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Aegean Odyssey

Alistair Taylor-Young Downtown Izmir, Turkey at night.

Photo: Alistair Taylor-Young

My father's father used to say that in Alatsata, there were "twenty thousand Greeks and one Turk: the cop."

He was talking about the Alatsata of his youth, the village just outside Izmir, Turkey, where he was born—a Greek—in 1892. Izmir was Smyrna then, and Alatsata was still Alatsata—not Alaçati, the booming Turkish seaside resort it is today.

I'm in Alaçati/Alatsata for the first time, with my parents and my 12-year-old son. Down by the water it's part honky-tonk (inflatable-beach-toy shops, Internet cafés, pizza parlors), part beautifully renovated houses (courtesy of wealthy Istanbulites). The resort seems to have sprung up about an hour ago, out of nothing: the palm trees along the shore road are tiny and young. My parents, who have been here before, remember an empty crescent of beach; on this hot August morning a half-dozen years later, the same stretch of sand is filled with colorful umbrellas and lined with hotels and restaurants, spas and wellness centers. And it's mobbed.

But we're not here for a seaweed wrap. We're in search of The House—my namesake grandfather's house.

My parents found it once before, with the help of Hasim, a kind-eyed, Greek poetry–reciting retired Turkish butcher. (This time we find Hasim with the help of a passing Bulgarian-Turkish woman who, weirdly, also grew up in The House.) Hasim has spent his entire life in Alatsata but considers Greece his patrída, or native country, because his parents came here from Crete. That was during the population exchange following the events of September 1922—events Greeks refer to as the katastrofí (just what it sounds like) but Turks prefer to call "the liberation." This epic uprooting of humanity did not involve residents of Newark, New Jersey, where my dad was born later that decade, but he nevertheless considers Alatsata his patrída. The blurring and crisscrossing of cultures is a popular, if sometimes tragic, sport in this part of the world.

But back to the ancestral pile. It's just off a pretty inland square dominated by the large mosque of Alaçati Pazaryeri Camii, formerly a Greek church, Tis Panayías. (A minaret has simply been added on top. Inside, evidence of a Greek Orthodox church persists—bishop's throne, altar, columns—and some 19th-century Greek graffiti artist has tagged a marble wall with "Ioannis Halagas, 1874." But the pews have been replaced by rugs, and scattered prayer beads cover the floor.) A few quick turns up some narrow cobblestoned streets, and there it is—too soon, almost, given the years of anticipation. The house has that classic whitewashed Mediterranean look, wooden window frames, and bright blue curtains. An old lady, also all in blue, is on the roof. A period of smiling and gesticulating commences, but sweet as she is, communication is hopeless. Neighbors get involved, and a Turkish gentleman who once lived in Miami translates. The woman invites us inside, but we can't understand a word she's saying as she leads us from room to tidy room. I try to take it in: small, clean, cozily furnished, pale blue walls—not dramatically unlike an equivalent Greek home, just as she's not dramatically unlike an equivalent little old Greek lady. But it's too much. All I can think is, My grandfather was born here, in this house.

This small corner of the planet—Alatsata, Smyrna, and the neighboring Greek island of Chios, which also figures in my family's saga—has a complicated history, not all of it pretty. Greece's war of independence in the 1820's, which ended 400 years of Turkish rule, was a bloody affair—check out Delacroix's The Massacre of Chios (1824) at the Louvre—and despite having much in common on an individual level, the Greeks and Turks have, with occasional time off for civil behavior, been at it ever since.

Settled some 3,000 years ago and visited by Alexander the Great, Smyrna saw its Greek population reestablish itself in the 17th and 18th centuries. After World War I, in which Turkey had aligned itself with Germany, the Allies made conflicting promises to the Greeks and the Italians about who would control the city. In 1919, the Greek army, partly in response to anti-Greek violence, seized Smyrna. And in September 1922, over a five-day period, the armies of Turkish commander and future president Kemal Atatürk marched in, laying waste to the city. Some 100,000 Greeks and Armenians (most of whom had come from the north) were massacred—the Turks still dispute this—and Smyrna was (indisputably) burnt to the ground, the fires racing down to the water. Watching the grisly proceedings from just offshore were three American destroyers and 18 additional Allied warships. But the West was most concerned with protecting its oil interests, so the Allies did nothing and later allowed history to gloss over the tragedy.

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