Tales of an an­cient city in a young coun­try

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. - By Aram Bak­shian Jr.


To un­der­stand Istanbul, you must first re­al­ize that it is a very an­cient city liv­ing in — and of­ten at odds with — a very young na­tion. Long be­fore Cae­sar or Alexan­der, Istanbul was the an­cient Greek city of Byzan­tium. When Ro­man im­pe­rial power shifted east­ward and Em­peror Con­stan­tine em­braced Chris­tian­ity, it be­came Con­stantino­ple, the “Sec­ond Rome.”

Grad­u­ally, it evolved into the cap­i­tal of the mighty Byzan­tine Em­pire, dom­i­nat­ing all or part of Italy, Spain, Greece, North Africa, the Balkans and Asia Mi­nor. Greek in lan­guage, cul­ture and Ortho­dox Chris­tian­ity, but with a residue of im­pe­rial Ro­man tra­di­tions and in­sti­tu­tions, it boasted a mul­tira­cial pop­u­la­tion that in­cluded Slavs, Bul­gars, Ar­me­ni­ans, Arabs, West Euro­peans and as­sorted no­madic hordes from Cen­tral Asia. It died a slow death: in­ternecine strife, sack­ing by ra­pa­cious mem­bers of the Third Cru­sade in the early 1200s and the ad­vance of Tur­kic in­vaders from the steppes ended with the Ot­toman con­quest of 1453.

The Byzan­tine Em­pire had lasted 1,420 years; its suc­ces­sor state, the Ot­toman Em­pire ruled from Con­stantino­ple, would last another five cen­turies. By con­trast, the Turk­ish Repub­lic is less than 100 years old and still wrestling with its iden­tity: on the one hand sec­u­lar na­tion­al­ism im­posed by the great Ke­mal Ataturk and the ed­u­cated, Wester­nori­ented elite he led to power, and on the other the Is­lamic pop­ulism em­bod­ied by cur­rent Turk­ish Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan, a bom­bas­tic but dy­namic leader with an un­abashed — and his­tor­i­cally un­in­formed — ad­mi­ra­tion for an ide­al­ized ver­sion of the Ot­toman past.

It’s no co­in­ci­dence that the mass anti-Er­do­gan protests that swept Turkey in June 2013 were ini­tially trig­gered by his ar­bi­trary — and since-re­scinded — decision to de­stroy Gezi Park, one of Istanbul’s few re­main­ing green ar­eas, to re­place it with a “replica” of Ot­toman­era mil­i­tary bar­racks and a shop­ping mall. Other plans in­cluded build­ing an enor­mous new mosque in nearby Tak­sim Square, site of the strictly sec­u­lar Mon­u­ment of the Repub­lic hon­or­ing Ataturk.

All of which makes Charles King’s “Mid­night at the Pera Palace: The Birth of Mod­ern Istanbul” timely as well as en­joy­able read­ing. Mr. King is a flu­ent writer with both knowl­edge of, and af­fec­tion for, his sub­ject. Although there are mo­ments when his book reads more like a col­lage of in­di­vid­ual, sep­a­rately writ­ten es­says later stitched to­gether, the grav­i­ta­tional pull of its cen­ter — Istanbul’s Pera Palace Ho­tel as a tem­plate for a still-form­ing mod­ern Turk­ish iden­tity — holds the nar­ra­tive to­gether.

Within this frame­work, we are in­tro­duced to ev­ery­thing from the dis­si­pated al­lied oc­cu­pa­tion of Istanbul at the end of World War I to the early decades of the new Turk­ish Repub­lic, from birds of pas­sage as var­ied as Ernest Hem­ing­way and Leon Trot­sky to a blind oud player and a blindly Marx­ist Istanbul poet, from a black jazz im­pre­sario and a Greco-Jewish fore­run­ner of Edith Piaf to the coura­geous, slightly quixotic pi­o­neer Turk­ish fem­i­nist Halide Edip and Turkey’s first “eman­ci­pated” beauty queens, not to men­tion fu­ture Pope John XXIII who, as a Vatican diplo­mat, helped to res­cue stranded Jewish refugees from the Nazis.

The “mid­night” in the ti­tle refers to Dec. 31, 1924, when, un­der Ataturk’s prod­ding, the Turk­ish state of­fi­cially switched to a uni­fied, west­ern­ized cal­en­dar and ush­ered in the (new) New Year in fes­tiv­i­ties that in­cluded a mem­o­rable blast at the Pera Palace Ho­tel.

Why fo­cus on the Pera Palace? Start­ing as an ul­tra­mod­ern lux­ury ho­tel for Western trav­el­ers on the Ori­ent Ex­press in the 1890s, it went through a se­ries of dra­matic ups and downs, in­clud­ing an Axis-backed ter­ror­ist bombing in 1941, with grad­u­ally re­stored splen­dor be­gin­ning in the 1990s. Thus its peri­patetic his­tory in many ways mir­rors what was hap­pen­ing in Turk­ish so­ci­ety dur­ing the same pe­riod.

As a de­scen­dant of Ot­toman Ar­me­ni­ans with deep ties to what they al­ways re­ferred to as “Con­stantino­ple” rather than Istanbul, I en­joyed a few vis­its to the almost-too-re­fur­bished Pera Palace Ho­tel dur­ing a May trip to the city last year. It didn’t take much imag­i­na­tion to sum­mon up some of the ghosts in Mr. King’s book while down­ing a few Rakis in its cel­e­brated Ori­ent Bar. Be­sides, it was only a short stroll away from my own lodg­ings in the Grand Ho­tel de Lon­dres, built the same year as the Pera Palace but on a smaller scale. With its el­e­gant fa­cade and slightly faded grandeur — not to men­tion Yakup, a very con­ge­nial talk­ing par­rot in the bar — the Grand Ho­tel de Lon­dres re­mains even truer to the pe­riod Mr. King writes about than the Pera Palace. Aram Bak­shian Jr., a for­mer aide to Pres­i­dents Nixon, Ford and Rea­gan, has writ­ten widely on pol­i­tics, his­tory, gas­tron­omy and the arts.

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