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Chapter 18 | Table of Contents | Chapter 20

The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia
W. M. Ramsay
1904

Chapter 19: Smyrna: The City of Life


Smyrna was founded as a Greek colony more than a thousand years before Christ; but that ancient Aeolian Smyrna was soon captured by Ionian Greeks, and made into an Ionian colony. Ionian Smyrna was a great city, whose dominion extended to the east far beyond the valley, and whose armies contended on even terms against the power of Lydia. Battles fought against the Lydians on the banks of the Hermus are mentioned by the Smyrnaean poet Mimnermus in the seventh century. But Lydian power with its centre at Sardis was increasing during that period, and Smyrna gradually gave way before it, until finally the Greek city was captured and destroyed about 600 BC by King Alyattes. In one sense Smyrna was now dead; the Greek city had ceased to exist; and it was only in the third century that it was restored to the history of Hellenic enterprise in Asia. There was, however, a State named Smyrna during that long interval, when the Ionian Smyrna was merely a historical memory. It is mentioned in an inscription of 368 BC as a place of some consequence; but it was no longer what the Greeks called a city. It was essential to the Greek idea of a city that it should have internal freedom, that it should elect its own magistrates to manage its own affairs, and that its citizens should have the education and the spirit which spring from habitually thinking imperially. This Asiatic Smyrna between about 600 and 290 was, as Strabo says, a loose aggregate of villagers living in various settlements scattered over the plain and the surrounding hills; it possessed no sovereign power or self-governing institutions; and it has left no trace on history. Aristides, however, says that there was a town in that period intermediate in position between the old and the later city.

Smyrna was treated more harshly than Ephesus by the Lydian conquerors: apparently the reason was that it was more typically Greek and more hostile to the Asiatic spirit of the Lydian realm, whereas the native Anatolian element was stronger in Ephesus. The purely Greek Smyrna could not be made to wear Lydian harness, and was destroyed. The half-Asiatic Ephesus was easily changed into a useful Lydian town without the complete sacrifice of autonomy and individuality.

The design was attributed to Alexander the Great of marking the triumph of Hellenism by refounding Greek Smyrna; and later coins of Smyrna show his dream, in which the Smyrnaean goddesses, the two Nemeseis or Fates, appeared to him and suggested to him that plan. But it was left for King Lysimachus, after Antigonus had made a beginning, to carry the design into effect. His refoundation of Smyrna and of Ephesus was a part of a great scheme, the completion of which was prevented by his death. The new Hellenic Smyrna was in a different place from the old Ionian city. The earlier city had been on a steep lofty hill overhanging on the north the extreme eastern recess of the gulf: the new city was on the southeast shore of the gulf about two miles away. The aim in the former was security against sudden attack, but there could never have been beside it a very good harbour. The later city was intended to be a maritime and trading centre, a good harbour and a convenient starting-point for a land-road to the east. The type of a merchant ship, which appears on its coins, as on those of Ephesus (Figure 16, chapter 17), indicates its maritime character: see also Figure 22 in this chapter.

Its maritime power was maintained by two ports. One was a small land-locked harbour, the narrow entrance of which could be closed by a chain: the other was probably only the adjacent portion of the gulf which served as a mooring-ground. The inner harbour lay in the heart of the modern city, where the bazaars now stand. In that situation, half surrounded by houses and close under the hill of Pagos, it was readily liable to grow shallower and to be ultimately filled up; but the small ancient ships found it so useful that the harbour authorities had to keep it carefully. In 1402 Tamerlane besieged the lower city, which was held by the Knights of Rhodes with their stronghold in a castle commanding the harbour; and he blocked the entrance by a mole in the process of his operations. After the entrance was once closed, the negligent government of the now Turkish city was not likely to try to reopen it; moreover as the size of ships increased, the usefulness of so small a harbour ceased. Thus the natural process of filling up the old harbour went on unchecked; and it has long disappeared, though it was still visible in the middle of the eighteenth century and even later.

To its maritime character was due the close association with Rome which Smyrna formed at an early period. From the time that the great republic began to interfere in the affairs of the East, common interests maintained a firm alliance and "friendship" (according to the Latin term) between Rome and Smyrna. A common danger and a common enemy united them. At first Smyrna was struggling to maintain its freedom against the Seleucid power, and Rome's Eastern policy sprang out of the agreement which its great enemy Hannibal had made with the Seleucid king, Antiochus the Great. At a later time Rome supported Smyrna as a counterpoise to the too great maritime power of Rhodes. As early as 195, when Antiochus was still at the height of his power, Smyrna built a temple and instituted a worship of Rome; this bold step was the pledge of uncompromising adherence to the cause of Rome, while its fortunes were still uncertain. After a century, when a Smyrnaean public assembly heard of the distress in a Roman army during the war against Mithridates, the citizens stripped off their own clothes to send to the shivering soldiers.

The faithfulness of Smyrna to this alliance was a just ground of pride to the city, and was fully acknowledged by her powerful friend. Cicero expressed the Roman feeling that Smyrna was "the city of our most faithful and most ancient allies"; and in 26 AD the Smyrnaeans argued before the Senate that the new temple to be dedicated by the Commune of Asia to Tiberius should be built in Smyrna, because of their faithful friendship dating from a time before the East had learned that Rome was the greatest power in the world; and they were preferred to all other cities of the Province.

The view of Smyrna in which its character and situation are best seen is got from the deck of a ship lying out in the gulf before the city. The traveller from the west sails up an arm of the sea, which runs far inland. At the southeastern end he finds Smyrna, with the hills behind it on the south and west, the sea on its north side, and on the east a beautiful little valley, nine miles by four, bounded by more distant mountains. The buildings of the city rise out of the water, cluster in the hollow below the hills, and on the lower skirts of Pagos, "the Hill," or straggle up irregularly towards the summit. There is a wonderful feeling of brightness, light, and activity in the scene: in such a matter only the personal experience can be stated, but such is the impression that the view has always made on the present writer. The approach to Constantinople from the east gives a similar impression; and part of the reason lies in the long land-locked sea-way which leads to the harbour, giving in both cases the appearance of inland cities with all the advantage of a situation on the sea.

The Smyrnaeans were specially proud of the beauty of their city. The frequent legend on their coins, "First of Asia," was contested by Pergamum and Ephesus; all three were first of Asia in one respect or another: Smyrna defined her rank on some coins as "First of Asia in beauty and size." Strabo says its beauty was due to the handsomeness of the streets, the excellence of the paving, and the regular arrangement in rectangular blocks. The picturesque element, which he does not mention, was contributed by the hills and the sea, to which in modern times the groves of cypress trees in the large Turkish cemeteries must be added. Groves of trees in the suburbs are mentioned by Aristides as one of the beauties of the ancient city. On the west the city included a hill which overhangs the sea and runs back southward till it nearly joins the western end of Pagos: in the angle the road to the south issued through the Ephesian Gate. The outer edge of the western hill afforded a strong line of defence, which the wall of Lysimachus took advantage of; and Pagos constituted an ideal acropolis, as well as a striking ornament to crown the beauty of the city.

The citizens were also proud of their distinction every branch of literature; and Apollonius of Tyana is said to have encouraged them in this, and to have advised them to rest their self-esteem more in their own character than in the beauty of their city: "for thought," as he said, "though it is the most beautiful of all cities under the sun, and makes the sea its own, and holds the fountains of Zephyrus, yet it is a greater charm to wear a crown of men than a crown of porticoes and pictures and gold beyond the standard of mankind: for buildings are seen only in their own place, but men are seen everywhere and spoken about everywhere and make their city as vast as the range of countries which they can visit."

The words of Apollonius show that "the crown of Smyrna" was a familiar phrase with the Smyrnaeans; and there can be no doubt that the phrase arose form the appearance of the hill Pagos, with the stately public buildings on its rounded top and the city spreading out down its rounded sloping sides. In fact, the words state plainly that the crown of Smyrna consisted of buildings, and, in the picturesque language of current talk (which always catches salient features), buildings are likened to a crown because they stand on a conspicuous place and in an orderly way. As to the modern appearance only a personal impression can be stated: "with Mount Pagos and its ruined castle rising out of the clustering houses, it looks a queenly city 'crowned with her diadem of towers'": so Mrs. Ramsay in 1901 described Smyrna as it used to appear from the sea. Until about 1890 the brow of the rounded hill was crowned with a well-preserved garland of walls and battlements; and the appearance of the circling city, the hill sloping back towards the centre, and the frowning walls crowning the edge of the rounded summit, has probably made the same impression on many travellers.

Aelius Aristides, who lived much in Smyrna, can hardly find language strong enough to paint the beauty and the crown of Smyrna. He compares the city, as the ideal city on earth, to the crown of Ariadne shining in the heavenly constellation. He describes it as sitting like a statue with its feet planted on seashore and harbours and groves of trees, its middle parts poised equally above the plain and beneath the summit, and its top in the distance gently rising by hardly perceptible gradations to the acropolis, which offered an outlook over the sea and the town, and stood always a brilliant ornament above the city. Thus Smyrna city was a flower of beauty, such as earth and sun had never showed to mankind. He repeats the comparison to a statue and to a flower in several of his orations. The likeness depends partly on the appearance of the city as sloping up from the sea, partly on the orderly arrangement of the part, partly on the circular head with its crown of buildings, viz., Pagos with its acropolis. The idea of the crown is in his mind, though he varies the phrase: the truth was that Aristides in his highly wrought orations would not use a figure that was in everybody's mouth, and he plays with the idea but rarely uses the word. Several of his highly ornate sentences become clearer when we notice that he is expressing in a series of variations the idea of a crown resting on the summit of the hill.

When Aristides says that, since Smyrna has been restored after the disastrous earthquake, "Spring's gates and Summer's are opened by crowns," the reference to some close connection between Smyrna and the crown is so marked that Reiske suggests that the Crowns were the deities of flowers (like Flora in Latin). We now know that the Crown of Smyrna was the head and bloom of the city's flower. Again he declares that, by the revival of Smyrna, "the crown has been preserved to Ionia."

The comparison of Smyrna to a flower has a close connection with the "crown." The crown or garland was usually a circlet of flowers; and the mention of a crown immediately aroused in the ancient mind the thought of a flower. Crowns were worn chiefly in the worship of the gods. The worshipper was expected to have on his head a garland of the flowers or foliage sacred to the god whose rites he was performing. The guests at an entertainment were often regarded as worshippers of Bacchus and wore the sacred ivy: frequently, also, the entertainment was a feast connecting with the ritual of some other deity, and the crown varied accordingly. Thus the ideas of the flower and of the crown suggest in their turn the idea of the god with whose worship they were connected, i.e., the statue of the god. The tutelary deity of Smyrna was the Mother-goddess, Cybele; and when Aristides pictured Smyrna as a statue sitting with her feet on the sea, and her head rising to heaven and crowned with a circlet of beautiful buildings, he had in mind the patroness and guardian of the city, who was represented enthroned and wearing a crown of battlements and towers. Her image was one of the most frequent types on the coins of the city, and in many alliance-coins she appears for Smyrna as in Figure 19. The crown of Smyrna was the mural crown of Smyrna's goddess.

From the same origin arises his repeated allusion to the necklace of Smyrna. If there was a crown on the top of the head, a clearly marked street or any line which encompassed the lower part of the hill may be compared to a necklace. He speaks of the city as drawing to itself its various ornaments of sea and suburbs in a variegated necklace: a figurative expression which recalls the chain of the Seven Stars hanging from the hand of the Divine Author of the Seven Letters (as described in the Ephesian Letter).

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Figure 19: The Goddess of Smyrna

But what Aristides chiefly thought of, when he mentions the necklace, was the splendid Street of Gold, which he alludes to several times in a more or less veiled and figurative way. He mentions once the streets that took their names from temples and from gold. Apollonius (as already quoted) alludes in similar figurative style to the gold of Smyrna, and connects it with the crown of Smyrna, which shows that it crossed the sloping hill, and by its conspicuous buildings contributed to that orderly arrangement of edifices which constituted the idea of the crown. Aristides, likewise, refers to this magnificent street when he says that, as you traverse the city from west to east, you go from a temple to a temple and from a hill to a hill. It is suggested in Dr. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible, iv., p. 554, that this street ran from the Temple of Zeus Akraios to the Temple of the Mother-goddess Cybele Sipylene. The latter was probably on the hill Tepejik on the eastern outskirts of the city: the former has been identified recently by Mr. Fontrier, the chief authority on the topography of Smyrna, with certain remains on the western slope of Pagos. A street connecting those two temples would curve round the lower slopes of the hill (owing to the conformation of the ground), and would by its length and its fine buildings form a conspicuous band which might well be compared in ornate rhetoric to a circlet of jewels round the neck of the statue.

The comparison of Smyrna to a statue appears in the address of Apollonius, and it is evident either that the comparison passed through his influence into Smyrnaean usage and became a current expression, or that the biographer of Apollonius deliberately attributed to the older orator a simile which was commonly used in Smyrna (for Aristides, in all his ornate descriptions of Smyrna, catches up and elaborates the expressions familiar among the citizens). The latter supposition is more probable: the biographer's custom was to select prominent and recognised characteristics of a great city like Smyrna, and show that they were all due to wise counsel given by the divinely inspired Apollonius.

Thus Apollonius is described as recommending to the citizens a certain strenuous activity of spirit as the true path to honour and success for their city: "competitive unanimity" is his phrase. Aristides mentions as characteristic of Smyrna "the grace which extends over every part like a rainbow, and strains the city like a lyre into tenseness harmonious with itself and with its beautiful surroundings, and the brightness which pervades every part and reaches up to heaven, like the glitter of the bronze armour in Homer." In these words Aristides is playing on a common idea in Greek philosophy, which is applied by Apollonius to Smyrna. The application is distinctly an older idea taken up by Aristides; and the probability is that this again was the recognised character of Smyrna, which Philostratus in his usual way derives from the wise counsel given by his hero.

The prevalent wind, now called Imbat, i.e. Landward, sets up the long gulf from the western sea; and blows with wonderful regularity through the hot weather, rising almost every day as the sun grows warm, blowing sometimes with considerable strength in the early afternoon, and dying down towards sunset. This westerly breeze, Zephyrus, was in ancient times, and is still, reckoned by the inhabitants as one of the great advantages of their city. It breathes a pleasant coolness through the city in the heat of summer; and people luxuriate in its refreshing breath and never tire of lauding its delightful effect. In ancient times they boasted in the words of Apollonius (already quoted) that they possessed the fountains of Zephyr, and could therefore reckon with certainty on continuous westerly breezes. As Aristides says, "the winds blow through every part of the town, and make it fresh like a grove of trees." The inhabitants never realised that the Zephyr brings with it some disadvantages. It comes laden with moisture, and it prevents free passage of the drainage from the city to the open gulf.

According to Strabo, the one defect in the situation of Smyrna was that the lowest parts of the city were difficult to drain. The level has risen in modern times through the accumulation of soil; but in ancient times there was little difference between the level of sea and land until the rise of the hills was reached. The difficulty of drainage, however was not due solely to the lowness of the level. It was aggravated by the winds. The prevalent wind blowing eastwards up the gulf heaps up the water on the shore, and prevents the discharge from finding its way out to sea. Hence in modern time there is often a malodour on the quay when the west wind is blowing fresh.

But the people of Smyrna did not mention this or any other defect of their city in talking with others. Municipal rivalry and local pride were keen and strong in ancient times. The narrower Greek conception of patriotism which restricted it to the limits of the city made those feelings far more powerful in ancient times; and Rome tried in vain to put Imperial in the place of local patriotism: she could plant the seeds of a wider feeling and raise it to a certain height, but the growth was not so strong and deep-rooted as the municipal pride.

Smyrna boasted that it was the city of Homer, who had been born and brought up beside the sacred river Meles. Homer is one of the most frequent types on coins of the city; and there was a temple called Homereion in the city. The same name was applied to a small bronze coin, which showed the poet sitting, holding a volumen on his knees, and supporting his chin on his right hand.

According to the allusions of Aristides, the Meles was a stream close to the city, between it and the open plain, having an extremely short course, so that its mouth was close to its source; it flowed with an equable stream, unvarying in summer and winter; its channel was more or less artificial; and its water was not cold in winter (when Aristides bathed in it by order of the god Asklepios, and found it pleasantly warm). These characteristics suit only the splendid fountains of Diana's Bath, Khalka-Bunar, on the east outskirts of the modern city, and the stream that flows thence to the sea with an even current and volume. The source is at so low a level that an artificial channel has always been needed to carry off the water. In modern time the locality has been entirely altered; the water is dammed up to supply part of the city; the surplus runs off through a straight cutting to the sea, and all the picturesqueness of the scene has been lost with the disappearance of the trees and the natural surroundings.

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Figure 20: The River-god Meles

This identification is confirmed by the representation of the god Meles, given on a coin of Smyrna (Figure 20). He appears in the ordinary form, which Greek art appropriated to the idea of a river-god, except that he has not a cornucopia resting on his bent left arm. The cornucopia symbolised the fertilising power of the river, which supplies the water that the dry soil of Asia everywhere needs: the river turns an arid desert into a garden. But the Meles, flowing down a little way from the source to the sea, has no opportunity for diffusing fertility, and the cornucopia would be unsuitable to it. It was a stream to give pleasure and health by its fountains, and was worshipped as a healing power; but its water rises at so low a level that it was not used by the agriculturist.

The patron-goddess of Smyrna was a local variety of Cybele, known as the Sipylene Mother. Like the Artemis of Ephesus, her oldest home was in the mountains on the north of the valley, famous in myth and history as Sipylos, where Niobe dwelt and Tantalus reigned; and she came down to the plain with her worshippers, and took up her abode "Before-the-City." She became a more moralised conception in the Ionian Greek city; and Nemesis was the aspect which she bore to the Greek mind. In Smyrna alone, of all the Greek cities, Nemesis was regarded not as a single figure, but as a pair. The twin figures Nemesis often appear as a type on coins of the city: they stand as a rule on the ground, one holding a bridle, the other a cubit-rule with a wheel at her feet, but in the coin represented in Figure 21 the wheel becomes a chariot drawn by griffins, on which the twin goddesses are borne.

Aristides describes the plain of Smyrna as won from the sea, but not in the same way as some plains (e.g., those of Ephesus and Miletus) were won, viz., by silting up. Probably geologists would confirm his statement that the sea once extended much farther to the East. But when he wrote the change had not taken place in recent time; and little change has taken place between the first century and the twentieth. But in two respects there has been change. The coast in front of the city has advanced, the city has encroached a good deal on the sea, and the inner harbour has been entirely filled up. But in the southeastern corner of the gulf, near the mouth of the Meles, the sea has encroached on the land. The steady action of the west wind through many months of every year drives the sea on that corner and washes away the coast slowly but steadily. But the rivulets which flow into the eastern end of the gulf are all mountain streamlets, which carry little silt, but wash down gravel and pebbles into the plain, and are dry or almost dry in the hot season. The Meles alone flows with a full and unvarying current, but its course is very short.

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Figure 21: The twin goddesses Nemesis of Smyrna

Under the Roman government Smyrna enjoyed the eventless existence of a city which suffered few disasters and had an almost unbroken career of prosperity. From the sixth century onwards it was the only important harbour for inland caravan trade on the west coast of Asia Minor; and its importance in comparison with other cities of the coast necessarily increased as time passed. In the centuries that followed the lot of every city in Asia Minor was an unhappy one; and Smyrna suffered with the rest. But it was the last to suffer from the eastern raids; and it was generally the ally of western powers in that time, as once it had been the ally of Rome. The circumstances of sea and land gave it lasting vitality. Frequent earthquakes have devastated it, but only seemed to give it the opportunity of restoring itself more beautifully than before. No conquest and no disaster could permanently injure it. It occupied the one indispensable situation; it was the doorkeeper of a world.

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Figure 22: The alliance of Smyrna and Thyatira

The "alliances" of Smyrna were very numerous; and she was the only city which had formed that kind of engagement for mutual recognition of religious rites and privileges with all the rest of the Seven Cities. As a specimen of these, Figure 22 shows an "alliance" with Thyatira. The Amazon Smyrna, the mythical foundress of the ancient Aeolic city, armed with the Amazons' weapon, the double-axe, wearing the short tunic and high boots of the huntress and warrior, holds out her right hand to greet the peaceful figure of Thyatira, who is dressed in the long tunic and mantle (peplos) of a Greek lady, and rests her raised left hand on a sceptre. Both wear the mural crown, which indicated the genius of a city. Behind the foot of Smyrna appears the prow of a ship.

Its position saved it from conquest till all other cities of the land had long been under Turkish rule; and its commercial relations with the west made it the great stronghold of the European spirit in Asia Minor. The Knights of St. John held it during the fourteenth century. Even after Pagos was captured by the Turks, the castle on the inner harbour was a Christian stronghold till Tamerlane at last took it in 1402. Since then Smyrna has been a Turkish city; but the Christian element has always been strong and at the present time outnumbers the Mohammedan in the proportion of three to one; and the city is called by the Turks Infidel Smyrna, Giaour Ismir.

In the Byzantine ecclesiastical order, Smyrna was at an early time separated from the rest of Asia, and made independent of Ephesus (autokephalos). In the new order which takes its name from Leo VI it appears as a metropolis with six subject bishoprics on the shores of the gulf or in the lower Hermus Valley.


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