A dense but smoothly recounted history of Istanbul’s transformation from parochial imperial capital to multinational modern city.
A scholar of wide-ranging interests and nimble prose, King (International Affairs/Georgetown Univ.; Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams, 2011, etc.) finds in the history of the Pera Palace—first established in 1892 in what was then a fashionable neighborhood of embassies on Istanbul’s European side of the Bosphorus—an elegant entree into Turkey’s complicated coming-of-age. Around the turn of the century, the city was choked by migration from the countryside, scarred by recurrent earthquakes and fires, and finally crisscrossed by a railroad, an extension of the glamorous new line of the Orient Express. Adapting the Pullman model, Belgian engineer Georges Nagelmackers instituted the European version of the sleeping car for luxurious accommodation on the long trip between Paris and the gateway to Asia, Istanbul. The Pera would offer a continuation of that modern European comfort. The first decades of the 20th century brought cataclysmic change to Istanbul, with the breakup of the Ottoman Empire and occupation by multinational forces at the end of World War I. In this atmosphere, the hotel became the center of Allied administration and its nearby streets, “a shocking testament to Istanbul’s newfound libertinism.” This was not lost on Turkish officer Mustafa Kemal, who rallied the nationalists for a war of liberation, ending with the declaration of the Turkish Republic of 1924. Bought by a Muslim businessman in 1927, the Pera remained a beacon of cosmopolitan licentiousness between the world wars—within a city roiling with bars, alcohol, music and Western films—yet it eventually became part of a shift to a more Muslim, Turkish, homogeneous population that began producing its own popular culture. The emancipation of women, flirtation with leftist ideals, struggle to remain neutral in World War II and use as a transit point for the exodus of Jews posed unique challenges to this vibrant city.
Staggering changes deftly chronicled by a seasoned historian.