By Patricia H Kushlis
CALAIS-ISTANBUL: All Aboard!
I have long been an Agatha Christie fan, especially of her murder mysteries set in the Middle East. The Murder on the Orient Express, of course, is the classic - but rumors to the contrary - her most famous character, Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, did not overnight at the Pera Palace after disembarking from the Orient Express; he stayed at the Tokatlian down the street as did she.
Nevertheless, Istanbul’s venerable Pera Palace, the subject of this book, has that wonderful air of mystery and far greater share of history than any hotel has the right to claim. Even one constructed in the magical city that spans the Bosporus where the famous train made its final stop before returning to Europe; where spy meets spy; and where refugees flit in and out floating on the shifting political winds - all the while with the city’s one foot firmly planted in Europe and the other in Asia.
For centuries, Istanbul – earlier Constantinople - was the capital of world class empires. First the Byzantines – who considered themselves Roman and the inheritors of the New Rome – and then after 1453, the Ottoman Turks who followed with their Sunni dominated, multiethnic and multi-religious empire that stretched across North Africa, curved northward around the Eastern Mediterranean and - under Suleyman the Magnificent – controlled all of Crimea, ventured as far as the gates of Vienna and into the Caucasus.
I first saw the Pera Palace in 1979 on a cold blustery day when the US Consulate was still located next door. I visited neither. I happened to be in the neighborhood with an American friend, a teacher who lived much of her life in Istanbul; she also possessed a well-developed penchant for antique silver. So as a part of my introduction to the city’s then less than booming commercial life, I tagged along to her favorite antiques shop. The shop happened to be located near the Pera Palace - not in the Grand Bazaar – which we visited later - across the Golden Horn. The silver store was run by an Armenian woman and it was crammed to the gills with pieces of ornate antique silver – large, medium and small. (Photo above right: Istanbul skyline, winter 1979 by WJ Kushlis)
In 1979 Turkey had seen finer days. The political situation was inherently unstable: the left and right were at war with each other and their war was being fought out on the city’s streets. Political murders happened daily. Tea had replaced coffee as the favored drink because no one could afford the import duty on the latter. The country was near bankruptcy, foreign currency was scarce and so too were imported goods. Gas lines stretched for blocks. Nevertheless, the markets brimmed with fresh fruits and vegetables from the provinces and the spice market looked as if it had never seen of a bad day. (Photo above left, fresh produce market, Istanbul, winter 1979 by WJ Kushlis.
Less than two years later when I was filling in on USIA’s Turkish Desk in Washington, DC, the Turkish Army staged a coup. The soldiers clamped down on the out of control violence thereafter ushering in years of stability, an eventual new civilian prime minister, a circumscribed constitution, a tilt toward Europe – and a period of sustained economic growth.
Charles King’s Midnight at the Para Palace: The Birth of Modern Istanbul begins well before my first visit to Istanbul. He tells the story of the waning days of the Ottoman Empire, the capital city’s occupation by Allied Forces after World War I, the birth of the new Turkey under Ataturk, the country’s founding father. He uses the hotel as his vehicle as he weaves together the personal stories of those who stayed there and those who did not with the larger sweep of history as if designing an oriental carpet with all its vibrant colors and intricate designs.
He returns time and again to the people who not only brought change to the city but formed the new country of Turkey. He points out that a disproportionate number were Muslims from Thessaloniki who, as the Ottoman Empire collapsed, fled from that once multi-ethnic, wealthy, vibrant city and the empire’s window on the West located on the Thermaic Gulf after the city was lost by the Sultan to the Greeks in the Balkan Wars. (Photo left: Thessaloniki wall and upper town, 1966 by PH Kushlis)
Thessaloniki had been Ataturk’s home and it was here that the Young Turk revolt against the last Sultan erupted. The city had become Greek in 1912 during the Balkan Wars and a few years later Greek Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos smartly allied his country with the Allies -ensuring it stayed that way.
The winds of change blowing from Western Europe following the Napoleonic Wars had carried nationalism into the Balkans and caused the unraveling of centuries’ old multi-ethnic autocracies. It also brought along with it values, practices and arts unseen and unheard of in the Muslim world. They fit in well in this multiethnic city replete with jazz clubs, adventurers, archeologists, prostitutes, musicians, poets, writers, financiers, philanthropists, capitalists, communists, beggars and crooks as well as westernized Turkish women who - regardless of religion - had shed the veil.
The citizens of Thessaloniki – Greeks, Slavs, Ottomans, Jews and Armenians – had all been affected by nationalism and the West. The Muslims, above all, formed Turkey’s westernizers or agents of change. World War I – when the Sultan chose to ally with the Germans – was the final nail in the Empire’s coffin. Had Ataturk not left Thessaloniki and rallied the Turkish troops from an ignominious defeat to the Allies, the country might not exist – or at least in its present form.
The Greeks might have once again ruled their former capital city, controlled the Dardanelles, the Bosporus, the Sea of Marmara and the entrance to the Black Sea as well as regained former Greek colonies along the coast of Asia Minor. A greater Armenia and perhaps Kurdistan would have been created in the eastern provinces that stretched from Russia to Iraq and Syria. (Photo left: Mouth of the Bosporus, April 1984 by PH Kushlis)
In another earthshaking event, the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution brought its aftershocks to the Russian Empire’s southern neighbor: the remnants of the White Army fleeing from defeat in Crimea, an army which had hoped to regroup and reconquer but instead fell upon hard times and the beneficence of the Allies then occupying Istanbul. But the most macabre Russian-related tale is that of Leon Trotsky’s exile after his fall from Stalin’s grace.
A brilliant, charismatic but troubled man and Stalin’s chief rival, Trotsky was exiled from Russia in 1929. He too hoped to return to Moscow in triumph but this also didn’t happen. His first refuge was the Tokatlian, then he and his family moved to a small house on Büyükada, one of the Princess Islands, where he narrowly escaped Stalin’s vengeance only to succumb 11 years later in a suburb of Mexico City when an assassin brought an icepick down on his skull.
But what about the city’s magnificent icons of Christianity and Islam? Aya Sophia (or Hagia Sophia) and the Sultanhamet (Blue) Mosque? These enormous temples of two of the world’s largest religions along with Topkapi, the Sultan’s palace, have dominated the city skyline for centuries just across the Golden Horn from Pera.
King devotes a chapter to Hagia Sophia, once the greatest cathedral in Christendom that became a mosque after the Ottoman conquest, and describes how it was not only turned into a museum but also how its spectacular mosaics which had been hidden beneath coats of white plaster for centuries only to be painstakingly restored with Ataturk’s blessing -thanks to the efforts of an American philanthropist named Thomas Whittamore. (Photo right: Hagia Sophia, June 1994 by PHKushlis)
It didn’t hurt that Ataturk had abolished the Ottoman Caliphate and was working to separate religion and politics in the new Turkey so Whittamore’s efforts played nicely into Ataturk’s plans.
In sum, this is a gem of a book chock full of lesser and better known history brought to life through the lives of the people who made it. If you’re considering a trip to Turkey soon, by all means read it; Or for that matter, read it - even if you’re not.
Charles King Midnight at the Pera Palace: The Birth of Modern Istanbul, New York and London: WW Norton & Company, 2014.