MY HERITAGE Asia Minor

For tens of millions of people, the thought of Asia Minor, also known as Anatolia, when you take in the entire length of Turkey, is a sad topic. Sad or rather tragic for the various diverse, historical inhabitants of the region are no more. Today you will find Turkish and Kurdish people only, rather than the once thriving Greek, Armenian, Assyrian and to a lesser degree Levantine and Jewish communities who lived side by side with Turkish, for the most part as friends.

In 2023 we will come to the 100th anniversary of one of the most disgraceful and disgusting acts in human history; the population exchange of Greece and Turkey which followed the ‘exit’ of millions of Orthodox adherents in the years leading up to this period and the brutal massacres/atrocities and cleansing of Christian populations of Anatolia. It is important that the rulers of modern Turkey correct the wrongs of the past; and it is just as important that we who are descendants of Asia Minor remain as friends with people of this country. What has happened in the past must never be forgotten and to ensure it never happens again, we need to treat everyone with respect and courtesy. The same respect and courtesy that existed between Geeks and Turks in Asia Minor well before the events of the early 20th Century unfolded.

When I say what happened in the past, I mean genocide which affected Greeks, Armenians, Assyrians, Kurds, Arabs.

My pappou Vasilis was born in Aivali, and possibly giagiaCassandra in Smyrna.

They, like many other Greek speakers, ended up on Lesvos. This island is where my parents were born, and it is a beautiful island that is worth a visit by any traveller. The rest of the family tree is from Lesvos, though it is possible one further grandparent had an Asia Minor connection. As my parents were orphans as children, and there doesn’t appear to be too many papers, it is always difficult to work out our entire lineage.

2020 was meant to be my fourth visit to Turkey, after a great visit last year to Aivali. The coronavirus has placed that trip on hold. Until the day I return, let me reminisce of the ancient homeland with a memory from decades ago.

What was it that made me go to Asia Minor (Mikra Asia) and more importantly, what did I expect to achieve? 

For the benefit of all concerned, Asia Minor is an area once inhabited by Greeks from classical all the way through to modern times. On an early trip to Greece I suddenly decided that I would like to have a closer look at the shoreline that is visible from such islands as Lesvos and Chios. After consulting with my astonished relatives, I made the 60-minute boat trip from the port of Mytilene to Ayvalik (Ayvali) in Turkey. I think my ticket cost a few dollars but somehow I forgot to buy a visa to enter the country – I will get to that matter shortly. 

Sailing out of Mytilene harbour is a real treat. Casting my mind over to the many heroes and historical figures that, over centuries, had sailed in and out of the port, I felt a great sense of pride. This pride grew as I sailed out of Greek waters and into the Turkish zone. As I approached the Asia Minor coast, which I had seen only from a distance in previous trips, I was impressed, heartened, saddened, emotional, all at once. How impressive is the coast of Asia Minor? It is absolutely spectacular, in keeping with the splendour of Greece proper. A visual feast for someone with a close connection like myself.

Before embarking on this adventure, I had decided to investigate my family tree and my discoveries concluded that my grandfather, after whom I am named, was born in the village of Karagatsi in Ayvali. Possibly my grandmother and, certainly, my great grandparents on my mother’s side were born in Smyrna, one of the oldest and greatest Greek cities. Therefore you could say I was on a pilgrimage to visit places almost entirely forgotten by my own family. 

Upon entering the port, alone, and not wanting to speak to the port officials in Greek or Turkish, I was asked in very broken English if I had a visa, which I didn’t, and I tried to explain why. The scary Port Captain, who could speak Greek, made me leave my bags by the dock, and motioned me to follow him into town. At this stage, I thought about making a run for it, or perhaps using diplomacy (American dollars) to get out of my situation. Reluctantly, I followed the Port Captain and in a matter of moments he was speaking to me cordially in English, offering cigarettes and asking me questions about Australia. The Port Captain took me to the bank, asked the Bank Manager to change my Greek currency into Turkish to pay for the visa and told him to look after any queries that I may have! 

After leaving the dock and the friendly Captain and his staff, I went looking for a hotel, English speakers and a town I thought would no longer exist. What I found was totally unexpected. No one spoke English, as Turkish and French were the key languages. I found a lot of friendly Turkish people and I marvelled at how similar some of the Greek and Turkish customs are – tavli, the komboloi, the food and the characteristics and traits of the people. With assistance from the locals, I was able to find my grandfather’s village, located 20 minutes from Ayvali. I was told that Ayvali has a summer population of 200,000 people, an impressive array of markets and businesses and it is the gateway to various tours of ancient and Byzantine Greek cities. The city has retained man of the wealthy and well-built Greek buildings that existed here before the brutal wipe out of the Greek population a century ago.

The bus took me to my destination on the second day of my adventure. I am not sure if I was prepared for what awaited at my journey’s end. I had arrived at, a small and run downtown. Could this be the place where my grandfather and his relatives enjoyed a prosperous and fruitful upbringing? I thanked the driver, got off the bus and wandered around the small village with a disposable camera and bewildered looks from the villagers. No one questioned what I was doing there, nor did I question them. 

Up to 100 people reside in Karagatsi with many ‘ruins’ visible from battles that took place here over 90 years ago, during the Asia Minor catastrophe. I came across houses from another time, not repaired and run-down. At some point after the ‘Allied backed’ Greek incursion of Asia Minor in 1920-22, my grandfather, a 16-year-old with a good education from a large family, returned from the fields, to see the death and destruction of the Greeks in Karagatsi. Family members and friends were killed. My grandfather and his brothers and various others were the fortunate ones – escaping with no family or village – only their lives. As the story has been told to me.

I was deeply saddened to see a village, once thriving with Greeks, now a small place littered with the ruins of houses from a bygone era. After wandering around a little while longer, I bought some refreshments from the service station on the main highway, which is the geographic centre of the village. I wondered how the people would have felt the day their village was destroyed. I thought about what my grandfather would have had to deal with and how he, and others like him, courageously carried on and found a new path. The survivors had no choice but to join the Greek military and fight for their freedom. This was their temporary ‘new path. My grandfather fought in the final stages of the Asia Minor campaign and was apparently captured twice and escaped on both occasions. 

Had the Greek monarchy not destroyed the campaign through incompetency and had the Allies not betrayed the Greek military, the events that unfolded in early 1920’s, including the destruction of Smyrna and the population exchange between Turkey and Greece, the Greeks would have been victorious and perhaps relations between Greece and Turkey would have been repaired much sooner. This is another story, though for another day. 

At this point, I returned to Ayvali and took in the Turkish hospitality and decided to travel a few hours to Smyrna, now called Izmir, an industrious and populous city of four million people. I should add that, had the friendly tourist police officer not helped me make my travel arrangements, I would never have worked out how to get out of Ayvali, he was indicative how nice the people of Aivali are to foreigners. On the afternoon of my third day in Asia Minor, I waited at the interstate bus depot, trains do not generally connect cities, autobusses do. I asked the bus driver, using my watch and a bit of animation, what time the bus was due to leave. After he had pointed to 2:30pm on my watch, I decided to use my spare 45 minutes to enjoy Turkish cuisine at the bus depot restaurant. After about 10 minutes of eating and relaxing, comfortable in the knowledge that I had packed my bags onto the bus and had time on my side, I observed a bus turning onto the national highway. It looked a lot like mine! On closer, inspection, it was my bus. I jumped up, ran out of the restaurant, and onto the National Highway. Dodging cars and bikes, I ran like Usain Bolt and somehow made it alongside the bus. Frantically waving at the bus and its diver, I became a figure of comic relief for the passengers. People were waving back, not sure what to make of me. Fortunately, the bus driver recognised me and stopped the bus and let me on. Unfortunately, my ticket had been resold and I had to share my seat! However, the friendliness of the passengers, who all wanted to talk to me, was a pleasant enough experience and through limited English we chatted the whole trip. 

I finally arrived in Izmir, where I was befriended by an older Turkish man, in his 50’s. ‘Tson’ lived in America for a long time and he took me around the city and showed me the highlights of local Turkish customs and culture. In Izmir, I was unable to locate Greek dwellings from the previous century, however, I toured the Gypsy quarter of the city and its impressive structures led me to ask myself, was this once a Greek, or Christian section of Smyrna? I made a visit to the Port, a truly magnificent and wonderful section of the city. I tried to imagine how the Allied ships and sailors allowed the city to burn in September 1922 and how they kept pushing Greek and other Christian civilians back into the sea and the city.

My grandfather had found that British, Italian, French and, to a lesser extent, Americans were not keen to help the Greeks. It must be pointed out, though, that the US representatives and clergy did their best to protect the Greeks from further slaughter by protecting as many as they could within the confines of their embassy. Asa K Jennings helped save hundreds of thousands of Greek Orthodox, his heroism is a reason why many of us are alive today as he organised the Greek fleet based at Mytilene to evacuate the refugees. He achieved this by personally negotiating with Ataturk and the Greek Government.

There is a great story of a Japanese merchant vessel that happened to be in the harbour. It dumped all of its cargo and rescued as many people as they could and took them to Piraeus. This incredible act of valour was in complete contrast to the cowardly behaviour of the Allies.

I moved on from Smyrna and ventured to the scenic coastal towns in order to sail back to Greece through Chios. I farewelled Turkey with mixed thoughts, this was a golden country filled with hospitable people, balanced by some horrible incidents in the 1920’s. This trip made me realise that across our borders, there are some wonderful people and I hope that Greece and Turkey can continue building a lasting peace and friendship, regardless of the past.

In the current period, Turkey is ruled by a dictator with little interest and love for his neighbours; in fact he has no love of democracy and many of his own citizens and seems intent to stir up regional chaos. His actions place in jeopardy the bridges many of us have made between the two countries.

I have worked with various Turkish and Greek community representatives over the last few years, and I can’t speak highly enough of all the fantastic and genuine people I have known. I hope too that the Cyprus question can be resolved; the citizens of both Turkish and Greek descent should live together in harmony. A significant aspect of my heritage lies in the borders of Turkey and I am proud of where I came from.

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