Smyrna, or Izmir is a city full of landmarks that evoke memories, like the iconic clock which is the symbol of the city. It is a city whose monuments betray its multicultural past, as it has been a melting pot of cultures. It is a mythical city for many Greeks who have either heard stories from their ancestors or read about it. A city full of songs, there are not a few locations in and around the city that will recall lyrics from well-known songs: Alatsatiani, Bournovas, Karatassi, Kordelio…
The recent great film success Smyrna my beloved, based on the screenplay by Mimi Denissi, as well as the older film Rosa of Smyrna, based on the book Ismail and Rosa by Yiannis Giannellis-Theodosiadis allowed a younger generations to learn more about the historical events, bringing to life images of old Smyrna with rich ethnographic elements. Books that turned back to those years, such as the Witches of Smyrna by Mara Meimaridis, later made into a television series, took audiences in a time machine back to the neighbourhoods and the mansions of the city during the heyday of the Greeks of Smyrna.
Whoever got to know Smyrna from stories, songs, books and the small or big screen, will be surprised by the image of the city today. One arrives to find another modern big city with tall buildings, uneven junctions, shopping centres, modern transport, and heavy traffic on the streets like any big city. Construction works and countless shops and malls that cover every consumer need, but also a beautiful coastal road with palm trees, lawns, trams, walking and cycling paths, the cordon as the locals call it (cordon, as it looks like a long line), the famous quay where old Smyrnians took their walks, near the Greek Consulate and the customs office. In the background, beyond the waterfront, you can see the famous Kordelio, of which the locals speak with pride, and if you turn your gaze to the other side, you will see a more picturesque side of the city spread out amphitheatrically on the hill.
The Greek eye can not help but look for old Smyrna, a city inextricably linked to our memory, as a place where Hellenism excelled, or as a place of calamity. Although the fire of 1922 destroyed many of the traces of the old Greek element there are places that still act as a reference for Greeks. In 2015, for the first time in 93 years they celebrated the Orthodox Easter in Agios Vukolos, the patron saint of Smyrna, and the only Orthodox church left standing after the disaster.
Agios Voukolos, basilica cross-roofed with dome in the old quarter of Basmane, is a beautiful church, a gift of the ladies of Smyrna. In the upper part of the interior, from where one can also observe the details of the rich decoration inside the church, there is still the epitaph of a Great Friday of the last years of Smyrna as a Greek city.
The temple, built over an ancient temple in the second half of the 19th century, is today mainly used as a venue for events. The representations of saints on the walls have suffered and have been altered, and despite extensive restoration work there is room for better conservation of a monument of great religious and cultural heritage value.
The church in which the Orthodox services are held regularly is Agia Fotini, once a Dutch Protestant church that filled the void of the after he destruction of Smyrna’s Agia Fotini.
Next to Agios Vukolos is the Press Museum of the Union of Journalists of Izmir with exhibits all the way to the 19th century. Old printing presses, a camera that many of us have not only in black and white films of the silent cinema, the front pages of the old newspapers of Smyrna, where the Greek newspapers Hestia, Kosmos, Amalthia, Nea Smyrni stand out, along with personal belongings of journalists, such as Abdi Ipectsi, typewriters and television equipment from past decades.
The different faces of the city
A walk through the streets of Smyrna with sites like the bazaar, the Turkish sweets, and the calling of the muezzin make one realise they are in the East. On yet the tall buildings, uneven junctions, modern transport and large pedestrian streets with modern shopping reflects the city’s modern face. In the surrounding narrow streets, there are old houses that, together with other multi-purpose buildings showcase the city’s architectural past.
The soul of a city is its people. In the market there is the opportunity to talk to many who welcome us and speak in Greek. But the smile is also wide from those who do not expect to sell something. Aleyna approached us while we were enjoying the wonderful sweets of a mini pastry shop inside the bazaar. She is a young girl who was learning Greek and was drinking her coffee next to us. We exchanged phone numbers and said to keep in touch until we meet again.
Greeks from the opposite side of the sea maintain friendships with people from Smyrna and other areas of Turkey. The need for communication is important, ultimately what unites our peoples is more important than what divides us.
Katerina Fikari is a journalist and communications consultant who lives on Lemnos. She has studied Journalism, Social Sciences and European Civilization.