A town of faded glory

“The ports of the Levant, you know that they are what is richest and most populous! Smyrna, what wealth!” – Tsar Alexander I, 12 March 1808

Unlike the Tsar, my first impression of Izmir was of a mass of grey apartment blocks spreading like concrete lichen across the hilltops around the Gulf of Izmir, a large bay cutting into the Aegean coast of Turkey. Two huge passenger liners were anchored in the harbour, smaller boats were scooting back and forth across the water, full of commuters, and the green hills were clad with patches of grey.

I sat with my host Akin in a bar on the Kordon, a long promenade that lined the southern shore of the bay, next to the older part of town. Couples and little groups of friends were sitting on the grass between the houses and the sea, some sheltering in the shade of bushes and palm trees while others sweated in the June sun. We sat in the shade of an awning, drinking cold beers and talking about the history of the town, formerly Smyrna – one of the most cosmopolitan ports in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Few of the old buildings have survived the great fire that stormed through here in 1922. A couple of elegant turn-of-the-century terraced houses grace the edge of the Kordon, flanked by multi-storey apartments probably from the 1950s. The old mansions of Greek, Jewish, English and French merchants are mostly gone.

Granted a degree of autonomy by the Ottoman Empire, Smyrna had been a wealthy, cosmopolitan port with a rich cultural scene. Taverns on the quay stayed open all night, their clientele dancing to French, Greek and Turkish music. The Greeks were especially known for their wild parties.

The authorities governed here with a light touch: even when he periodically banned wine in Constantinople, the Sultan wouldn’t let officials interfere with the supply of wine to Smyrna.

Akin, my host, seemed fairly typical of a modern Izmiri. He was an amiable young student with long black hair and stubble, a mix of Macedonian and Anatolian genes, secular in outlook. In school he had been part of a death metal band, now he was studying sound engineering.

“The government says Izmir people are gavur [unbelievers],” he told me. “They never support Izmir.”

But there was nothing new about this. Smyrna was a city nurtured by merchants, not fostered by governments, and it always had a reputation for excellent wine, sexual freedom and a vibrant music scene.

It was the music that interested me. Turkish folk musicians, especially those who were not on the best terms with the government, produced some wonderful music, and liberal Smyrna was an important centre for interaction with other musicians too. Sephardic Jews were also here in fair numbers, as were Greeks, although both groups have now almost disappeared. The 1922 population swap between Turkey and Greece meant the departure of thousands of Greeks from Smyrna. They ended up in the islands, Athens and Thessaloniki, and took their Rebetiko songs with them.

Smyrna’s glory has faded, and today it looks like any other large, touristy town on this part of the Turkish coast. I did manage to find some local music – a man playing baglama next on the Kordon, and later on, a band in a bar – a guitarist, a baglama player, a drummer and a female singer, playing Turkish classics.

I didn’t find any Greek music here, apart from on a Turkish-Greek-Jewish compilation called “Smyrna Recollections”. But the sleeve notes were revealing. They made me suspect that Izmiris are rather proud of their reputation:

“Open your hearts to the Turks, Rums and Jews of Izmir who lived together for centuries along with their common and diverse characteristics. It’s your turn to embrace Gavur Izmir. Enjoy it.”

Here’s a little sample: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7VeN4Cjo5t4

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