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.