Review: Midnight at the Pera Palace

Midnight at the Pera Palace:  The Birth of Modern Istanbul by Charles King

W.W. Norton & Company, 2014.  Hardcover, 476 pages.midnightatperapalace

The idea behind Midnight at the Pera Palace is is to present a history of modern Istanbul from just prior to World War I to just after World War II using the historic Pera Palace hotel as the lens. The justification behind this is that the Pera Palace at various points in history housed key people in the history of the city and during those and other times it also was the place where key events took place or where directed from. In those early years, the Pera Palace was the centerpiece of the European quarter of the city that housed embassies and tourist hot spots. In the later years, it declined.

Pera Palace opens to a history of Istanbul’s pre-1900s history, life under Ottoman rule, and why the Pera Palace was built. This information provides a backbone for comparing what was to come. It then goes on to weave through the Ottoman Empire’s World War I involvement; the rise of Kemal and Kemalism; and the post-war Allied occupation of the city. Pertaining to the rise of Kemalism, the book covered the rise and spread of the idea; the founding of the new capital at Ankara and its effects on Istanbul; and the abolishment of state religion. All of this was ongoing at the same time the Allied powers occupied the former empire from Istanbul and the book therefore also discussed how the Allies ran the city. Against this backdrop readers are also shown how the white Russians fled to Istanbul en masse and tried to make a living there while they waited on visas to other nations.

In the post-occupation era, the story continues. The new Turkish government first takes part in a forced relocation of ethnic groups. Turks of Greek-origin were uprooted and sent to Greece while the reverse was true or ethnic Turks living in Greece. This was part of the program to establish Turks as an ethnic group instead of a diverse group of people. We also see how the status of women changed under for secular rule, such as freer movement and the ability to take active roles in the community and business sector. Readers also will discover Istanbul had a jazz age, something that the Pera Palace and other nearby locals embraced.

As the second world war dawned, Istanbul became a hotbed of activity. Spies from both sides entered the city and operated openly in the neutral nation. In fact, the thought by the police and owners of establishments favored by spies assumed all westerners were spies! Both the British Special Operations Executive and the American Office of Strategic Services had offices int he city. And it was to Istanbul that the British in Eastern European embassies fled when they were forced out of their posts by the Axis powers. Istanbul also served as a conduit for escaping Jews. While at first the government resisted this idea, by 1944 the operations were in full force under American management. Istanbul then became a transit point for Southeastern European Jews to escape to Palestine. In fact, a future pope even helped and his story adds a heartwarming touch! After the war, Istanbul saw a further exodus of Greeks and active Jews, had periodic hostilities with Greece (especially over Cyprus), and made efforts to revitalize the declining city.

In all, this was a very informative and fast-paced book to read. That said, I had a large gap in the middle of reading it because I was gone at a conference. When that occurred, I hated to leave this book behind in favor of a more packable book! King wrote in a flowing prose that resembled a novel. I feel this book filled in some gaps in my knowledge about the city as it was mentioned in other books that addressed the world wars and opened my eyes to actions I did not know were occurring. I took a whole course on the Holocaust in college and I never knew Istanbul’s role in helping fleeing Jews! I think this is a great read for those with an interest in the Middle East, the world wars, political history, and real-life spycraft.

Have you read other books that either focus on a place as a lens to tell history from?  Or a different book using Istanbul as a setting?  I know I am currently reading Joseph Kanon’s Istanbul Passage, which is what finally prompted me to schedule this review.

This review was based on a book I won in a 2014 Goodreads First Reads giveaway but is just now making the jump from Goodreads to the blog.

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