“Everybody is writing their Turkey books,” said Rose Macaulay in “Towers of Trebizond“. The Black Sea region of the world is the oldest. Jason and his Argonauts – the chaining of Prometheus. The confluence of empires: Russian and Ottoman and Persian. Trade from the black forests of Siberia through the Bosphorus and to the empires of Rome and Carthage. Istanbul – Constantinople sits at the center of it all, the center of the world. For those who have been there (read here about my last trip) it’s easy to see why. Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace and all the wonders of the bazaars. Supervised from Galata tower where the first flight took place hundreds of years before the Wright brothers.
“Midnight in the Pera Palace” is a book about the transition between empire and republic. Between the Ottoman Sultans and Ataturk. In the messy disintegration of world order during the First World War and the re-building of a new order following the Second World War and how Turkey managed this dangerous process. Great cities survive, built upon foundations as stepping stones to what comes next while taking into account what has been. Paris and London and Rome.
Constantinople is a great city. Right now we think about the Turkey of the moment. But Constantinople is old. Older than Erdogan. Older than the Ottomans. Older than the Islam. Older than the Turks. Older even than Rome. The bones upon which the modern city is built are still there. And for that it will last.
I highly recommend this book. The Black Sea basin is my favorite part of the world; full of mystery and intrigue and so much history. So much it has to be told not in chapters of books but in chapters of volumes. This book does just that, telling the story of Istanbul’s transition away from the caliphate through the lens of one old hotel, that does abide even as the republic itself is coming apart.