Tales of an ancient city in a young country
MIDNIGHT AT THE PERA PALACE: THE BIRTH OF MODERN ISTANBUL By Charles King
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the mass anti-Erdogan protests that swept Turkey in June 2013 were initially triggered by his arbitrary — and since-rescinded — decision to destroy Gezi Park, one of Istanbul’s few remaining green areas, to replace it with a “replica” of Ottomanera military barracks and a shopping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.