Separating Greece from modern-day Turkey, the cities dotting the coast of the Aegean Sea seem far removed from both the original source of Christianity, Jerusalem, and from Armenia. Yet many of St. Paul’s letters are addressed to early Christian churches in these cities: Corinth (Corinthians), Ephesus (Ephesians), Phillipi (Phillipians), and Thessalonica (Thessalonians). Ephesus remained an important Christian center, housing the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431. This week, on Tuesday, the Armenian Church commemorates St. Polycarp of Smyrna, an Apostolic Father—one of the very earliest Christian writers whose post-New Testament texts are extant and who are said to have personal instruction from or contact with one of the twelve apostles (another Apostolic Father is St. Clement of Rome). Smyrna, modern-day Izmir in Turkey, would later become an important port city in the Ottoman Empire, home to many Armenians. Other cities and islands in the Aegean Sea have played major roles in the history of both Christianity and the Armenians. From saints like Polycarp in the second century to intellectuals like Matteos Mamourian in the nineteenth, Smyrna and other Aegean cities have been important sources for Armenian Christian life.
At the time of Christ, both sides of the Aegean were under Roman control, with the Greek Peninsula organized as the Province of Achaea and the westernmost region of Anatolia known as the Province of Asia. Centuries before, beginning in the 11th century B.C., Greeks had begun to establish colonies on the eastern coast of the Aegean along the coast of present-day Turkey. One of the earliest pieces of Greek literature, Homer’s Iliad, tells the tale of the fated Greek siege of the city of Troy in Anatolia. All three major linguistic dialects of classical Greek—the Aeolian, Ionian, and Doric—were represented on the continent, with the Ionian Greeks inhabiting the area around Smyrna. While classical Greek culture had suffused much of Roman life, at the time of Christ, these areas remained heavily Greek both linguistically and culturally. In St. Paul’s extensive travels around the Roman world to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, he preached and wrote frequently to these culturally important cities on the Aegean coast.
St. Paul planted the seeds of the Gospel, growing the Christian Church throughout the Aegean world and beyond. These seeds would flourish and grow into major Christian centers that would become sources of writings and inspiration for the rest of the Christian world. According to some traditions, St. John the Evangelist lived for a time near Ephesus after the Assumption of St. Mary, and even wrote his epistles there. It would have been during that time he took as a disciple Polycarp. According to St. Jerome, Polycarp was ordained Bishop of Smyrna, not too far from Ephesus, by St. John himself. The Letter to the Philippians is the only extant piece of writing we have by St. Polycarp, and it is one of the oldest pieces of Christian literature outside of the New Testament. Not too long after his death, The Martyrdom of Polycarp was written by an unknown author, describing his martyrdom by being burned at the stake and then pierced with a spear. This is the first description of martyrdom after the New Testament and would be a source for the long-standing Christian genre of accounts of Christian martyrs.
|Greek Imperialism||This study by William Scott Ferguson looks at the expansion of Greek influence and power throughout the Aegean Sea region through the lens of imperialism. It ends before the period of Roman rule.|
|Homeri Iliakan||A translation by a Mkhitarist monk of Homer’s Iliad into Modern Western Armenian verse.|
|St. Paul the Traveler and the Roman Citizen||From a series of lectures given in the late 19th century, this book describes St. Paul’s travels in the context of the Roman Empire. It includes discussions of his travels to the cities around the Aegean Sea.|
Smyrna remained an important port city of the Roman and then the Byzantine Empire until its capture by the Ottomans in 1424. It was the second-largest city in the Ottoman Empire and one of the most diverse. The first mention of Armenians in Smyrna is in 1261, with an influx of Armenian residents after the fall of the Kingdom of Cilicia in 1375. Armenian epitaph inscriptions are found in 1551, and there are Armenian handwritten sources extant from 1622. One of the most important and interesting sources concerning Armenian life in the city comes from what is essentially a travel journal from “Simeon of Poland,” who travelled to the city at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Simeon was from the rather vibrant Armenian population of Poland, about which we will have occasion to explore further at another time, and his travel notes offer a window into the life of many Armenian communities at the time. Epitaph sources in Smyrna record Armenians coming to the city from near Yerevan in the 1620s. Another major wave of migration occurred during the unrest in the Eastern Ottoman Empire in the sixteenth and seventeenth century known as the Jelali Rebellions. Thus, Armenians resided in Smyrna from before the Ottoman Empire and formed a vibrant part of the cosmopolitan city, with a separate “Armenian Quarter” all the way until the infamous Smyrna fire in 1922.
During the nineteenth century, Smyrna emerged as one of the most important Armenian cultural centers in the Ottoman Empire. Supported by wealthy merchants and the esnaf artisan class, the Armenians of the city built schools such as the Mesropian School and set up the first Armenian printing press in the Ottoman Empire. Robert Hewsen argues that “Smyrna may be regarded as the original home of the Western Armenian Renaissance, which only later spread to Constantinople.” Armenians wrote original works and translated books into Western Armenian, most notably the translations of Shakespeare into Armenian by Garabed Dedeyan. One of the first Armenian periodicals in the world, Arshaluys Araratian (Araratian Dawn), was founded in the city in 1840. The Zohrab Information Center, which is an incredible archive of Armenian periodicals, has bound original copies of this early Armenian journal which can be viewed and used for research. All this literary activity helped to shape standard Western Armenian into a literary language. Perhaps the most notable figure in this endeavor, a major architect of modern Western Armenian, was Matteos Mamourian. In addition to translating Voltaire into Armenian, he went on to found a newspaper Arevelian Mamul (Oriental Press), where his influence on the modern language was profound.
The Front Page of the Second Issue of Arshaluys Araratian, from the collection of the Zohrab Information Center
While the Armenians of Izmir were spared the brunt of the Genocidal deportations of the Young Turks, disaster ultimately befell the city, ending not only Armenian but also Greek life there. World War I not only provided the cover for the Genocide, but also led to a period of internecine chaos in Anatolia: Allied troops, mostly British, occupied Istanbul, and the Greek army was in control of much of the Aegean coast for a time. Turkish nationalists who refused to recognize the terms accepted by the government in Istanbul emerged in the heart of Anatolia under the command of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. These Kemalist troops, named after Mustafa Kemal, entered the city of Smyrna on September 9, 1922. On September 13, fire broke out largely in the Armenian and Greek areas of the city and it burned for almost ten days. The Armenian and Greek quarters were completely devastated, and those Armenian and Greeks who survived fled the city. Today, Izmir is the third largest city in Turkey and is still a beautiful port city. There is, however, almost no trace of the Armenian and Greek presence that was a source of Armenian enlightenment for so long.
|Armenian Smyrna/Izmir: The Aegean Communities||From the UCLA Armenian History and Culture Series edited by Richard Hovannisian, a collection of essays about the Armenian presence in Smyrna.|
|Smyrna 1922: The Destruction of a City||By Marjorie Housepian, an important study of the Great Fire of Smyrna in 1922. It refutes earlier accounts that suggest Armenians and Greeks started the fire.|
|The travel accounts of Simēon of Poland||A seventeenth century travelogue by an Armenian tbir from Poland. Among other places, he visited Smyrna. Translated by George A. Bournoutian.|
Follow the Zohrab Information Center on Instagram @zohrabcenter to see pictures of modern-day Izmir! And come visit the Zohrab Information Center to see the incredible collection of Armenian language periodicals, many from the Ottoman Empire before the Genocide, including Arshaluys Araratian, first published in Smyrna in 1850!