February 26, 2021

The Cathedral Church of Saint Photini in Smyrna, Which Was Destroyed in 1922


The Metropolitan or Cathedral Church of Saint Photini in Smyrna (Izmir) of Asia Minor was completely destroyed in 1922. However, its impressive bell tower survives to this day in many cities in Greece, as the Smyrna refugees wanted to bring with them the most glorious part of their homeland.

Smyrna was one of the most cosmopolitan centers of the Mediterranean. Races and religions from all over the world coexisted harmoniously in its neighborhoods. The Greek Orthodox community was one of the most numerous and important. That is why there were a total of sixteen Orthodox churches in the entire city of 350,000 inhabitants. The largest was of course the Cathedral of Saint Photini with its famous bell tower.

The Cathedral Church of Saint Photini was the trademark of the city. The towering bell tower was visible from every point and was an informal lighthouse for ships approaching the port.

Built in the 17th century and already restored twice until its final destruction, the ornate church was a true gem of Orthodox architecture. It was low, like all the Christian churches of the period so as not to provoke the fanaticism of the Turks.

The majestic frescoes, painted by well-known iconographers, the large clock with the characteristic inscription "Ηλίου άτερ σιγώ" ("With the absence of the sun, I am silent."), the all-gold cross and of course the marble belfry with the fancy church bells composed the church. It was dedicated to Saint Photini the Samaritan Woman.

According to Christian tradition, this apostle, who had preached the word of Christ in many parts of Asia Minor, eventually ended up in Smyrna where she died a martyr. For the people of Smyrna, Saint Photini was their own Hagia Sophia. It is no coincidence that the name Photini was one of the most common in Smyrna, but also in Asia Minor in general.

After the Greek Revolution, large churches began to emerge in Asia Minor and in Greece.

In Smyrna, where Saint Photini already dominated, no new majestic church was built, but it was decided to add a huge bell tower 30 meters high. It was designed by the Smyrna architect Xenophontas Latris, who later built the one at the Panagia of Tinos. Construction began in 1856 and was completed with the arrival of the impressive bell, which was donated to the Greeks by the Empress of Russia, Catherine the Great.

Unfortunately, it only lasted 65 years. In September 1922, the bells of Saint Photini rang for the last time. The Turkish invasion left behind debris, ashes and corpses. Among the flattened buildings was the historic church, which was blown up with dynamite.

Saint Photini and its bell tower was the first church to be blown up with dynamite because it was the symbol of Smyrna. It was blown up and leveled immediately. For its leveling, 100 Greek prisoners were used to remove the rubble, many of whom came to live in Nikaia of Piraeus, and we have testimonies from them that it was blown up and leveled in early October with the new calendar.


The refugees who survived the catastrophe never forgot their homeland. In the new places they settled they wanted to create images that would remind them of Smyrna. In one of the pre-eminent cradles of the uprooted Smyrnaeans, Nea Smyrni (New Smyrna), a new Church of Saint Photini was built in the 1930s. In fact, the wood-carved iconostasis, together with the Despotic Throne and the Holy Pulpit, were transferred to the newly built church from the Church of Saint John in Smyrna, which was not burned during the fire because it was located on a hill.

They were made in the 19th century by the hands of the same, great, but today unknown craftsman, who combined the Greek tradition with the western baroque and are identical to the corresponding wood carvings of the old and historic Cathedral Church of Saint Photini.

Many years later, in 1996, a bell tower was built, also the same as its ruined ancestor. It has a height of 33 meters and to this day dominates the heart of the Athenian refugee district.

There are similar bell towers in other parts of Greece. The well-known Rhodesian architect Michalis Sandalos has built imitations of the bell tower of Saint Photini in several villages of the Dodecanese. The most elaborate is located in his village, Archangelos, and is 18 meters high. The son of Smyrnians, a refugee, he always remembered his father's words with emotion and conveys them to the "Time Machine":

"Every time the bells rang, it was as if they were crying", said the uprooted man, nostalgic for the melody of his beloved Saint Photini.

"The bell tower of Saint Photini! Above the ruins of Smyrna. Over savagery and horror. Above the smoke and flames. Over crushing and extermination. Above the torrents of blood. Like the watchful eye of God. Observatory of the Race. [...] Its ropes are motionless. The bells are silent! There is no hand left to strike them. There is no church left to liturgize! And they bring destroyers and bring demolitionists and bring dynamite. The Turks demolish the bell tower, which weighs on their chests like a mountain…" (Christos Solomonidis, The Church of Smyrna, Athens 1960, p. 55).

Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.
Panorama of the city of Smyrna.
The bell tower could be seen from anywhere in the city.
Back of the church, at the apse of the sanctuary.

The interior of the church.
Bell Tower in 1880.
1875 postal card.
A celebration outside the church.
St. Chrysostomos of Smyrna at the top of the staircase.
Greeks seeking refuge at the church in 1922.
Before and after the destruction.
9/12/1922 - Greeks seeking refuge at the church, with Turkish soldiers and French bankers outside.
9/20/1922 - The church after the fire.
Church of Saint Photini in New Smyrna