By J. M. Bellew
“The Crown of Ionia, the ornament of Asia,” Smyrna is the chief seaport of Asia Minor. Breasting the waves of time, as she has done the ocean waves lashing against her seaboard, she exists, in her ancient remains and her modern buildings, a monument of past grandeur and of continuous prosperity. The sources of the Nile have been lately discovered, and at length the speculations of ages are set at rest; but mounting the stream of life’s mighty river, it is impossible to discover the source of Smyrna’s greatness, or to reveal her birth and origin. The antiquarians of the city in ancient days contended, as Tacitus informs us, that Smyrna was built either by Tantalus, the offspring of Jove, or by Theseus, himself of divine origin; or if not by one of these superior individuals, certainly by one of the Amazons. Tradition seems to have regarded the Amazon with the greatest favor, and accordingly the stupendous architecture which still crowns a hill, the probable site of the ancient Smyrna, but at some distance from the modern, is called “Amazonian.” Extravagance of pretension has intruded itself where absolute obscurity hung over the history of Smyrna. If in these days we are unable to accord the credit of classic ages to the traditions of Tantalus, Theseus, or the Amazons, we may turn a move willing ear to the story which the Smyrnean people promulgated, that their city was the birthplace of the Father and Prince of Poets–Homer. In schoolboy days we all learned the lines–
“Smyrna, Chios, Colophon, Salamis, Rhodes, Argos, Athenae, Orbus de patria certat, Homere tua!”
The seven cities never having settled their contention, we are left in obscurity as to which of them really was the poet’s birthplace–-assuming that there was such a person as Homer, for even upon this point our historical skeptics have created doubts. When the schoolboy has well learned his Iliad, and the man committed to memory the household words of his Shakespeare, it is not perhaps very pleasant to be confronted with the pamphleteer’s inquiry, “Is Homer a myth?” “Did such a man as Shakespeare ever live?” There can be no question that the people of Smyrna had full confidence in the bodily existence of Homer. Their story ran, that his mother, going with companions to celebrate some festival at a neighboring town, was suddenly taken in labor by the banks of the Meles, where she brought forth the future poet. It is perhaps unfortunate for the acceptation of the story, that the poet himself should nowhere make mention of this poetical fashion of his birth. That a temple to Homer existed at Smyrna there is little doubt; and that a cavern still exists in which he is said to have composed his Iliad, no one need doubt who visits the city, and feels disposed to excite the Turkish scent after money and capacity for invention by the exhibition of European credulity and curiosity.
But where was ancient Smyrna? and what was ancient Smyrna? If obscurity rests upon its origin, so also speculation and conjecture are obliged to be busy in settling its site. We shall perhaps be most perspicuous if we distinguish three Smyrna’s in history–the first the mythic, the second the historic, the third the Turkish. By calling the first Smyrna mythic, it must not be supposed that we mean to doubt the existence of such a place, but mainly to signify that we know nothing about it, save and except such knowledge as myths supply in the absence of facts.
The Smyrnean people, it is commonly narrated, originally inhabited part of Ephesus, and took their name from Smyrna, an Amazon, under whose conduct they probably migrated, she becoming the founder of the settlement which acquired a local habitation and a name from her. In consequence, Smyrna was regarded as a colony of Ephesus.
That the Amazonian city was destroyed, all historians seem agreed, though they differ considerably as to the authors of its destruction. The Ephesian colonists are by Strabo and Pliny to have been expelled by the Aeolians, and to have taken refuge at Colophon, by the people of which city they were eventually aided in reestablishing themselves. Herodotus, however, asserts that Smyrna was always Aeolian; that the Colophonians had been admitted into it; and that during some festival they made themselves masters of the place. The probability seems to be, that Smyrna did belong to the Aeolian confederation until B.C. 688, when, by the treacherous act of the Colophonians, it became an Ionian possession, and was admitted as the thirteenth city in the Ionian League. It was vainly attacked by Gyges, king of Lydia, and resident at the neighboring city of Sardis. Its peaceful participation in the Ionic confederation, however, was not destined to be of long duration, for B.C. 627, the third king of Lydia in succession from Gyges, Alyattes, father of the celebrated Croesus, attacked and destroyed Smyrna. With this incident the history of the original, or (as we have entitled it) mythic Smyrna, ends.
It may at first sight appear to the reader curious that we should take so much trouble to trace the fabled origin of the primitive city, and to note what Strabo, Pliny, or Herodotus have said of it, when we are compelled to confess that the second and third cities bearing the name have possible connection with the Amazonian and Aeolian settlement. We have the authority of Strabo for the fact that the Smyrna of his time, the origin of which we shall presently describe, was more than (according to English measurement) two miles removed front the site of the original settlement. An accurate eye, and a close examination of the geographical conformation of the country skirting the Gulf of Smyrna, will lead any traveler to conclude that the assertion of Strabo is correct. An obstacle to the realization of this fact among travelers who have only given the country cursory observation, and who have taken the authority of maps as conclusive evidence, has been the fact that the ever famous Meles, by whose banks we have stated Homer is represented to have been born, is supposed to wash the foot of Mount Pagus, the hill over looking the modern Smyrna. By turning to an atlas, the reader will probably find that the classic Meles is drawn as flowing into the Gulf on the southern side of the modern city; and because it flows under a lofty hill which crowns that city, and because the classic Meles flowed under a hill similarly dominant above the ancient city, therefore it has been hastily, and, as the writer believes, most erroneously supposed that Smyrna still stands where Smyrna did stand, and that the river behind and beneath Mount Pagus is, as the maps commonly represent, the Homeric Meles. The writer believes this is totally incorrect, and that the site of ancient Smyrna and the course of the Meles must be traced elsewhere.
By following the seaboard of the Gulf northward of the present Smyrna, the reader’s eye will fall upon a little village, named Bournoubat. It is distant about two and a half miles (as the crow flies) from Smyrna, though following the tergiversating coast, it would be about four miles. In point of distance, therefore, it answers to the measurement given by Strabo of twenty stadia intervening between now and ancient Smyrna. At this point there is a mountain stream, clear and pure, tumbling over rocks, and descending between steep hills, seeking to lose itself in the Aegean. The valley through which this stream winds widens as it nears the sea, and opening into a plateau, sweeps with ever inclining and more graduated slopes towards the ocean. Some two miles up this valley, and crowning the crest of a hill towards the east, are found remains of some very ancient walls, and of an Acropolis. The architecture, which still survives the, lapse of centuries so many, that even the name of this place is lost to history, is Cyclopean in its character. The blocks of stone in the walls, or forming part of the gateway, are round to be eight and ten feet long, and evidently belong to fortifications erected at some period of most remote antiquity, when the people who settled at this spot felt, that it was necessary for the sake of security to fix themselves on a lofty eminence commanding the surrounding neighborhood, and one which could be strongly fortified, so as to resist invasion. Can this, then, be the site of mythic Smyrna? Are these traces of the city of the Amazon “Smyrna?”
It has already been mentioned that “Smyrna” is not the only person who is reported to have founded the city of that name. Tantalus also lays claim to the dignified appellation “Fundator.” It is worthy of observation that there is a series of tumuli and of tombs at the neighboring village of Bournoubat, which have been objects of curious examination to various European travelers, and especially to M. Texier, the French traveler. The walls that surrounded these tombs (now for the most part in ruins) have, like the structures on the hill, been Cyclopean in structure; and it is remarkable that among them the tradition of the country recognizes the tomb of Tantalus. Farther up the valley again, we arrive at the Lake of Tantalus. With Mount Sipylus (which is but a short distance inland) we also find the story of the transformation of Niobe, the daughter of Tantalus, associated. The phantom of Niobe is supposed to appear upon the mountain, the superstition having arisen from the singular effects of passing light and shade upon the mountain, These local traditions, associating this valley and so many localities about it with the stories of Tantalus–-one of the reported founders of ancient Smyrna–-serve to strengthen the supposition that we have upon the hill top above Bournoubat, among the Cyclopean ruins which crown its Summit, actual traces of the very city founded by the Ephesian colonists, and rendered famous by being the supposed birthplace of Homer. The stream running beneath will perfectly answer to the Meles of classic story, upon whose banks the Father of Poetry is reputed to have been born, hence receiving the name “Melesigenes”:–
“Blind Melesigenes thence Homer called, Whose poem Phoebus challenged for his own.”
The reader, though unprepared for this description of a Smyrna totally disconnected with the place concerning which the present article is chiefly concerned, will, it is to be hoped, receive with satisfaction this information concerning the city of the Amazon, which is so closely connected, with the name and fame of Homer that even Cicero wrote of it, “Homeri Smyrnaei suum esse confirmant; itaque etiam delubrum ejus in oppido dedicaverunt.” With the destruction of the mythic Smyrna, by Alyattes, king of Lydia, the name of the city vanishes from historic record for four hundred years.
The Smyrneans subsisted during that period among the villages in the surrounding country. At length it happened that Alexander the Great, after hunting in the neighborhood of Mount Pagus (the hill which overhangs the modern Smyrna), fell asleep beneath a plane tree, that overshadowed a fountain near a temple of the Nemeses. Alexander had a vision, and dreamt a dream. The goddesses appeared to him, and bade him found a city for the dispersed Smyrneans. The work was not executed by Alexander, but by his generals, Antigonus and Lysimachus; and the oracle declared that the inhabitants of Smyrna should be a prosperous people. The oracle, with a rectitude of prophetic vision which has not always attended oracular declarations, proved correct. Smyrna did become prosperous, and has continued to prosper, despite the innumerable calamities which it has undergone, more especially since the Christian era.
It will be understood that the city of which we have now to speak, the second, or historic Smyrna, is removed two and a half miles southward on the margin of the Gulf, from the Cyclopean remains of which we have before been speaking. When this second city had been built, Strabo wrote of it: “It is the finest city of Asia : part of it is built on a hill; but the finest edifices are on the plains, not far from the sea, over against the temple of Cybele. The streets are the most beautiful that can be, straight, wide, and paved with freestone. It has many stately buildings, magnificent porticoes, majestic temples, including an Homerium (or a temple in honor of Homer), a public library, and a convenient harbor, which may be shut at pleasure.”
Of that harbor there are still traces in the dried up basin, running towards the foot of the castle hill, through which, in the rainy season, a mountain rill pursues its way, skirting a Turkish cemetery on the northern suburb of the present town.
Of the historic Smyrna but few remains are now to be discovered. The few that have outlived the destructive attacks of barbarians are extremely interesting. Among these are the Stadium and the ancient Theatre, on the slope of Mount Pagus, overlooking the present Turkish quarter, which is located in the upper or higher portion, of the town–-the Armenian quarter being in the center, and the Frankish or European the shore. The proscenium of this theatre has utterly perished. What has been done with its materials there is no difficulty in determining for the Turkish residences in the vicinity show how this noble theatre has been despoiled–-how its marble columns and rich ornaments have been used up to construct the walls of mean and dirty hovels.
Upon the hill top, and traceable in one or two other places, are remnants of walls, which may be Hellenic, being built without cement. A very massive line of wall, belonging undoubtedly to the classic ages, descends from the castle towards the west which may very probably trace for us the ancient city boundary, from the seaboard up to the Acropolis. There are also considerable remains behind Mount Pagus of a wall, which Chandler in his travels calls the Pomoerium. This wall runs along the summit of a ridge south of Mount Pagus, and crosses the roads to a village called Budjah. The facings of the wall itself have perished, and only masses of cement and rubble remain, as is frequently the case with the ruins of ancient walls among the cities of Asia Minor. Because this wall is carried over the ravine behind Mount Pagus upon arches, it is commonly called at Smyrna, the “Roman Aqueduct.” It is impossible now to determine what was the object of the wall. There are no traces of its ever having been an aqueduct; and if it was intended for purposes of defense, it is a puzzle to conceive why part of it should have been built on open arches. Allusion has been made to the castle that crowns the summit of Mount Pagus, and with which the walls spoken of connect themselves. This castle, though of considerable extent, is a structure belonging to the Middle Ages. It is such a heap of ruin and confusion that it is perhaps difficult to determine whether any portion of it was erected by the generals of Alexander. Remains observed in it have tempted the traveler to give this castle a higher esteem than it really deserves. Chandler spoke of the colossal head of Apollo, which some supposed to represent the Amazon Smyrna, lying near what was once a fountain within the western gate. As it is now almost a hundred years since Chandler set out on behalf of the Society of Dilettanti to visit the East, many alterations must necessarily have taken place in that period.
It was in this Stadium, as tradition says, that Polycarp was martyred. There is no reason to doubt the truth of the assertion, as it was in the amphitheatres that the early Christian martyrs were commonly put to death. These cellular foundations, therefore, have a claim upon the deepest interest of the Christian, if it was within their walls that one of the most shining lights of primitive Christianity gave up his life in proof of his fidelity to his Lord and Master. To this subject we shall return presently.
The third town, or modern town, of which we have now to speak is (as the above facts will have shown), historically modern. It is a city which has grown out of ruin and devastation, slaughter, fire, earthquake, and famine. The life principle must be very strong in any place that could survive the series of calamities which, from the second century to the fifteenth, century after century, overwhelmed this place. Men, however, live for a day, while Nature smiles at their wars and their havoc, and lives on through the long centuries, reinvigorating and renewing herself, when they are gone for ever. Smyrna is one of those places which can never perish. Fire, sword, and earthquake are unequal to the task of accomplishing her extinction; for Nature has located her so graciously, adorned her so beautifully, and clothed her so luxuriantly, that however many cities, marking her site might be destroyed, a Smyrna must always exist. Situated as she is, Nature has invested her for ever “the Crown of Ionia, the ornament of Asia.”
Looking towards the Aegean, Smyrna seems land locked. Her gulf, surrounded with mountains and studded with islands, is divided from the, sea, opposite the town, by the promontory of Melaena, now called Cape Karabournu, behind which is the classic island of Chios. Steering round the coast of Chios and the point of Melaena, the Gulf of Smyrna opens south of the Isle of Mytilene in a boot like shape, at the toe of which stands Smyrna itself, rising amphitheatrically from the water’s edge, crowned with the summits of Pagus, and the ruins of the castle founded by Alexander’s generals, restored by John Comnenus, and last famous a stronghold of the Knights of St. John. The Greeks, always noted for choosing admirable sites for their cities, showed their judgment and taste when they constructed Smyrna. It has everything to recommend it in beauty of situation, in strength of position, and in attraction as a commercial port. The same natural features which recommended it thousands of years ago, recommend it still. It may be called the Genoa of the East.
When our vessel nears the town, we observe the busy port to be stretched along the water’s edge; while on the rising ground and terraces above, the quiet residences of families, or the cypress groves which mark the burial grounds, carry the eye up to the solitary crest of the hill and the dark walls which frown upon the triangular plain beneath.
The first impression upon the writer’s mind on seeing Smyrna was, that some Swiss village had removed for change of air to the seaside. The impression was caused by the mass of houses in the town being built of wood, bearing, at a distance, very much the appearance of Swiss cottages. The reason why the inhabitants of the last three centuries have built with wood is on account of the prevalence of earthquakes. They have philosophized upon the destructiveness of earthquakes, and adopted the plan of building with materials which, if they call be easily knocked down, can also be easily, and with comparative cheapness, built up again. This custom, as the reader may be aware, is very common in Asia Minor but its wisdom is very doubtful, because of the frequency of fires. It is unnecessary to say that all the picturesque appearance of Smyrna vanishes, as soon as the traveler enters its streets or bazaars. It is the same with all Turkish town–-narrow streets, prevailing filth, open gutters in the center, foul and pestilent, and the sunlight as much as possible shut out above. In Smyrna there is no modern structure, or monument, or work of Art, to attract the traveler. In the buildings and warehouses along the quay, and the flags flying over the consular offices, the European detects at a glance the Frankish quarter. In this part of the town the houses are in a great measure stone structures, and have much more of a European character than elsewhere. In the interior the chief buildings are the Bezestein, or marketplace; the Long Bazaar, which traverses the town, and contains in its dirty course many shops well stocked with European goods. The Vizier Khan is said to have been built from materials taken out of the ancient theatre. In the mosques, or churches, there is nothing whatever that is attractive, though it is a significant fact, as showing the progress of French influence in Asia Minor, that there is a Catholic cathedral being erected at the present moment in Smyrna, under the support of the French government.
One institution in the town well worthy of the traveler’s notice is the hospital in the Frank quarter, supported by the resident Christian population. This hospital is regarded in Asia as a school of medicine, and has been productive of the greatest blessings to Europeans engaged in trading with Smyrna. It may be remembered that during the Crimean war a large military hospital was established at Smyrna. This stood outside the town, upon the sea shore.
In passing along the bazaars of Smyrna, the life and animation, and the strings of camels coming in from the country, tell their own tale as to the commercial importance of the place the chief seaboard city of Asia Minor. During the busy part of the day a greater variety of tongues may be heard in its streets than in any other Eastern town, except Alexandria. Smyrna exports silk and cotton; but the writer particularly observed that the camels were most frequently laden with raisins, figs, fruit, and drugs. Of these articles there is all enormous export trade. A very large Jewish community is settled at Smyrna, carrying on a commission trade, chiefly between the European merchants and the native traders. The present population of Smyrna may be reckoned about 160,000 persons.
To the Christian, Smyrna must ever be regarded with peculiar interest, as one of the seven churches. “And unto the angel in the church of Smyrna write.” This church which has completely experienced all the “tribulation and poverty” spoken of by St. John has literally seemed not to “fear any of these things which she has suffered.” Smyrna has always preserved and upheld the Christian faith. It contains five Greek churches, two Catholic and two Protestant; in addition to which, the Catholics are now engaged in building the cathedral before alluded to. “But then art rich,” says St. John. The words are literally true, when Smyrna is compared with the other places to which he addressed himself. In the history of Christianity in Smyrna, there is one name that stands out prominently on the page towards which the reader always turns with reverential admiration. It is the name of Polycarp. In the opinion of many Biblical scholars (see Dean Trench’s “Commentary on the Epistle to the seven churches”), it seems probable that the “angel” whom St. John addressed was Polycarp himself, who died in extreme old age A.D. 168. When we consider how glorious a martyr Polycarp was, we may well argue and try to convince ourselves that about the year 96 when the Apocalypse was probably written, he was bishop of the church in Smyrna . “Eighty and six years have I served Him”–-Christ–-says Polycarp in his examination before the proconsul, which proves him to have been a Christian fourteen years previous to St. John writing his Epistle; and as, at the time of his conversion and baptism, he would be an adult, it is perfectly possible that before the Epistle was written, Polycarp may have been called upon to preside over the church at Smyrna.
Upon the Smyrnaean Epistle, which details to us the circumstances of the death of Polycarp, it is not the object of the present article to descant. The epistle has always been received with respect, and is believed to give an accurate account of the trial and death of the venerable bishop. In the reign of Marcus Aurelius, A.D. 167, he became a martyr to the truth he had preached and professed. We have only space to quote one passage from the Smyrnaean Epistle, which describes the trial scene of the martyr: “The proconsul asked him if he was Polycarp, to which he assented. The former then began to exhort him, ‘Have pity on thy own great age. Swear by the fortune of Caesar; repent; say, Take away the Atheists.’ Polycarp, with a grave aspect beholding all the multitude, waving his hand to them, and looking up to heaven, said, ‘Take away the Atheists.’ The proconsul urging him, and saying, ‘Swear, and I will release thee; reproach Christ.’ Polycarp said, ‘Eighty and six years have I served Him and he hath never wronged me, and how can I blaspheme my King who hath saved me ?’ The proconsul still urging, ‘Swear by the fortune of Caesar.’ Polycarp said, ‘If you still vainly contend to make me swear by the fortune of Caesar as you speak affecting an ignorance of my real character, hear me frankly declaring what I am: I am a Christian.’ ” Polycarp was condemned to death, and burnt in the Stadium before described, as tradition says, and says correctly, in the writer’s humble opinion. He died proclaiming the words, “”I bless Thee, I glorify Thee, by the Eternal High Priest, Jesus Christ, thy well beloved Son, Amen.” And when he had pronounced “Amen” aloud, the officers lighted the fire.
The whole of this epistle is well worth the reader’s study. Gregory of Tours tells us it was considered so edifying to Christians, that up to his time it used to be commonly read in the Gallican churches. Archbishop Usher republished the narrative as given in Eusebius; and the epistle itself was translated by Archbishop Wake, and published in his “Epistles of the Apostolic Fathers,” in which work, and also in Milner’s Church History,” the reader will find it.
The martyrdom of Polycarp made the church in Smyrna famous. The sweet odour of his piety still lingers about the place, still makes Smyrna a household word in the history of Christianity; and the Christian traveler entering the Gulf, looking upon the town climbing up the hillside at the foot of the Gulf, and tracing the spot where the castle stood upon Mount Pagus, in which Polycarp was tried, or that Stadium in which he died, takes courage from so bright an example; and, ruminating over the splendor and greatness which have marked the history of the city, remembers with proud satisfaction that Smyrna’s greatest fame is derived from a faithful Christian’s death.