Turkish accounts. Popular histories such as Milton’s have great utility: by providing a broad audience with the historical truth,   authors hold the ability to combat the “silences” that dominate historical discourse.


[1] Milton, Giles. Paradise Lost: Smyrna 1922, The Destruction of Islam’s City of Tolerance (London: Sceptre Press, 2008): xi.

[2] Ibid., 6.

[3] Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995): 26.

[4] Ibid., 55.

[5]  “Biography”. Giles Milton. Giles Milton, 1 Jan.  2017. Web. 5 Feb. 2017.

[6] Ibid., 269.

[7] Ibid., 238.

[8] Ibid., 318.

[9] Ibid., 320.

[10] Milton, 6.

[11] Ibid., 9.

[12] Ibid., 10.

[13] Ibid., 67.

[14] Ibid., 14.

[15] Ibid., 16.

[16] Ibid., 66.

[17] Ibid., 68.

[18] Ibid., 202.

[19] Ibid., 316.

[20] Ibid., 317.

[21] Ibid.,238.

[22] Ibid., 307.

[23] Ibid., 247.

4 responses to “Paradise Lost: Smyrna 1922, The Destruction of Islam’s City of Tolerance, Reviewed by Kathryn”

  1. Alanna Grogan says:

    Paradise Lost is one of my favourite books, and I really enjoyed how your analysis broke down the roles that each of Milton’s pieces of documentary evidence played in building his story. It was also interesting to note the difference in how you read the book and how I did, suggesting that your claim that Milton “allows the reader to draw his or her own impressions from the evidence and to identify the glaring “silences” in preexisting literature” is very true!
    I think that you are right in noting the silences that Milton creates while uncovering others – as he builds this image of a cosmopolitan city ripped apart by ethnic tensions, he focuses on those very cosmopolitan voices of the Levantines and the expatriates rather than looking at the very core of those ethnic tensions – the Greek and Turkish soldiers. This is perhaps a narrative that appeals more to the audience which Milton’s work of popular history was targeted at – a Western one. Looking at it this way combines Troulliot and White’s theories on history – the creation of historical narrative usually includes creating silences, to allow for interpretation, and the nature of popular history as financially motivated and targeted at specific audiences, often only exacerbates this.

  2. Sabrina says:

    Hi Kathryn. I really enjoyed your review and analysis of this book. It truly sparked my interest on the subject and I look forward to reading it in the future. Personally, what I thought was interesting is how well Milton does his research. Aside from direct narratives, I believe he uses other sources to fill in the gaps between the silences. For instance, in your analysis you mention that Milton writes about American diplomatic cables which reveal that American cruisers nearby were warned not to intervene as they had an economic relationship with the Turks. Small evidences as such ultimately strengthen anything that is constituted mainly on oral memoirs.
    In your critique, you bring up a really good point about Milton focusing on the narratives of the rich Leventine families. What I understood is that these families, aside from their homes, did not lose much. It excludes the narratives of survivors or refugees who were truly affected by the atrocities committed by the Turkish. You leave it with a question about whether Milton was perpetuating “silence”, and I do believe he is. Trouillot mentions something along the lines of silences being inherit in history. Therefore no matter how many voices are given, it is inevitable to completely “un-silence” a historical event. However I do think it will allow other historians to research and reveal the narratives that Milton was not able to.

  3. Henri Barbeau says:

    I don’t know very much about Turkish history but your review of what seems to be a pretty fascinating, albeit brutal, period made it all very accessible.
    I wonder though whether some of the complaints you raise about Milton’s work at times seeming too much like a “popular drama” could have something to do with issues of historical narrative raised in the White readings. White wrote about certain story-types found in fiction that pervade among both “particular histories” and “metahistories,” like tragedy, comedy, and satire. The synopsis you provide here seems to put in firmly in the area of tragedy. The title of the book, Paradise Lost, is itself a reference to one of the giants of the English cannon, written by another Milton.
    I wonder if maybe some of the deficiencies you mention, such as the “trite commentary” near the beginning foreshadowing the city’s coming destruction, are a consequence of this choice of story structure. The same can be said about the decision to focus on the tragic fall of the Levantines from “opulence to destitution,” that as you argue may have meant the exclusion of Greek accounts of the fire. After all, narrative, White argues, means the prioritization of some facts over others. Perhaps in the case of Paradise Lost this meant a fair bit of distortion for art’s sake. Another aspect of this problem is the romanticization of pre-war Smyrna. Was it really the Paradise Milton alludes to? Or was the situation more volatile, and more tense, than his tragic narrative requires?

  4. Naomi says:

    Hi Kathryn. I know very little about Turkish history, but your description of Paradise Lost made the book sound fascinating. I was intrigued by the book’s heavy reliance on witness accounts as this is rare among popular histories, particularly those about military events.

    Your drawing on Trouillot’s ‘silences’ was an apt decision. I particularly enjoyed reading about how, as you said, Milton allows readers to use the primary sources in deriving their own conclusions about the silences at play. For me, this seemed to bring with it some interesting implications about historical consumption. By allowing general readers to construct their own impressions of state-led ‘silences’, could Milton’s book serve a purpose beyond retelling this one historical moment, in sparking greater criticism among the public about the state’s power to distort history? In this sense, the contemporary political implications of the book–beyond those surrounding the events in Smyrna, as you discuss–are interesting to think about.

    Similarly, I also appreciated the connections you draw between the Turkish state’s production of narratives, and the ongoing production of top-down Turkish nationalism. With these you seem to highlight some dynamics around ‘silencing’ which go beyond those in the Haiti cases Trouillot discusses. Trouillot presents ‘silences’as more of a one-way street, in which (say) narratives about the Haitian Revolution become submerged under those of the French Revolution. The silences which Paradise Lost tackles are, as you suggest, more fraught, since opposing sides still actively attempt to silence the other’s interpretation, and (in the Turkish state’s case) to thus solidify legitimacy. Towards the end of his book, Trouillot discusses how recognizing historical silences can motivate the silenced to pursue future justice–an insight which, in light of the nationalistic debate still surrounding the attack on Smyrna, and the stakes involved, seems particularly pertinent.

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