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Spectres of Smyrna


Arts researcher

On Tuesday 18 December 2018, I boarded a flight to Izmir, a large port city on the Aegean coast of Turkey. There were people returning home for the holidays, others travelling for business, and a handful of tourists probably en route to the Ancient Greek ruins of Ephesus. My journey, however, was for a different purpose. I was travelling in search of the lost city of Smyrna.

Smyrna was an ancient Greek city of Anatolia. Passing through periods of Greek, Roman, and Byzantine rule, in 1453 it was incorporated into the Ottoman Empire. Smyrna became a thriving, cosmopolitan metropolis, home to Greeks, Turks, Armenians, Jews, and Levantines. Known as “paradise” and “the pearl of the Aegean,” mythicised Smyrna reached its demise in the Great Fire of September 1922, which marked the end of the Greco-Turkish war (1919–1922). The city was obliterated and many of its Greek and other Christian inhabitants were eradicated or forced to flee. A new city was built on Smyrna’s ashes, the Turkish city of Izmir.

The following audio recordings are spectral wanderings of spaces in Izmir that hold lingering traces of Smyrna, recreated through observations, stories, and imaginings.

*The following tracks must be listened to as a series and with headphones.


In my grandmother’s house, there is a wall full of Greek Orthodox icons. Each icon is not only a pictorial representation of a religious subject. It is also a living presence, a window between the human and spiritual worlds.1 The figures presented are facing outwards, inviting passers-by to stop and enter.2 There is one that always captures my gaze. Positioned in the centre of the wall, it is more marred than the others, with cracks and blotches marking its surface. It is the Lady of Perpetual Help, Mary, the Mother of God, aware of her beholder’s suffering and known for acts of healing and helping.3Her welcoming eyes look beyond the charred wooden frame, beckoning me forward. While her mouth is pursed in recollection, as if she needs to tell me something. I have spent a lot of time in her presence, yet her story continues to haunt me. This icon belonged to my great grandmother, Ariadne Cocones (1900–1993). It saved Ariadne’s life during the burning of Smyrna and is all my family has from this forgotten place. When I am still before the icon, a passageway opens that holds the fading stories of Smyrna. I am invited into a conversation, encouraged to step through the passageway to access the past of this space, before it fades, slips away.

Spectres of Smyrna reimagines the lost city through a series of audio activations in conversation with Ariadne’s icon. The activations were recorded in Smyrna, which is now Izmir, Turkey, at four spaces that hold remanences of the Ottoman city. This cosmopolitan metropolis was destroyed, and thousands of its Christian inhabitants eradicated, in the Great Fire, which marked the end of the Greco-Turkish war (1919–1922).4 Smyrna was subsequently rebuilt by the Turkish, who continue to deny its harrowing past.5 From the church to the park, and the street to the quay, the audio recordings are spectral wanderings that evoke the presence, and importantly, the absence of Smyrna. They inhabit places in Izmir with my family’s memories, collective histories, and personal observations. In so doing, the recordings transform these “places” into “spaces” in the De Certeauian sense, in which place is a static point on a map, whereas space is an alternative path, a different narrative.6 The spaces in the recordings, however, are never really present, but rather, like the icon, they continually shift between presence and absence, between the real and the imaginary.


My maternal grandmother’s family lived in Smyrna from the eighteenth century until 1922. As Greek Orthodox Christians, they were forced to flee in the fire, initially escaping to Lesbos, Greece, and eventually moving to Brisbane, Australia. I grew up hearing of this flourishing city and its destruction through the story of the icon. The heirloom presents a lingering presence of both my great grandmother and Smyrna’s missing past. It holds this “non-conscious intensity,” an affecting agency that cannot be grasped in words,7 which I was compelled to explore. I began by looking into the concept of hauntology. Devised by Jacques Derrida in Spectres of Marx 1993, this term refers to a disjunctive state in which presence is replaced by “the figure of the ghost as that which is neither present nor absent, dead nor alive.”8 The ghost is used to apprehend that which cannot be explained, understood, or represented. Derrida invites this figure to speak and encourages us to listen to its haunting.9 His spectre shares many similarities with W.J.T. Mitchell’s conception of images as un-dead. Images are hauntological as they are never truly present or absent, still or animate, dead or alive.10 Like Derrida, Mitchell asks what do images want and invites them to speak, arguing that they are “quasi life-forms that depend on a host organism” to activate them.11 The icon is a hauntological object that presents both a religious figure and the presence and absence of Smyrna. I decided to give the “icon legs”,12 to animate the still object, in an attempt to access the city’s past and lost future.

Having heard numerous descriptions of Izmir’s ghostliness, I knew I needed to visit the city and insert the icon’s story. The Great Fire marked a temporal and spatial break that led to the construction of a new city, in which Ottoman spaces were erased and replaced by spaces of Turkish nationalism. This discontinuity haunts Izmir through the existence of gaps, silences, and omissions.13 The city can therefore be viewed as a spectro-geography, where “irregular, unexpected, and unanticipated events . . . continue to reverberate . . . long after they occurred.”14 Such spaces normally hold few traces of their traumas and are rather haunted by an absence. Jo Frances Madder and Peter Adey examine how spectro-geographies “may speak through texts, things, objects, and practices.”15 My conversations with the icon animate the silenced past of Smyrna, and at the same time draw the listener’s attention to “the broken, the static, and the already passed” nature of “dead geographies.”16

As the icon is a powerful visual object and its story has been passed down through oral accounts, I decided that my renarrations should focus on spoken voice. I had recently undertaken the Canadian artist Janet Cardiff’s audio-walk The Missing Voice: Case Study B 1999, and was drawn to her method of creating spectral shifts in space and time. Her walk leads the listener on a journey through London made up of directions, thoughts, and narrative elements, layered with background sounds.17 It is a stream of consciousness experience, activating hidden paths in the city – “other cities that exist inside the city.”18 There is a disjunction between what the female narrator is describing, and what the listener is experiencing. Buildings no longer exist, streets have changed, and sounds from the past and present meld together. I was inspired to create a similar dislocated activation of space, in which traces of Smyrna become existent in Izmir.

Before I departed, I undertook extensive research into living fragments of Smyrna.19 I interviewed my grandmother, Iris Nicoladies, and my mother, Jan Psaltis, as well as relatives in Greece, who relayed stories and their own experiences visiting the city. All these voices are present in the recordings, which reveal how histories pass through generations and become more like dreams, often incomplete and mythicised. Similar to Cardiff, who wandered the streets of London taking notes, I roamed Izmir via Google Street View, searching for sites and visual cues to tell past stories. Through this process, I decided to visit four sites that held traces of Smyrna — the Greek Orthodox Church of Agios Voukolos, which survived the fire and is the only Orthodox church in the centre of Izmir, the Kültürpark, built on the lost Greek neighbourhood, a street that apparently held original Ottoman buildings, and the Kordon, the site of the icon’s story and the most vivid in my imaginings.


My journey to Izmir was an unsettling, almost surreal experience. I arrived at Izmir Adnan Menderes Airport and travelled by taxi to the city centre. It felt as if I was moving through the outskirts of any major city, passing places framed by the car window to appear “still, silent, and fixed.”20 My first stop was the Orthodox Church of Agios Voukolos in the back streets of the Basmane district. The layers of paint that covered the walls had been partially rubbed back to reveal patches of the past. In the audio activation, I convey the space’s blockages as well as reimaginings of its former life. The listener feels like a bystander, an outsider, overhearing a conversation, but always missing parts, not knowing the full story.

This disjunction continues in the Kültürpark. Home to cultural institutions, attractions, and green spaces, the park appeared devoid of Smyrna, and yet haunted by a persisting trauma. While listening to my recordings, I realised how the sound of wind acted as the voice of the icon. From a light rustle to an overpowering force, wind operates throughout the series as the spectre of Smyrna. Other background noises act as time-travelling devices, signifying a movement through space and back-in-time, allowing connections to be formed with other places, times, and histories. This is also apparent in the street activation. The decaying exteriors of houses unveil the inability to find references to Ariadne’s past in Smyrna, and her attempts to create its lost future in Australia.

My final destination was the Kordon, the avenue along the quay, where I am transported when looking at the icon. Due to the bitter wind, there were few people walking the Kordon. It felt empty, absent, as if even the ghosts of the past had migrated. Bits of Smyrna lived on in a handful of Ottoman buildings and burn marks that appeared on the wall that lined the sea. The marks signify the fire, imbedding its presence in the space, in which it is otherwise absent. Like the icon’s scars, they act as remnants of a fading past.

It felt crucial to record the icon’s story here. I sat on the charred wooden panel and looked out at the sea, scattered with boats. Throughout the series, I hinted at the identity of my companion, but I wanted to save its unveiling to the end. This was to reveal that for me, Izmir is absent of Smyrna without the icon. It was the icon that led me to this space, helped me access traces of its past, and ultimately, guided me away. The spectre of Smyrna does not live on in Izmir, it lives on in something else.

Thank you to Jan Psaltis and Iris Nicoladies for keeping this story alive. Thanks also to David Martin for his guidance and Arturo Guzmán Pérez for technical assistance.


[1] Mariamna Fortounatto and Mary Cunningham, “Theology of the Icon,” in The Cambridge Companion to Orthodox Christian Theology, ed. Mary Cunningham and Elizabeth Theokritoff (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 135.

[2] Ibid., p136.

[3] “Our Lady of Perpetual Help Icon,” Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish, accessed January 2, 2019,

[4] For accounts of the Greco-Turkish War and the Great Fire of Smyrna see Marjorie Housepian-Dobkin, Smyrna 1922, The Destruction of a City (Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1988), Philip Jowett, Armies of the Greek-Turkish War 1919-22 (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2015), Michael Llewellyn Smith, Ionian Vision: Greece in Asia Minor, 1919-1922 (London: Penguin Books, 2000), Giles Milton, Paradise Lost; Smyrna 1922 (New York: Basic Books, 2008), and George Shirinian, “Introduction,” in Genocide in the Ottoman Empire: Armenians, Assyrians, and Greeks 1913–1923, ed. George Shirinian (New York: Berghahn, 2017), 1–16. In the aftermath of the First World War, the Greek army, supported by the Great Powers, invaded Smyrna and its surrounds with the aim of returning Asia Minor to a Christian Empire. The Greek invasion was countered by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and the Turkish National Movement, who wished to purge the area of its Christian population. In September 1922, the Turkish forces recaptured Smyrna. Within days, the Greek and Armenian neighbourhoods, as well as the ‘Frank’ district were in flames. There is still contention over who started the fire, however, almost all non-Muslim areas were destroyed and many of their peoples were killed or displaced. Following the fire, the Lausanne Treaty of 1923 led to the forced exchange of all remanning Ottoman Christians to Greece and Greek Muslims to Turkey.

[5] See Biray Kolluoglu Kırlı, “Forgetting the Smyrna Fire,” History Workshop Journal 60, no.1 (2005): 25–44, Leyla Neyzi, “Remembering Smyrna/Izmir: Shared History, Shared Trauma,” History & Memory 20, no. 2 (2008): 106–127, and Michelle Tusan, Smyrna’s Ashes: Humanitarianism, Genocide, and the Birth of the Middle East (Berkley: University of California Press, 2012) for descriptions of building Izmir on Smyrna’s ashes and the absence of the Great Fire in Turkish historiography and cultural memory.

[6] Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).

[7] Eric Shouse, “Feeling, Emotion, Affect,” M/C Journal 8, no.6 (2005).

[8] Jacques Derrida, Spectres of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International (New York: Routledge, 1994), 9.

[9] Colin Davis, “Hauntology, Spectres and Phantoms,” French Studies 59, no. 3 (2005): 379.

[10] Elizabeth Roberts, “Geography and the Visual Image: A Hauntological Approach,” Progress in Human Geography 37, no. 3 (2012): 394.

[11] Ibid., 394.

[12] Ibid., 397.

[13] Biray Kolluoglu Kırlı, “Forgetting the Smyrna Fire,” 27–28.

[14] Jo Frances Maddern and Peter Adey, “Editorial: Spectro-Geographies,” Cultural Geographies 15, no. 3 (2008): 291.

[15] Ibid., 293.

[16] Ibid., 293.

[17] “The Missing Voice: Case Study B 1999,” Janet Cardiff, accessed January 2, 2019,

[18] David Pinder, “Ghostly Footsteps: Voices, Memories, and Walking in the City,” Ecumene 8, no. 1 (2001): 7.

[19] For information about the remanences of Smyrna in present day Izmir, see Paschalis Kitromilides, Smyrna: Metropolis of the Asia Minor Greeks (Alimos: Ephesus Publishing, 2004), 267–301, Biray Kolluoglu Kırlı, “Cityscapes and Modernity: Smyrna Morphing into Izmir,” in Ways to Modernity in Greece and Turkey: Encounters with Europe, 1850-1950, ed. Anna Frangoudaki and Caglar Keyder (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2007), 217–35, and Paul Watkins, “Smyrna: Return of the Greeks?” Hellenic Society, accessed January 2, 2019, I also consulted a number of travel guides and tourist websites in planning my journey.

[20] John Lennon, “Ridin’ the Rails: The Place of the Passenger and the Space of the Hobo,” Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture 3, no. 2 (2004),


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