The borders of Eastern Europe are dynamic and fluid. They depend upon more than geography or topography. They also have expanded or contracted depending upon history and politics. A striking example of this is the current idea of what constitutes Eastern Europe. The region has been defined by the capitalism/communism divide that ran through the heart of Europe during the Cold War. Anything west of that divide was considered either part of central or western Europe. Anything east of that divide was considered part of Eastern Europe. This made for some incoherent geographical oddities. Take for instance Vienna, which happens to be further east in Europe than Prague. The Austrian capital has never been seen as part of Eastern Europe. It is considered Mitteleuropa to the core. On the other hand, Prague is still labelled by many as part of Eastern Europe because the city was located east of the iron curtain. This dividing line still defines views of Eastern and Western Europe. Unfortunately, this skews historical perspective. Eastern Europe has always been a fluid concept, one that can expand or contract depending upon how one cares to define the region. For historical reasons, I prefer to include the Balkans, Thracian Turkey and the Levant as part of Eastern Europe.
Old Smyrna – City of the Levant
The Levant – Exotic Sensibility & Eastern Sensuality
The Levant is a term that first arose in the late 15th century to denote lands around the Mediterranean Sea east of Italy. The Eastern Mediterranean region included parts of Southeastern Europe, North Africa, Asia Minor and the Middle East. These regions were home to some of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities such as Alexandria in Egypt, Thessaloniki, Smyrna, and Beirut in the Ottoman Empire. These port cities were hubs of trade, imperial interests, highly sophisticated cultures and ethnic complex societies. Europeans came to settle in these lands or built upon existing communities that had inhabited these areas for centuries. In the 19th and 20th centuries, cities in the Levant enjoyed golden ages only to fall into decline due to World Wars, nationalism and anti-colonial movements that eventually led to the European populations in these cities either vanishing due to violence or fleeing to nations filled with their ethnic kin.
The Europeans who lived in the Levant came from many different countries and ethnic backgrounds. The traditional definition of Eastern Europeans must be expanded to include those living in the Levant. This means that whether they were Greek, Italian, British, French, Armenian or Jewish, they were also part of a culture that melded an exotic sensibility with an eastern sensuality. This hybrid culture was much greater than the sum of its parts. The destruction and/or dissolution of it was a loss to world heritage. Fortunately, memories of these communities still live on today in art and architecture, diaries and memoirs, cinema and theater. These sources are used to understand Levantines and their unique culture. Writers, artists, and directors have sometimes been able to recreate this vanished world and convey its history.
A new occupation – Greek troops marching in Smyrna, May 1919
A Rare Opportunity – Smyrna in Peace & War
One of the best films on a specific historical event in the Levant is Smyrna which was released in 2021. The most expensive film ever produced in Greece, it provides a window into a world consumed by flames during several horrific days in September 1922 when the Greek and Armenian communities in the city were destroyed. I was lucky enough to get an opportunity to view Smyrna on the big screen this past week. European movies usually do not make it to northeastern Ohio where I currently reside. Through what can only be described as a serendipitous bit of luck, I learned that seven hundred theaters in the United States, including a local one, were showing the film on December 8th. This was a rare opportunity to see a Levantine city’s teeming exoticism brought back to life. The film tells the tragic story of the Burning of Smyrna centered around an extended Greek family. Smyrna begins during World War I when the city was peaceful while the rest of the Ottoman Empire was beset by war. Smyrna’s eventual reckoning was inextricably connected to the conflict.
While World War I may have ended on the Western Front with the signing of an armistice on November 11, 1918, in other parts of the world the war continued unabated. Across much of Eastern Europe fighting still raged. The same was true in parts of the eastern Mediterranean and near East. Many histories of the war fail to account for post-1918 conflicts that simmered and sometimes exploded for several more years. This oversight is unfortunate because important conflicts tied to the First World War transformed the European presence in parts of the Levant. This was the case with the Greco-Turkish War from 1919 – 1922 which forms much of the backdrop to the film Smyrna. The Ottoman Empire had been defeated in World War I, but this did not settle what would become of the lands and peoples it had ruled over for almost five hundred years.
The Greeks had a long and rich history along the Aegean Coast of Asia Minor. Smyrna was its most outstanding example. In the 19th and early 20th century, Smyrna was the greatest Greek city in the eastern Mediterranean. Half of its 300,000 inhabitants were Greek. The city also had Turkish, Armenian and Jewish quarters. In addition, there were communities of British, French, Italians and Americans. This reflected the fact that the Ottoman Empire was a multicultural entity. The different ethnic groups lived in relative harmony, especially when compared to what happened during and after the First World War. Nationalism unleashed pent up frustration and suppressed demons due to economic, ethnic and religious frictions.
From dream to nightmare – Greeks and Armenians trying to flee Smyrna in September 1922
A New Occupation – Beginning of the End
When the war “officially” ended in November 1918, Greece was on the victorious Entente side. Conversely, the Ottoman Empire had been defeated and faced dismemberment. Greek nationalists, led by Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos, espoused the vision of Greater Greece which would incorporate Greek communities separated from the homeland by geography and history. This included the Greek population of Asia Minor. Smyrna was the city most coveted by the nationalists. With the Turks thought to be on their knees in Anatolia, Greek nationalists saw an opportunity for expansion. To this end, the Greek Army sailed into Smyrna on May 15, 1919, and occupied the city. This was just the start of an attempt to expand Greek control up and down the coastlines, as well as into the heart land of Turkish Anatolia. This would lead to disaster for Smyrna, something the movie makes terrifyingly clear.
Click here to read: An All Too Real Horror Film- Smyrna & 1922: More Than A Movie (Part Two)