Smyrna, August 1922: The largest Greek city is delivered to fire, rope and knife; all of Eastern Greece, to annihilation. Unable to come up with an explanation, governments in Athens speak of an “Asia Minor Catastrophe,” pretending it was not Greece herself that was driven to the slaughterhouse that month but some distant country in another continent.
Athens, September 1922: A collegium of bishops clears one of its members from pending allegations and legitimizes his election to the position of Oecumenical Patriarch of New Rome Konstantinople.
Konstantinople, July 1923: A patriarch is forced to abdication. The reforms that he had rushed to implement are all retracted or neglected; all, except for one: the abolition of the Calendar.
In Marshfield, in Kímolos, in New Ionia, and finally, in Wexford, seasoned emigrant who arrives, settles, resigns, packs up, relocates and restarts, a whole decade from November 2002 to September 2013, this man leaves Wisconsin for Greece and Greece for Ireland; and then, exile to Kímolos, for the hard years from September 1950 to June 1960; and then again in Kímolos, refugee and hermit the whole time from September 1640 to December 1650. Different times they are, and changing places, for an expatriate who seems to change but little from century to century and keeps returning to the same island. Young victim of yet another population exchange, too old to change his ways, and now already a middle-aged professional without specific ties or designs, he seeks solace in that special pastime of middle-aged expatriates: time and again he will set out to review the old life in order to find out what went wrong and when. His country ruined and his church divided, looking at days that may belong to two different calendars, he writes and tries to remember and, mostly, talks to himself. He still has to keep the times of at least three different lives: his own, the others’, and an infinite series of inexhaustibly branching what-ifs.
His original intention was to simply commit to what had at first looked like a very simple exercise: the description of passing years in a small community, at a certain place, and for a defined period of time. His chosen narrator could be a monk, a psalmist, a mathematician, a political prisoner or a doctor; a man anyway who is certain of unshakable truths – the kind that clings to ancient rhythms. The time did not have to be any more than ten years; the place, no bigger than a tiny island in the Aegean. In the beginning, an order was applied of clear definitions and forms. But writers do not define the outcomes of their stories, and soon he realized that, within his own study, in the pages of his own book, he was not the only one speaking. Sitting next to him, there had always been a second writer, and sometimes a third one too; several others had been watching and, in due time, they came forth and made themselves known. They were not the only ones with a story to tell. The island, greater in fact than its size, could not stop growing. Sometimes it felt as if Kímolos was nothing smaller, in fact, nothing less, than a perfect and detailed image of a fallen Creation. When this kind of realizations take place, more changes are bound to follow. The writer himself became a reader first and then a character in other writers’ stories. As for the time limits that had been so carefully drawn, those ten years that the unsuspecting author had meant to capture in seven neatly divided chapters, they too began to expand as soon as they were put on paper. For having caught the shadow of the times, the times’ peculiarly circular rhythms these years of his began to replicate. Something else he had in mind; he had sought other things. What he found was, again, that old and so familiar New Time of ours: a lattice of overlapping cycles that somehow erupted from the Loss of 1453, or from the Surprise in the 1492, or from one of the even stranger times that followed thereafter; a spherical expanse that apparently reached its outer limits by the end of the seventeenth century; and a circle made of dilemmas and enigmas, and which can now only contract back to its original size. But he also found a passage.
Excerpt from Chapter 1:
α. The origins of a story cannot always be traced, nor its circumstances clearly defined; sometimes even the conditions are barely known. Should beginnings have to be assigned to my case, I guess it could be the insatiable demand of the mills of Manchester for Aegyptian cotton, or, perhaps, the voracious appetite of the National Health Service for foreign-born, low-paid physicians, but it could have been any other reason that makes one’s parents move to England. I am now myself a parent. And I have to start thinking of such things as reviews and balances. Librarians approaching retirement age have on occasion mentioned to me the spectacular achievements of famous compatriots of mine; in fact, Easterners of a previous generation. I know of them, but I do not really know them; some were evacuated the eleventh hour, some made fortunes in maritime transportation; others found success in the automobile industry. It is hard to see the similarity. The younger ones in the Library have not heard of glamorous shipping magnates or designers of cute cars, but they still ask questions about the legendary riches of actors and musicians talked about in regular London gossip. Junior staff tend to ignore me. Interns invariably mistake me for a Cypriot; I wish we had only been as unlucky as those of Keryneia and Famagusta – my own land does not even exist anymore. My birthplace, the real one, does not even need to be named. Under the brown fog of a winter noon, (that certain) Mr. Evgenides, the Smyrna merchant with a pocket full of currants, may have been a relative or countryman of some sort, a fellow traveller that I was not meant to meet – the celebrated poet never elaborated and neither will I. If specifically asked, I will say, of course, that I hail from York and my religion is Catholic. And although I do so to avoid lengthy explanations, neither statement would be inaccurate – but these days, people rarely ask such questions.
It is often said that in society one is not to be asked where he is from. “If he is from York, he will say so; and if not, it will not do to embarrass him.” In a way, I am from York as much as I am from Smyrna. I love Yorkshire; the supple colors, the fractal sunlight of wet afternoons, casual discussions that are likely to take sudden turns into personal questions. Mostly, I love being called luv’. I had made myself a home in York; enjoyed working there, relished every day of it while it lasted. I cannot say though that I liked the bronze statue of Saint Constantine that was made by a clearly uninformed sculptor. I do not understand it, I see no resemblance, I cannot see the point of its strange posturing; and yet, in private ceremony of my own, every year, the eleventh day of May, especially if it happens to fall on a Sunday, I try to return and spend a little time before the statue: to contemplate how far we have travelled, who we are. It is awesome, it is stunning, it is impossible to replicate; what the poorly designed statue can sometimes bring to life. When everything will have been thought of, and said and weighed, it may turn out to have indeed been England’s finest hour, when, by an unpredictable quirk of time, at the occurrence of coincidence, or for the unfathomable reasons of providence, it was in remote Eboracum, that is, York, and not in any other place, that Saint Constantine was proclaimed Emperor before the soldiers of the Sixth.
York is rich. Next to the York Minster – a beautiful cathedral ravaged by the Reformation and usurped by Elizabethan sacerdoce – equidistant to the Latin St. Wilfrid on one side and a Richard III Museum on the other, the awkward and rather inapt statue does not represent the only claim the city of York has to greater fame. Yorkshire has always had its share in the dual and indivisible continuity that makes a united kingdom United Kingdom, that is, the quest for historically purposeful rule and adherence to a meaningfully English Church. In fact, York dignitaries and others from the greater Britannia Inferior attended the First Oecumenical Synod, which, held in Nicaea, was and hosted by Emperor Constantine. It might be since then actually, which would be ten whole centuries before the War of the Roses, that York’s destiny was irrevocably linked with the natural and unalienable right of the British peoples to anointed monarchy and the rule of law.
I do love York, and I love England. On random checks by the Immigration at airports, at school boards, or by the desks of loan officers, I rarely fail to declare my fealty to Crown and United Kingdom; if only the monarch had been crowned and the kingdom could afford unity. I also wish Cromwell’s usurpation of office and privilege were ended one day and a Citizens’ Parliament convened. When I fly back from Dublin or Chicago, I may be pulled for questioning somewhat more frequently than others, but in fact, I have no relevant political views on current events other, of course, than my occasionally voiced argument for a United Republic that could serve both isles. Yet I am not even sure that such an option, certainly not a popular one, would be desired, or deserved, by all. Contrary to suspicions expressed in the past, I have no strong opinions on much discussed secessions. Regarding secessions undiscussed, like every one else, I do understand that I could one day mourn the departure of Wales or cry for Cornwall’s lost beauty; along with the rest of the world, I should be horrified to see Scotland break free. It does not change a thing. My own feelings, I know well now, are inconsequential. This new establishment of ours, barely four centuries old, is already tired, indeed, senile, and too preoccupied with its own ailments to take an interest in any one man’s views. As a matter of fact, these days, even time-honored attitudes and the unshakeable values of whole generations (or nations, or races, or civilizations) do not count for much either. I wish for progress, but it is obvious that we tread down again the same path that our steps were beating few decades ago; the one which keeps bringing us back to the very same spot where we began. And there is not much compassion or even understanding to be shown; there is not much time either. Europe and the Western Democracies – concoctions of our minds really, which now seek our own blood – will applaud unreservedly any plan that would see England leave the British Commonwealth.
Having little, indeed, to do with political institutions, nothing with the various ways of their subversion, the story I will tell may appear political but is not; it is of a simpler kind. It is about people caught in the whirlwind of overwhelming changes. And for all its simplicity, it is a story that sometimes runs a contorted course. Haphazardly unfolded, and often taken through obscure quarters, it may puzzle and confuse. Nothing, though, would be farther from the truth; it is simple. It is simple, but it is not easy. Its peculiarities and faults will all appear in due time; one after the other. But at this time, suffice to warn that hurdles to this humble endeavor of mine may have been numerous but none was as callous, perfidious or obstreperous as that spirit that hides inside the language and seeks relentlessly to expropriate memories and meanings; but of this, later. I should not complain; I had been warned. I had heard it would be so; in Baltimore and Boston. Then, I forgot it, by the lulling warmth of a fireplace in central Wisconsin I did; and in Belfast, I read the name of the beast and understood. It had all begun long before I was born.
β. Early on Saturday the twenty-seventh of August 1922, Saint Poemen’s Day, a Turkish army began its march; “onto Smyrna,” was the only order, “to the Sea,” the sole objective. The operation had been preceded by the action of irregulars the previous night. The tightly packed regiments were flanked by thousands of auxiliaries and followed by a whole second army, one of bandits, peddlers and looters: the infamous Hassap Askeri, Butchers’ Division. Only a couple of days before, the Greek Army had been ordered out; fifty thousand unbeaten but unsupplied soldiers left to fend for themselves without ammunition or command. All the way to Ancyra, they never lost a battle, had not been defeated, but earlier that August they had been abandoned by their generals who had to rush back to Athens in time for the next coup. Support by the Allied Forces had suddenly ceased. Provision of guns by all major exporters had, long before, reversed to the other side. What happens when a foreign army enters an unprotected city is known; what happens when a Turkish army with a mandate takes a Christian city is known even better, but this time nothing was left to chance. The French and British Allied Armed Forces stationed in Smyrna to supervise the transfer of power had blocked the escape routes and made sure that all civilians were trapped in the condemned city. The Greek Navy was not allowed to approach the Gulf of Smyrna. Admiral Bristol made sure that no journalist was to write a single word about what was going to happen; Hemingway was silenced. This was not Ilinden, this was Smyrna. A change of flags was not enough; the sacking of the city was not enough; the usual rounds of rape, torture, murder, looting and arson would not be enough. Kemal’s end of the bargain had not simply demanded the absorption of Ionia, Vithynia, Lydia, Galatia, Lykaonia, Cappadocia, Pontos, Lykia and Thrace into the newborn Turkish Republic. The exchange that was about to take place that Saturday was an unprecedented one. It meant British protectorates in Mesopotamia and Arabia; French mandates in Syria and Lebanon; and even a joint administration, Italians included, in Northern Africa: the benefits of exploitation without the responsibilities or the risks of conquest. Times had changed, again. Neither gold nor slaves, neither land nor factories, but oil and oil alone was this century’s first and foremost commodity. A gentlemen’s agreement had been made that could circumvent easily the allegiances of the Great War and put an end to hostilities and inflamed rhetorics. But then, there were the people. The people were still there, and the people were in the way. Devastating as Kemal’s deal would prove to the national and financial interests of what would later become the Turkish Republic, it was outright murderous for the millions of Christian citizens of the rapidly disintegrating Ottoman Empire. Agreements were made, which would later be called treaties and which demanded the delivery of lands without their occupants; without past, civilization or memory. Cities were being brokered, which had to be delivered clean of history and people, readily available to colonization. Smyrna, Greece’s largest city, was simply meant to vanish.
The Great War was over; the Germans had lost, their principles had won – like before. Later that same century, fighting under new ideologies, not very different from earlier ones, Germany would lose yet another war; and again would those same policies return, stronger and more atrocious. At the hands of an administration that had never been adverse to institutionalized torture, kidnapping and murder, nor had ever shied away from ordering scores of civilians slaughtered and cities burned, the Armenians of that century only happened to be the first ones to suffer the demands of the New Order’s national and religious Darwinism. Others were to follow. Now, this August, under French, British and Italian supervision, fulfilling the plans of the last Sultan’s German advisors, the rest of Christendom had to be liquidated too. Errors and oversights would, of course, be recognized later and addressed through proper channels; and so would the excesses – excesses of what? Scapegoats would be found, and one ideology or another would be blamed, but the same unchanged massacres of Christians would be repeated with maddening regularity: it is the way of the world behind that solid and impenetrable line that is made up by the Vistula, the Adriatic and the Greater Syrtis, the East. And it never changes. East of the line, under one pretext or another, every single generation that had happened to be blessed with the democracies which followed the dissolution of the Sultanate and the demise of the Habsburgs also got to live by the three invaluable gifts of this century’s recognition of an unlimited Right to Self-determination: the simplified justice of armed banditry; the dire logic of engineered hunger; the bitter fruits of exile.
In the aftermath of the Great War, in the vanquished Ottoman Empire, war outrages against Christian civilians had been continuous, calculated and increasing. The word genocide was not in currency back then but its practice was already more effective and pervasive than its future instances later in that same century. Regimes were changing and treaties being concluded, but 1922 was already the eleventh year of the ongoing population cleansing – the eleventh hour really. The morning of that Saturday, the bloodiest massacre of civilians, in a century now notorious for its atrocities was about to begin. Uninterrupted, it would go on for weeks. It was not to be halted until the last Greek had left Eastern Greece or died there. Those who ignored the agreements of the so-called Population Exchange did not live to tell what happened. West of Smyrna, in the ancient Erythraea, a single town, Vryoula, defied the order to evacuate: not a single man, woman or child survived to give an account. No one ever talks of Vryoula. Of the half million Christians of Ionia, more than hundred thousand would perish within the first week of the Turkish administration. For what happened to the rest of Asia Minor, there are no numbers. The survivors only were packed in ships and sent away. Never before, in the two or three centuries of her uncertain existence, had Europe witnessed the complete annihilation of a city.
This was not meant to be an isolated incident. This kind of destruction was no accident; it would return, grow, mature, and continue in order to become the way things happen. It is an amazing coincidence to the astronomer, a very sad realization to the historian: nineteen exact years, nineteen only years later, at the perfect completion of one full Metonian cycle, the same crime would be repeated, at far larger scale and with improved method: in Leningrad. The recurrence of the dates is maddening. On the 8th of September (new style calendar), Manstein’s forces having already turned the Russian artillery positions at Lake Ilmen, Shliselburg was captured. The Nine Hundred Days of Leningrad would begin the very next day, which would actually have been the very same 27th day of August, the one of Saints Poemen and Phanurius, according to the Julian calendar in effect in the Greece of 1922 and the Russian Church of 1941. A full Metonian cycle it was, and a perfect repetition: the two martyrdoms did not only begin the same date, same day of the year; they were witnessed by two identical moons too. And another nineteen years passed, and then another. And the course of humanity’s ugly transformation during these years would remain and, surprisingly, become even more formidable, ever less reversible; untouchable like solar and lunar periodicities. But the 1922 was, in a way, unique. Never before, in the long history of warfare and diplomacy, or even in the brief period of our revolutions, had a single signature on a flimsy piece of paper created three million refugees. It would come back, again and again; and we would only grow more accustomed and more oblivious. Nowadays, not that long really after the year of 1922, similar acts of betrayal and sacrifice will barely make the news for a day or two, and are not very likely to be recognized for what they are.
Philadelphia, Phocaea, Aydini burned, but from Smyrna an example and a testimony to the centuries had to be made. When Smyrna was burned, the old world burned. Smyrna was not only the largest Greek city: the last metropolis of the Ancient Greece, the last city with an uninterrupted civic life that exceeded four thousand years, the living presence of the New Rome, the birthplace of the Church was Smyrna. And when she burned no one voiced indignation or concern; not even the government of Athens whose head, only a few years later, would nominate Kemal, by that time also known as Atatürk, for the Nobel Peace Prize. To those trapped in Smyrna though, the festivities of the diplomats might as well have happened in another planet. The first week of the new administration passed, and then the second; sunrise was following sunset, the carnage was going on, and so was the loud music from the bands on the dreadnoughts and the frigates of the Entente Cordiale. In the end, for all the rhetorics in the House and the cordial promises, it turned out they certainly “could stand aside and see the thing going on practically in sight of their eyes, arms folded, looking on dispassionately, doing nothing!” And so they did, as if this city’s end could not qualify as “the direst crime that ever stained the pages of history.” Such noble and praiseworthy assertions had adorned Sir Edward Grey’s famous speech to the Parliament, eight years earlier; they had been made on the occasion of an infinitely less destructive event, the occupation of Belgium by a regular German army. But now in the port of Smyrna, on British, French and Italian warships, bands were constantly playing rousing sea chanteys alternating with waltzes, while the officers dined, played chess or wrote letters to their families; the only way the terrifying screams from the quay, not hundred yards away, could be masked. Tired and absent-minded musicians on the French frigates even played the Marseillaise. There was to be no refuge and no quarter. Those who swam to the battleships were simply left to drown. Those who dared climb were doused with boiling oil; and those who made it to the deck were hatcheted and thrown back to sea. A swarm of urchins would follow to extract watches, toothcrowns and golden crosses from corpses or the half-alive victims of democracy and self-determination.
The Smyrneans had not understood – that much is clear. But their only fault was that for a brief moment, for three deceptive years, they had believed that there was a government for them in Athens. And those in Athens had believed in their Allies’ promises, but they did not know either – they did not care to know. The government was a fake, and the alliances of its real patrons had already shifted. Borders were being redrawn, and a statesman in Athens had just sold out the eastern half of Greece; to secure the baubles and the trinkets of his clan’s precarious privileges. Revolutions were dying, revolutions were being born those days, just as they had done before. Armies were mobilized and politicians were making statements. But this was not the time of Christian saints and Roman kings. This time the sun was not going to change its course for the sake of a prophet’s prayer or for the bravery of one soldier. After that August, the cry “Smyrna is burning” would become, and remain, the death that rises every morning.
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