The Turkish lobby: telling the story of modern Istanbul through the Pera Palace Hotel
Istanbul’s Pera Palace Hotel was a good vantage point to view the end of an empire and the beginnings of a nation-state. Founded in the late 19th century by the same Belgian company that brought the Orient Express to Europe and situated in the city’s most fashionable neighbourhood, the hotel became a destination for businessmen, writers, diplomats (the embassies of major world powers were just footsteps away), émigrés, spies and shadowy figures lurking in the lobby.
In his fascinating new book [Amazon.com; Amazon.co.uk], historian Charles King uses the hotel, “the grandest western-style hotel in the seat of the world’s greatest Islamic empire”, as a lens through which to view the transformations of Istanbul and the emergence of modern Turkey from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. Grand in sweep, spiced with trenchant observations and anecdotes galore, King’s book takes the reader into the streets and back alleys of one of the world’s greatest cities.
A sprawling metropolis that famously stands athwart Europe and Asia, Istanbul was transformed by the vast changes wrought by the end of the First World War. The multi-religious, multi-ethnic Ottoman Empire, which at the war’s close stretched from the Bosphorus to Mesopotamia, came to an end; the modern Turkish nation was born. The sultan and the caliphate, “the institution that embodied Muslims’ understanding of God’s will on earth”, were abolished; “veils and harems, fezzes and frock coats were disappearing”. The city zealously embraced modernity, for better and for worse. During the interwar years, the subject of King’s focus, “the former Ottoman capital came to reflect both the best and the worst of what the West had to offer: its optimism and its obsessive ideologies, human rights and the overbearing state, the desire to escape the past and the drive to erase it altogether”.
King mixes stories about the trajectories of individual lives in this topsy-turvy world with a brisk tour d’horizon of the vast geopolitical forces that reshaped Istanbul and the new Turkish state. The Allies occupied the city from 1919 until 1923 as the Ottoman Empire slowly disintegrated. In Anatolia, Mustafa Kemal, later known as “Ataturk”, was marshaling his nationalist forces as they fought the Greeks and set the terms of a new nation.
The status of millions of Ottoman citizens hung in the balance. The proprietors of the Pera hotel themselves offer a case in point. In 1919, Prodromos Bodosakis-Athanasiades (known to many people as just Bodosakis) took over the hotel. He had connections to the Greek community who were the city’s business elite. But Greeks occupied a fraught place in the new Turkey, which was undergoing a process of ethnic homogenisation. (Greece and Turkey had engaged in a brutal population exchange that uprooted millions of people.) Bodosakis saw the writing on the wall, and left for Athens in the 1920s. But one man’s misfortune is another man’s luck – a Lebanese Muslim businessman, Misbah Muhayyes, who had connections to the Kemalists, purchased the hotel from the state in 1927.
King writes of how “Turkey as a whole became more Muslim, more Turkish, more homogeneous, and more rural – because of the flight of non-Muslim minorities from the cities – than it had ever been”. This, despite the fact that “Turkey’s genetic pool was a swirling mix of ancestries” – Kurdish, Arab, Greek, Armenian and sundry others. The Ottomans created a carefully maintained system to manage this hodgepodge of faiths, creeds and races. Kemalism swept the system away, creating a more exclusive sense of Turkish identity.
However much Istanbul’s long-standing non-Muslim communities shrank in the new Turkey – between 1900 and the late 1920s, the non-Muslim population fell from 56 per cent to 35 per cent – Istanbul remained a city teeming with non-Turks.
In a fine chapter, Moscow on the Bosporus, King charts the odyssey of White Russian exiles as they fled the new Soviet Union. (One émigré recalled how “Constantinople was a completely Russian city”.) In a beautifully cadenced passage, King sums up their plight: “Desperation and resourcefulness were the two defining qualities of the White Russians in Istanbul. Second-hand shops in Pera were filled with the detritus of past lives being sold on consignment: silver, china, and linen; random family pictures taken in studios in St Petersburg and Moscow …” It is a supreme irony that Leon Trotsky, one of the chief tormentors of the Whites, also ended up in Istanbul after he fell out with the Soviet leadership.
There are dozens of such stories on King’s pages. The unity of his narrative sometimes unravels as he moves from subject to subject. He more or less chucks the Pera Palace aside as he wanders on his scholarly journey. One feels as if he has to please too many demographics; thus we get somewhat disparate chapters on the status of women in the new Turkish state and Istanbul nightlife. Midnight at the Pera Palace is best enjoyed as a series of essayistic forays, rather than a steady narrative.
He listens in on Istanbul’s sonic landscape. The cacophony he hears – loud music from clubs, ambulance sirens wailing, military automobiles speeding to and fro – seems to mirror the chaos brought on by the end of empire. Entertainment took off in Istanbul – movie theatres opened at a rapid clip and imported films enthralled Istanbullus, who argued with characters on the screen, talked throughout and stamped their feet.
Music venues were also big business. He relates the story of an African-American impresario, Frederick Bruce Thomas, the son of former slaves. He became a Russian citizen, fled during the Bolshevik era, and was, King remarks dryly, “the only black White Russian” to arrive in the city in the 1920s. He opened a new dancing and dinner club in the Pera neighbourhood. Jazz bands played late into the night. The place was hopping. King also writes insightfully about indigenous music forms like rebetiko, “an Aegean version of the blues, sung in both Greek and Turkish, with hashish dens standing in for American juke joints and the Mediterranean coast taking the place of the Mississippi Delta”. The record label HMV recorded many artists, preserving their work for later generations. As King notes, that this happened at all was a function of violent relocations and the migrations of Greek-born Muslims during the population exchanges between Turkey and Greece. As it turned out, brutality produced great beauty.
As Istanbullus danced and listened to music, Kemalists were updating Turkey to meet modern standards and rid the new nation of Ottoman traces. The republican government standardised clocks and established a new civil code to replace the empire’s complex mix of Sharia law, Christian canon law, rabbinical decrees and other faith-based protocols. (The title of King’s book alludes to midnight on December 31, 1925, the first time Turkey’s citizens marked a unified calendar and clocks.)
It was a ruthless process. The striking Mustafa Kemal lorded over Turkey as supreme leader with legions of followers and fans: “His blue eyes and charismatic personality made him one of the most swooned-over heads of state in the world,” King observes. With his power base in Ankara, the new capital, Kemal generally steered clear of Istanbul, which was old, unruly and almost irredeemable. But herein lay its beauty, as a refuge for exiles and artists, performers and poets. The Turkish nation was rooted in the east, in Anatolia, with Istanbul kind of a backward-looking outrider. It would occupy a peculiar place in Kemal’s Turkey, both resisting and embracing the kind of modernity he deemed necessary to push Turkey to greatness.
Turkey would stay out of the next major conflict – the Second World War – that wracked Europe. Neutral Turkey was courted by both sides, unsuccessfully. But foreign agents descended on Istanbul, which became a centre of intrigue and intelligence gathering. The Pera Palace did not escape unscathed – a bomb hidden in the suitcase of a member of a British delegation that was expelled from Bulgaria exploded, damaging the hotel considerably. Muhayyes demanded compensation from Winston Churchill to pay for damages.
The hotel’s fortunes declined as social life shifted away from the Pera neighbourhood. The diplomatic swirl quieted down. Tastes changed; the neighbourhood decayed. Muhayyes died in mysterious circumstances in 1954 in a room on the second floor. The hotel struggled on, a decayed remnant from another time. Renovated, it operates today under the stewardship of Dubai’s Jumeirah Hotels. “The Pera Palace is now a reinvented version of its old self,” King writes, a monument to a tumultuous era and a not quite vanished past.
Matthew Price’s writing has been published in Bookforum, the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe and the Financial Times.
Published: October 9, 2014 04:00 AM