560km (348 miles) south of Istanbul; 70km (43 miles) north of Selçuk; 90km (56 miles) north of Kusadasi; 325km (202 miles) south of Çanakkale; 279km (173 miles) north of Marmaris
Izmir has come a long way since the late 1800s when the Ottoman elite christened the port city Kokaryali (Smelly Waterfront). Today the city has earned the nobler designation of Güzelyali (Beautiful Waterfront), and with the completion of a multimillion-dollar redevelopment plan that includes a green waterside park, a promenade called the Kordon, and the restored customs house (or Konak Pier) built by Gustave Eiffel, the name is more than appropriate.
Little was left after the fire ignited at the tail end of the War of Independence destroyed all traces of the cultural melting pot that was once Smyrna -- and there's that perilous but dormant fault line to contend with. Eighty-two years after the reconstruction began, Izmir has been reinvented as a prosperous, cosmopolitan, commercial city, more livable than Istanbul, less sterile than Ankara, and filled with wide boulevards and swaying palm trees. But with the azure waters of the Aegean and the extraordinary remains of Ephesus competing for tourist attention, Izmir sadly falls short. Despite this, I actually love the place. There's plenty to do here for anyone who chooses to take an extended stay.
A Look at the Past
The story of Izmir brings up yet another lineup of the usual suspects, beginning with the traces of an unidentified group dating from at least the 3rd millennium B.C. Excavations at the nearby site of Bayrakli in the Meles river valley have uncovered evidence of a primitive culture influenced by Hittite religious models; in fact, the Luwi word closely resembling "Smyrna" means "land of the holy mother." Somewhere along the way, the Amazon ruler Smyrna (or Myrina) added to the confusion of the origins of the city's nomenclature. Various civilizations referred to the city as Zmürni, Smyrne, Simirna, and Esmira; if you say them all 10 times really fast, the final outcome is the sound of the town you'll find on maps today.
Around 200 years after the disintegration of the Hittite Empire, waves of Ionian immigrants began to populate the region, creating a thriving metropolis comparable to the success and influence of its contemporary, Troy. The Lydians who moved in and trashed the place were no match for the Persian Empire, though they, too, succumbed to Alexander the Great's blaze of glory. In the 4th century B.C., Alex rebuilt an unmistakably Hellenistic city, relocating it on the hill of Pagos under the watchful protection of the Kadifekale citadel. Izmir was absorbed by General Lysimachos into his kingdom of Pergamum, but bad estate planning on the part of Attalus 200 years later resulted in the entire region becoming a Roman colony. Under the Romans and then the Byzantines, Ionia became a thriving center of trade and intellectual innovation, but the city was razed by a devastating earthquake in A.D. 178.
Control vacillated between the Byzantines and the Arabs until 1390, when the region was stabilized under Selçuk, then Ottoman, rule.
Izmir became a flourishing center of commerce in the 15th century, nurtured by the liberal policies of tolerance practiced by the Ottomans. But there was hardly a Turk in sight. The city opened its arms to waves of immigrant Jews fleeing from the Spanish Inquisition as well as Greeks and Armenians. French and other European merchants, known as the Levantines, set up customs houses here, and each enclave left its own cultural imprint on the city. After World War I, the Treaty of Sèvres assigned Greece the administration of Izmir and the surrounding region, but the Greek occupying forces got greedy and foolishly pushed eastward. The defeat of Greek forces by Atatürk's national liberation army on September 9, 1922, was the defining moment in the establishment of national sovereignty; as the Greeks were chased off the peninsula, occupying French and British forces prudently pulled out of the regions under their protection.
Depending on who tells the story, the city was destroyed by fire either by an accident of war or by angry vengeful Turks on a rampage after their victory in 1922. The city has since been rebuilt into a modern, functional, palm tree-lined, and thoroughly pleasant metropolitan city.