THE destruction of Smyrna by the Turks was an event of great significance in Church history. At the time of the birth of the Prophet, about A. D. 570, Christianity had covered, in addition to the area known in general to-day as “Europe,” the ancient province of Asia, extending as far east as the Caspian Sea, a broad strip of Syria, and a wide belt of North Africa clear across to the Atlantic Ocean.
In A. D. 30, according to Kurtz, historian of the Christian Church, there were five hundred Christians in the world; they had increased to five hundred thousand by A. D. 100, and they numbered thirty million in the year 311.
Asia Minor and Africa are famous in the history of the Church as the habitat of many of the most famous Christian fathers and martyrs, such as Polycarp of Smyrna, Tertullian of Carthage, Clement of Alexandria, Chrysostom of Antioch, Origen of Tyre, Cyprian of Carthage and a host of others. Saint Paul was born in Tarsus of Cilicia.
In the eighth century, Timotheus sent a band of missionaries from Mesopotamia to convert the Tartars, who went as far as the Caspian Sea, and oven penetrated into China, “planting and reviving in those parts a knowledge of the gospel.” The Seven Churches of Revelation were in Asia Minor, and the fact that Smyrna was the last of these, and kept her light burning until 1922, emphasizes the significance, in Church history, of her destruction by the Turks.
The object of the Emperor Constantine in founding his capital was to build a distinctly Christian city that should be the metropolis of Christendom. Its splendors, its refinement, its art and culture, its wealth, its power, its fame as a center of learning and of piety are unforgettable even to-day. In the presence of its gentlemen and great dames, the knights and ladies of Western Europe were mere boors and hoydens. Wrecked, plundered and mismanaged by the Latin knights, a calamity from which it never recovered, there was enough of its culture left, when the Turks finally laid hands on it, to scatter over Europe and regenerate the West. The Renaissance, that wonderful awakening from the darkness of the Middle Ages, was largely due to the learning brought into Europe by the scholars of Constantinople, fleeing from the Turk. Those scholars had kept the light of the old classic culture burning during all the years of European darkness and ignorance.
If Constantinople could have been spared and Christianity saved in the Near East, the results to civilization would have been incalculable. What a glorious city a Greek Constantinople would be today, if it had always stayed Greek, with its long traditions and its immense treasures of ancient culture! Another and more beautiful Paris, bestriding the Bosphorus, great in commerce, learning, science and all the graces and influences of Christian civilization.
Thus says Sir Edwin Pears, in his well-known history:
“The New Rome of Constantine Augustus passed under the power of a horde of Oriental adventurers, Turanians by original descent, mongrels by polygamy. This was the greatest victory ever won by Asia in her debate with Europe. For many decades thereafter there seemed at least a possibility that the East might destroy all the fruit of Marathon.”
Quoting again from the same author:
“Under the rule of its new masters Constantinople was destined to become the most degraded capital in Europe, and became incapable of contributing anything whatever of value to the history of the human race. No art, no literature, no handicraft even, nothing that the world would gladly keep, has come since 1453 from the Queen City. Its capture, so far as human eyes can see, has been for the world a misfortune almost without any compensatory advantage. Poverty as the consequence of misgovernment is the most conspicuous result of the conquest affecting the subjects of the Empire. Lands were allowed to go out of cultivation. Industries were lost. Mines were forgotten. Trade and commerce almost ceased to exist. Population decreased. The wealthiest state in Europe became the poorest; the most civilized the most barbarous. The demoralization of the conquered people and of their churches was not less disastrous than the injury to their material interests. The Christians lost heart. Their physical courage lessened.”
This description of the condition of Asia Minor as the result of the capture of Constantinople continued down to the ultimate complete destruction of the Christians by the Turks. Nothing changed in the nearly five centuries that have passed. The Turk has not altered either in his character or his methods. The scenes described by Pears as following the taking of the Queen City, the massacres and violation of women, were duplicated at Smyrna, with the added horror of the sufferings of the Christians on the quay.
After Constantinople, Smyrna, “Ghiaour Smyrna,” became the last stronghold of Christianity and Greek culture in the Near East. It had its great and valuable libraries, its learned men, its famous schools. The Greeks and Armenians could at any time have attained safety by abjuring their faith. Yet, though there have been apostates, they have, in general, kept the faith and have suffered.
The only civilization that has existed in Turkey since that black year, 1453, has been that supplied to it by the Christian remnant of the old Byzantine Empire. For that reason the work of the American and other missionaries took on a great importance. They went out originally to Turkey to convert Moslems. They found that they could not do this, but that their real mission was with the Christians, who were eager to be uplifted and enlightened. The recent rapid development of the latter in advanced agriculture, industries, commerce, education, was restoring Christianity in the Orient and reknitting the wasted and torn fabric of the old Byzantine Empire. To the great Christian Powers was given a tardy and last opportunity of repairing the wrong that was done the world when St. Sophia, the Temple of the Eternal Wisdom, fell into the hand of the Turk.