May 1 2008

WHEN Smyrna--modern Izmir--fell to the Turkish army in 1922, and
much of it was destroyed by fire, the city's role as a bastion of
Greek and Christian culture, going back nearly 2,000 years, came to
an abrupt end. Before that, the port had been home to a diverse and
cosmopolitan population; by the standards of the region, it was a
beacon of tolerance and prosperity.

In addition to the Greeks, Armenians, Jews and Turks, there were also
Americans and Britons and what Giles Milton calls the "Levantines",
rich families of European descent, who spoke half a dozen languages and
occupied vast villas. Their dynasties dominated the trade and industry
of the region. Some (like the Whittalls) retained British nationality
over generations of Ottoman life, and it is their English-language
diaries, letters and documents that provide Mr Milton with his best
material. Although this slant is unrepresentatively British and
privileged--lots of parties and picnics--it allows the author to be
fair towards the Greeks and the Turks, who still blame one another
entirely for the disaster.

The city's destruction--still known in Greece as "the catastrophe"--had
its roots in the first world war and the effort by the great powers
to grab pieces of the disintegrating Ottoman empire.

Britain, America and France backed Greece's charismatic leader,
Eleftherios Venizelos, in his pursuit of the megali idea ("great
idea"), the dream of creating a greater Greece by occupying Smyrna
and swathes of Anatolia. Having licensed a war by proxy, the allies
in varying degrees turned cool on it. They looked on passively as
Mustafa Kemal (later Ataturk, republican Turkey's founder) and his
troops routed the Greeks from Anatolia and reoccupied Smyrna, bent
on revenge for Greek atrocities in the city and further east.

The port was ransacked and looted for days. Women were raped and
mutilated, children were beheaded and more than 100,000 people
killed. Meanwhile, 21 allied warships sat in the harbour. Hundreds
of thousands of refugees were trapped on the city's quayside, yet
officers on the ships still dressed for dinner and ordered louder
music to drown out the screams. "Paradise Lost" is a timely reminder
of the appalling cost of expansionist political ambitions; it tells
a fascinating story with clarity and insight.