A MAN OF LETTERS and his Mystical Bond with Smyrna
Articles on Greece by AURELIA
What is the special spell that Greece casts during times of war that instills passions in men of letters and draws them to her, as the moth is drawn to the candle's hypnotic flame? Lord Byron (1788-1824) is, of course, the most well-known English Romantic poet and Philhellene who fought and died for Greece. He is beloved by the country he adopted, and as evidence of this, Byron's heart is said to be buried in Mesolongi, Greece, where he died.
A century after Lord Byron, many other men of letters from Britain came to fight for Greece in monumental military events in World War II. Perhaps they were inspired by the poet. As Lord Byron had done before them, they put their lives on the line for Greece. They were men such as the scholar and historian Christopher 'Monty' Woodhouse, authors Xan Fielding, W. Stanley Moss, and Patrick Leigh Fermor, and archaeologist John Pendelbury. The Greek author and poet, George Psychoundakis (also known as 'the Cretan Runner'), was among these British intellectuals who valiantly fought the Germans. Their brave deeds became legendary and were celebrated in folklore, novels, and on film, and just as Greece remembered the great Romantic poet and Philhellene, they and other veterans and World War II heroes are honored annually during services in Crete.
Between Lord Byron and the luminaries named above was another man of letters, an American named the Honorable George Horton, who served with distinction as Consul General for the United States in the Near East from 1911 to 1922. A journalist, novelist, and literary critic before he joined government service, Horton is credited with personally saving hundreds of lives during the destruction of the ancient, Christian city of Smyrna on the coast of Asia Minor in 1922.
In his early career, Horton was a journalist for the Chicago Herald and wrote poetry and novels as he gained recognition as a major critic and literary figure. But Fate had another destiny in mind for the young writer, who became perhaps the most famous eyewitness of his time to what some have called one of the greatest tragedies of the twentieth century. Horton was present during the burning of Smyrna, a City known as 'The Pearl of the Orient,' and wrote The Blight of Asia, the poignant chronicle of this ignoble deed. The destruction of Smyrna marked the end of a two-thousand-year Christian presence in Asia Minor. In the tradition of remembering Lord Byron and the heroes of World War II, some close friends of Horton honored him by raising funds to build and erect a marble statue in the Plateia of Nea Smyrna, Athens, near the statue of Archbishop Chrysostomos, the Greek Metropolitan who was martyred during the destruction of the City. The Greek government gave Horton a decoration for his help in Smyrna during World War I, and the Vatican named him a Knight of St. Gregory the Great in recognition for his protections of Catholics during that war.
The burning of Smyrna is known in modern Greek history as 'The Great Catastrophe.' Events were set in motion on September 9, 1922 when the typical morning calm in Smyrna was violated by the sounds of galloping horses, foreshadowing the tragedy that would unfold. Thunderous sounds of hoofs pounding the earth punctuated the air, accompanied by terrified screams. The Turkish cavalry, led by Mustapha Kemal, Commander in Chief of the Turkish Forces, had entered the City. As the troops rode up and down the quay, people fled, seeking shelter in the American Embassy, the Theatre de Smyrna, Red Cross, various missionaries and schools, and the YMCA and YWCA. On September 11 the City was set ablaze. In his role as America's Consul General, Horton risked his life to evacuate as many American and Greek men, women, and children as he could, and saved many others, regardless of nationality.
In her award-winning book. Smyrna 1922, Marjorie Housepian Dobkin describes the scene on the quay during the inferno:
'With exits to the city blocked off by Turkish troops, nearly half a million human beings packed in an area a mile and a half long and no more than one hundred feet wide were trapped between the fire and the sea'.. On the bridge of the liner Bavarian, grown men wept as they watched the scene. A British businessman could see 'the unfortunate wretches thirteen or fourteen deep swaying in the sweltering heat. With the very parcels in their arms actually on fire, men, women, and children struggled to get free, throwing themselves where possible into the water, or swaying this way and that, more dead than alive. The density of the crowd for a time was such that the dead remained standing, supported by the living.' She added that one survivor compared the scene to The Last Days of Pompeii.
Estimates vary on how many Greeks and Armenians were killed or exiled, but before the inferno, the population of Smyrna was said to be 500,000 and include Greeks, Armenians, Jews, Turks, Italians, French, British, and others. Of this number, Horton estimated that there were approximately 300 American nationals. In The Blight of Asia, Horton says 'the lowest estimate of lives lost given by the refugees places the total at 120,000,' but Marjorie Dobkin quotes Admiral Mark L. Bristol, an American who was Chairman of the Inter-Allied Commission of Inquiry on the Smyrna Landings, as saying the number of deaths 'due to killings, fire, and execution'probably does not exceed 2,000.' Dobkin says Bristol's figure has gone down as 'the historical verdict,' but adds that Horton's estimate 'makes more sense' because Smyrna was populated by 'roughly 400,000 Ottoman Christians (native Smyrneans plus refugees) during the days immediately preceding the fire,' and those unaccounted for by October 1 numbered 'at least 190,000.' But, Dobkin concludes, 'no one will ever know how many had perished.' The jewel that was once called Smyrna is now Ismir and has been for eighty years.
Horton believed the tragedy could have been averted. In early September when the Greek army began its retreat, he cabled Admiral Bristol and begged him 'in the interests of humanity and for the safety of American interests,' to mediate with the Angora government. He wanted amnesty sufficient to allow the Greek forces to evacuate. 'Amnesty will avoid possible destruction of Smyrna,' he declared, but the State Department responded with an unequivocal 'No.'
Dobkin says that since the first days of September, 'Horton's days and nights had been an endless round of conferences, interviews, and errands of mercy.' She added that these errands of mercy 'were to become legendary among Greeks,' adding that he gathered hundreds of families at the Point and scoured the harbor to beg or buy their passage, 'often as his own expense.'
In is obvious that Dobkin has great admiration for Horton and she describes his poignant role in this catastrophe:
'To those who knew the man it was natural that others would turn to him in time of crisis. George Horton was something of an anomaly among foreign officials in Smyrna. Unlike the majority, who had arrived since the end of the war, he had worked in the area for thirty years and was thoroughly familiar with its history. At a time when Americans and Englishmen were notoriously inept at foreign languages, he spoke fluent French, Greek, German, Italian, and Turkish. Virtually every segment of the Smyrna population affirmed Horton's sensitivity to its point of view, and in reports that were models of clarity he had detailed the attitudes of these respective groups for Admiral Bristol and the experts at the State Department. Even Bristol conceded that the man's views on the Greco-Turkish question were 'plainly fair and square.''
In The Blight of Asia, Horton says, 'My constant policy during the long time that I was in the Near East was to befriend, in so far as my official position permitted, all who might be in need of help, irrespective of race or religion.' There are numerous statements from Greeks and Turks expressing gratitude to Horton for his good works.
Antonios Panayiotou, who was a child in Smyrna in 1922 and escaped the fire, made the following statement in 1965 during a ceremony remembering the victims of Smyrna:
'At this time let us make the sign of the cross in memory of George Horton. He sent a consular guard to various neighborhoods when the fire started and gathered the women and children and took them to a place called Punta where he put American flags on many fishing and other small boats so they could board and sail away to freedom.'
Among the letters from the Turks that have survived is one signed by the President of the Islamic Emigration Committee and also by seventeen others who are Turkish businessmen and merchants. It reads in part:
'Since the appointment of His Excellency, George Horton as Consul-General of the United States in Smyrna, His Excellency has won the heart of the whole Turkish nation by the sympathy and good will which His Excellency has always shown every Turkish man'Mr. George Horton, gave full protection and kindly treatment to those of the Turks who went to him for protection and the right of humane existence'we express our heartfelt thanks to him.'
Another letter thanks Horton for saving the lives of an entire Turkish family in 1916 by providing them with food, a doctor, and a nurse when the family was down with typhus. In the archives in Nea Smyrna, Athens, there are numerous letters from Greeks, Turks, and others, thanking Horton for his humanitarianism.
It should be noted that as the City burned, the harbor was filled with battle ships representing the American and Allied powers, specifically, the United States, Great Britain, Italy, France, and Japan. Except for the Japanese, none of these ships would take on any of the terrified victims, because they were under orders to maintain neutrality. Horton, who rescued scores of Americans and others (Greeks, Armenians and Jews) by putting them on American ships before the fire, said the sight of the vessels resting 'impotently' in the waters as a tragedy unfolded made him 'ashamed to be a member of the human race.'
How did this journalist, poet, and distinguished 'Man of Letters' come to play such a pivotal role in one of the greatest catastrophes of our time, an event that Horton himself compared only to the destruction of Carthage by the Romans? Dobkin explains that Horton's appointment to the Foreign Service had been 'whimsical.' She points out that he was a classics scholar, successful poet, and literary critic and was thirty-four when Fate intervened. In his role as an editorial writer for The Chicago Herald, he penned a number of editorials in support of Grover Cleveland; the President was pleased and offered Horton a consular post in Berlin. Dobkin explains that he refused this and asked for one in Greece; in 1893 he was appointed Consul to Athens; in 1909 he was transferred to Salonika and in 19ll he was appointed US Consul at Smyrna. Dobkin says that in 1927, Horton wrote, 'I saw no connection between such editorials and the ability to fill a consular post intelligently, nor do I now.'
George Horton's daughter, Nancy, lives in Greece and is an accomplished poet who has given readings internationally; her father was a major influence in her life and upon her literary interests. Miss Horton says he was very witty and when she was a child, he sang nursery rhymes to her in Latin. She remembers him as being a very spontaneous and creative person and as someone who would always champion the underdog.
His first collection of poetry was entitled, Songs of the Lowly and Other Poems, and they show sympathy for the working man and the unemployed in America.
This was written long before he had any connection with Greeks. Later works have other themes independent of his love of Greece. They focused on the disparity between the rich and the poor in America, the tension between war and the belief in a Supreme Being, and the struggle between greed and the true meaning of Christianity. His best known poem in certain circles, especially among the survivors of Smyrna and their friends and relatives, is The Martyred City, about the burning of the City.
Horton wrote eight novels that were in the romance/adventure genre, and six were set in Greece; his works also include four books of poetry. The novels are entitled, Constantine, A Fair Brigand, The Tempting of Father Anthony, The Long Straight Road, The Monk's Treasure, The Edge of Hazard, Miss Schuyler's Alia, and Like Another Helen, a best seller in its time. There are some unpublished manuscripts, a few unpublished short stories, and one unpublished play. Books that are now circulating in English include The Home of Nymphs and Vampires, The Isles of Greece, and 'Like Another Helen.' In Athens, the following books are circulating in Greek: Constantine, Modern Athens, (two editions) and The Blight of Asia.
Critics praised Horton's work and favorable reviews were forthcoming after the publication of each novel. The great literary critic, William Dean Howells, called In Argolis 'a classic.' A writer for The Saturday Evening Post declared 'He (Horton) is probably the only American poet besides Poe and Whitman enjoying an equal affection in the hearts of foreign readers'at any picnic of Greek Americans where dancing and ballad singing are part of the entertainment, one is as apt to hear Mr. Horton's translation as the original.'
W.G. Eggleston, a critic writing in Chicago's Literary Review, praised Horton's translations and literary style. He said his translation of Sappho's Hymn to Aphrodite, 'was 'better than Andrew Lang's,' and of the novel, Like Another Helen, he declared, 'Horton can write verse that makes a man want to do something'he can write a novel that people will read and read again because it carries a message to humanity.'
Horton's work as a poet and novelist was sacrificed when he assumed his post as Consul General for the United States in the Near East. One of his major responsibilities was to promote American businesses abroad and he never lost an opportunity to recommend American products over those of other countries. The numerous details involved in his role as Consul General necessitated that he quench his creative thirst, and the literary career that could have been was put on hold.
This past September a conference was held on the island of Poros, where Horton lived for a time and was inspired to write three books, In Argolis, Constantine, and Aphroessa. Mr. Spiros Spiridos, the Mayor of Poros organized the event and arranged for an exhibition of Horton's life and work to be displayed in a large municipal building. A number of government officials from Athens participated, along with Nancy Horton who gave readings from In Argolia, for school children. This book is considered by many European academicians to be one of the best books on Greek folklore, nursery rhymes, superstitions, and so on. Mr. Spiridos would like In Argolia to be translated into demotic Greek so that the young people can read it.
Those close to Horton say Smyrna seems to have been his destiny, and that it began when he was a small boy whose father read to him passages from The Book of Revelation and other readings from the Bible 'almost daily.' Nancy Horton says that as a child her father was mesmerized by the fact that Smyrna was called 'The last of the Seven Cities' and 'the site of the original seven churches of the Revelation of St. John the Divine.' 'This made a profound impression on him and haunted him all of his life,' Ms. Horton says, 'it seems to run like a thread though his life and work.'
When Horton was first appointed Consul to Smyrna in 1911, he told colleagues that 'it had long been the Mecca of my ambitions.' Some colleagues felt that it was almost inevitable that he should be there during the death of the Christian city, as they felt it was clear that he had a mystical bond with Smyrna.
Nancy Horton explains that in so many of her father's poems and other writings his themes are the struggle between greed and the true meaning of Christianity within the context of the Revelation or Apocalypse. She said he saw Smyrna, the last of the seven cities he first learned about in his childhood, as the ultimate victim that was 'betrayed through the greed and connivance of the great Christian nations.'
When asked what other forces drew him to Smyrna, Ms. Horton responds that he was enthralled with the Greek language and with Homer, whom he considered a native of Smyrna and to whom he referred as a 'Smyrniote' in his writings. He became impatient with archaeologists who speculated on other places where Homer could have been born and proclaimed, 'I am inclined to accept the statement that Homer was born in Smyrna and be done with it.' He added, 'As in religion, one must have a modicum of faith in these matters.'
Horton was also a keen admirer of the odes of Sappho, Greece's most famous lyric poet who was born on Lesbos (also called Mytiline), an island close to Asia Minor. His favorite work was Sappho's Hymn to Aphrodite, a poem that he said had 'unquenchable fire and beauty.' Horton made a pilgrimage to Mytiline and declared 'I have been all my life a worshipper of Sappho who has been more of an inspiration to me than any other human who has ever lived. Her fame, instead of diminishing, is still on the increase, because of her divine presence and ethereal uplift'Anyone who comes in touch with Sappho has a feeling that the woman herself is still alive, a feeling of being in contact with a presence so exquisite and incorporeal that it never could have been mortal.'
In his time, Horton was most likely the most passionate Philhellene in America. Because he was well aware of the great difficulties the Greek immigrants faced in America, he decided that the best way to correct this was to present his firm belief that modern Greeks were descendants of the ancients, that historically they brought civilization to countries that had conquered them, and that the Greeks as a nation made enormous progress in the short period since they were free. In 1907, therefore, he traveled throughout the country - from Boston to Seattle, giving twenty lectures on Greek life; he spoke in leading universities in America under the auspices of the American Archeological Institute and his talks were widely covered by the press. He lectured on Greek life as he found it in the villages and entertained his audiences with stories of folk lore, lullabies, art, music, and humor. After some lectures he was given a gift by Greeks, and one of his favorites was a silver loving cup filled with flowers and inscribed 'To George Horton from Hellene Americans.'
The leading Greek newspaper of the time, Atlantis, covered the lecture series and wrote that there was a positive difference in the attitude of the American public toward Greeks because of Horton's talks. Shortly after the tour, Horton spoke to more than 1,000 Hellenes in New York and urged them to unite for their own benefit.
Horton had a deep love for America and the ideals of the Founding Fathers. He also had a great respect for all immigrants who helped build his beloved country. In his talks he extolled their virtues and the many contributions they made to American life. This theme is reflected in some of his poetry, especially Songs of the Lowly. He also made it a point to continue promoting the use of American products, whether it was the plough or the automobile.
When Horton, the man who was destined to be there at the destruction of the last of the seven cities, spoke to the Greek audiences he grew to love in America, he spoke not as the Consul General who was an eyewitness to history, but as a poet. His intuition told him that it was only through poetry that the powerful emotions he experienced in Smyrna could be conveyed. So he would end his talk with a slow recitation, in a soft voice, of these names:
Ephesus - Sardis - Philadelphia - Thyatiha - Laodicea - Pergamos - Smyrna
These are the seven cities in Asia Minor that are no more, and Smyrna was the last to fall. By quietly reciting the names of the seven cities at the end of his lecture, and by speaking with the voice of a poet, this remarkable 'Man of Letters' conveyed the profound meaning of - - The Great Catastrophe - - a tragedy so cataclysmic that most witnesses and victims found it almost impossible to describe.
His soft chant and slow recitation of the names of seven cities became the dignified, muffled sob of a poet lamenting the burning of Smyrna, 'The Martyred City,' and the subsequent, inevitable end of the Christian presence in Asia Minor.
Photo of the Portion of the thousands of Greeks, who fled to the water-front now resides in the Benaki Museum, Athens
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