Years ago, for whatever reason I developed an unexplained curiosity about the Ottoman Empire. While this passing interest didn’t last very long, it lasted long enough to inspire me to read a few books on Turkish history. One of those books I happened to read described a horrible catastrophe that took place in 1922 in the city of Smyrna, located in what’s now called Turkey. Smyrna, an incredibly cosmopolitan city with strong commercial and cultural ties to communities across Europe, was a majority Christian city and home to more Greeks than the city of Athens. As the Greco-Turkish War came to a close Smyrna found itself occupied by the victorious Turkish army. As a horrific fire broke out and quickly spread across the city, Smyrna’s surviving non-Muslim population found itself on the city’s dockside anxiously trying to escape both the flames and the murderous Turkish Army. While thousands escaped, many did not. With its large Greek, Armenian and European expat communities dead or forced out, and much of the city burnt to the ground Smyrna was renamed Izmir and recast as a wholly Turkish city. Old Smyrna and all it represented ceased to exist.
About five years ago I happened to read that Giles Milton, author of White Gold: The Extraordinary Story of Thomas Pellow and North Africa’s One Million European Slaves had written a book about the Smyrna tragedy. Oddly enough, even though I loved White Gold, whenever I saw a copy of his Paradise Lost: Smyrna 1922 during my weekend library visits I never grabbed it. Finally, after five years of ignoring it on the library shelf I took it. And ya know what, I’m glad I did. Paradise Lost is a very good book.
There’s much to like about Paradise Lost. While Milton covers a lot ground in order to tell the story of Smyrna, his writing is very good. Considering the subject matter Milton keeps things fairly lively and not once did I find myself bored or distracted. His emphasis on telling the stories of individual people probably helped keep things interesting. Lastly, because of his detailed descriptions of life among the city’s many Greek, Armenian, British, French and Italian residents Milton’s book serves as nice reminder that until the middle part of the 20th century most sizeable Levantine cities were incredibly polyglot and ethnically diverse.
Just as he did with White Gold, Milton has crafted a history book that non academics like myself will enjoy reading. It makes a fine companion read to Mark Mazower’s incredibly well researched Salonica: City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews 1430-1950. It’s also inspired me read Christopher de Bellaigue’s Rebel Land: Unraveling the Riddle of History in a Turkish Town. as well as Nazim Hikmet’s novel Life’s Good, Brother. It’s starting to look like I’m once again inspired to read about Turkey. If that’s the case I can’t wait to get started.