The city of İzmir, the third largest in the land, is now home to well over three million people. Many travellers give it a wide berth, but it certainly has some merit, not least its enviable position straddling the head of a 50km-long gulf. Surrounded on all sides by mountains, it’s arrayed like a gigantic amphitheatre, with the Ionian Sea functioning as a sort of never-ending show.
Site of ancient Smyrna, İzmir has a long and illustrious history. Its current incarnation is rather more modern, particularly in the swanky, bar-filled Alsancak area just north of the centre, the Konak shopping area to the south, and the coastal road that binds them together. However, a bustling bazaar district, parks and a clutch of grand old buildings are remnants of a glorious past. One negative point is that the weather, though mild for much of the year, gets stinking hot in the summer – there are no city beaches to escape to, but the Çeşme peninsula is not too far away.
The site of modern İzmir was settled by aboriginal Anatolians as long ago as the third millennium BC. Around 600 BC, Lydian raids sent the area into a long decline; it was recovering tentatively when Alexander the Great appeared in 334 BC. Spurred by a timely dream corroborated by the oracle of Apollo at Claros, Alexander decreed the foundation of a new, better-fortified settlement on Mount Pagos, the flat-topped hill today adorned with the Kadifekale. His generals, Antigonus and Lysimachus, carried out Alexander’s plan after his death, by which time the city bore the name – Smyrna – familiar to the West for centuries after.
Roman rule endowed the city with impressive buildings, but Arab raids in the seventh century AD triggered several centuries of turbulence. Selçuk Turks held the city for two decades prior to 1097, when the Byzantines recaptured it. The thirteenth-century Latin tenure in Constantinople provoked another era of disruption at Smyrna, with Crusaders, Genoese, Tamerlane’s Mongols and minor Turkish emirs jockeying for position. Order was re-established in 1415 by Mehmet I, who finally incorporated the town into the Ottoman Empire, his successors repulsing repeated Venetian efforts to retake it.
Following World War I, Greece was given an indefinite mandate over İzmir and its hinterland. Foolishly, a huge Greek expeditionary force pressed inland, inciting the resistance of the Turkish nationalists under Atatürk. The climactic defeat in the two-year struggle against Greece and her nominal French and Italian allies was the entry into Smyrna of the Turkish army on September 9, 1922. The secular republic not having yet been proclaimed, the reconquest of the city took on the character of a successfully concluded jihad, or holy Muslim war, with three days of murder and plunder. Almost seventy percent of the city burned to the ground and thousands of non-Muslims died. A quarter of a million refugees huddled at the quayside while British, American, French and Italian vessels stood idly by, refusing to grant them safe passage until the third day.
One of İzmir’s best sights is the city itself, seen from the bay it surrounds – at TL6.50 for a return trip, these are by far the Aegean’s cheapest boat trips. Boats head from three docks – Konak, Pasaport and Alsancak – to the best destination, Karşıyaka. Leaving from Pasaport provides the most spectacular trip, crawling past İzmir’s 1970s’ tricolore of white-yellow-brown buildings to Alsancak, before heading across the bay.
Karşıyaka itself is a pleasant part of İzmir, its pedestrianized central street – Kemalpaşa Cad – sporting a clutch of shops, restaurants and cafés. Try eating at Alesta, a small restaurant facing the local mosque, selling cheap seafood sandwiches, and sandwiched itself by two fishmongers.
Many travellers to western Turkey, and İzmir in particular, are surprised by the sight of Africans who are obviously not visitors. Often termed Arap or “Arabs” by other Turks, they are in fact descendants of the large numbers of Sudanese, Somalis, Algerians and Egyptians who were brought to Anatolia during the Ottoman Empire. Many arrived as slaves, forced to work in the tobacco and cotton fields or as household servants, particularly wet-nurses.
Today there are about 20,000 Afro-Turks (as they prefer to be known) in the western Aegean provinces, most of whom live in the mountains between İzmir and Mersin. Speaking fluent Turkish and devoutly Muslim, they are often proud of their Turkish heritage, though intermarriage is rare with other Turks.
The Linchpin of İzmir's summer season is the International İzmir Festival, running from mid-June to early July. It’s a bit of a misnomer since many events take place at various restored venues at Ephesus or Çeşme castle. Tickets run to TL20–100 a head, but 50 percent student discounts are available and the acts featured are often world-class – past names have included the Moscow Ballet, Paco Peña and Ravi Shankar. Get this year’s programme at wiksev.org; ticket vendors are also listed online.