June 27, 2015 by Darius
I recently read Midnight at the Pera Palace: The Birth of Modern Istanbul by Georgetown University history professor Charles King. King tells the story of Istanbul, and by extension Turkey, through the first half of the 20th century, using a famous Istanbul hotel, the Pera Palace, as a focus point.
Before World War I, Istanbul was one of the richest cultural crossroads in the world, the point between east and west, both literally and figuratively. The majority of Istanbul’s population was made up of the Ottoman Empire’s various ethnic and religious minorities, including Greeks, Armenians, Jews, and others, giving the city a mosaic of culture.
The Pera Palace was built in 1892 by the Belgian Wagon Lit company for the express purpose of serving as the end point of the famous Orient Express. Located in Istanbul’s most fashionable neighborhood, the Pera Palace became the place to stay for well-to-do visitors to Istanbul.
The Pera Palace witnessed World War I, where it became a nest of spies, the tumultuous breakup of the Ottoman Empire, and the resulting Turkish War of Independence, when Mustafa Kemal forged the modern state of Turkey in the crucible of the partition of Anatolia and a Greek invasion. Between the wars, the Pera Palace witnessed the Jazz Age arrive in Istanbul, where it took on a distinctly local flavor. During World War II, the Pera Palace once again became a hotbed of espionage as Axis and Allies tried to keep tabs on the other side and persuade neutral Turkey to enter the war on their side.
Charles King manages to tell the story of the emergence of modern Turkey with aplomb. Midnight at the Pera Palace’s biggest weakness, if anything, is too much time spent with minor historical characters who managed to leave behind records of their stories. King’s research is phenomenal, and as a historical researcher, I can certainly appreciate how much time King spent poring through very boring archives. King’s ultimate product, though, is generally quite engaging. Midnight at the Pera Palace also had the effect of making me want to start planning a trip to Turkey. 🙂