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Originally published Sunday, September 14, 2014 at 6:05 AM

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‘Midnight at the Pera Palace:’ in the eye of Istanbul history

Historian Charles King’s engaging new book “Midnight at the Pera Palace” examines the intriguing and colorful history of the city of Istanbul through the story of the Pera Palace, a luxury Istanbul hotel.

Seattle Times assistant features editor


“Midnight at the Pera Palace: The Birth of Modern Istanbul”

by Charles King

W.W. Norton, 480 pp., $27.95

“If the Earth was a single state, Istanbul would be its capital,” Napoleon said, likely (and aptly) referring to the ancient city’s firmly rooted place as a crossroads and a bridge between East and West, never entirely claiming either side as a parent. It has been home to Islam, Christianity and Judaism; to Armenians, Greeks, Albanians, Persians, Levantines, Italians and Kurds; and emperors, generals, sultans and refugees.

In this centenary year of the Great War, as scholars and armchair historians ruminate around the table on what made “the modern world,” historian and Georgetown University professor Charles King’s new book arrives as a welcome guest. “Midnight at the Pera Palace” is an engaging, detailed look at the old city that became the newest of them all in the interwar years. King uses the colorful history of the real hotel of the title to illustrate the rise of the Turkish Republic out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire.

Built in 1892, The Pera Palace was designed to offer adventurous foreigners luxurious lodging, a place with “elevator, bathrooms, showers, radiator heat and electric lighting,” according to a top guidebook of the day. The Pera was an emblem of the city, and later, the country’s, transformation.

The property once belonged to Muslims, and was purchased by Armenians. They sold the parcel to Belgian firm Wagon-Lits (proprietors of the Orient Express) and by World War II, the Pera was run by a Greek who had been born under the sultan’s rule.

As the world outside the city expanded in the early 20th century, the earlier centuries were fading quickly within. The reign of the sultan was battered by the Young Turks of 1908, the Ottomon Empire was run out of Europe by 1913, and the Armistice of 1918 carved up the old world into the unfamiliar new.

The Pera remained, and its doors stayed open to tumultuous times: Sultanate spies found the hotel to be a comfortable hangout, and a sign “reportedly requested government agents to yield seats in the lounge to paying guests.” Art-world dilettante and refugee sympathizer Thomas Wittemore, who could dethrone the Dos Equis spokesman as The Most Interesting Man in the World, made the Pera his base while he led the restoration of the Hagia Sophia Mosque.

Memoirist Ziya Bey is one of the many eyewitnesses to history quoted in the book, describing the post-WWI Pera as a place “where foreign officers and businessmen are feted by unscrupulous Levantine adventurers and drink and dance with fallen Russian princesses.”

Intertwined with the colorful guest list of the Pera is an even more riveting roster of Istanbullus: A Gallipoli survivor named Mustafa Kemal, disdained by the Allied Powers but later known to the world as Ataturk, the visionary leader and first president of Turkey; nightclub impresario Frederick Bruce Thomas, a son of former slaves, who left America for a colorblind society; the extremely reluctant Leon Trotsky; and an Italian monsignor who came to Turkey as Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, but a decade after leaving the country acquired a new name: Pope John XXIII.

What has become of the Pera? Should King’s book kindle an interest in visiting Istanbul and its most famous hotel, you’ll find it has been restored to late 19th-century glory by a Dubai-based luxury-hotel chain. As for intrigue, you’ll have to bring your own.

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