Mia recensione dell’interessante saggio Midnight at the Pera Palace, di Charles King: che verrà pubblicata sul numero di dicembre di TimeOut, edizione inglese (perdonatemi per i sicuri errori: ma è il mio testo, prima del controllo redazionale).
Sul Pera Palace e sull’Orient Express ho anche scritto:
The Pera Palace Hotel, designed by the Levantine architect Alexandre Vallaury with Western-style comforts and an Orientalist touch, opened its doors in 1892 to host the passengers of the Orient Express. It was “the last whisper of the Occident on the way to the Orient”, as professor Charles King – author of scholarly works on the Black Sea, the Caucasus and Jewish Odessa – defines it in his recently published Midnight at the Pera Palace. The Birth of Modern Istanbul (W. W. Norton, 2014).
But this enchanting book, packed with revealing insights and anecdotes, gives only scant and passing attention to the hotel itself: there is not even an adequate description of its luxuriant interiors made up of velvets, marbles, boiseries, and evocative arabesque domed ceilings. The Pera Palace is not a main character, but only an occasional backdrop against which the transformations of Istanbul in the 20s and 30s – from cosmopolitan capital of a Muslim empire to peripheral and depopulated town of a republican nation-state proclaimed in 1923 – are recounted. King’s starting point is the patchwork ethnic and religious composition of Istanbul, where dailies were published in several languages and alphabets and where calendars differed in year, date, and even hours from a community to the other: indeed, it was only on New Year’s Day 1926 – at midnight, the midnight of the title – that a unified calendar was firstly introduced.
The passage from extreme diversity to homogeneity is exemplified by demography: non-Muslims – Istanbul’s “barkeepers and bankers, its brothel owners and restaurateurs, its exporters and hoteliers” – were reduced through mass expulsions and massacres from 56% of the entire population before World War I to 35% in the late 20s. The Pera Palace as well was affected by this process: it was bought in 1919 by the rum (Greek of Istanbul) Prodromos Bodosakis-Athanasiades, it was expropriated and declared propriety of the State in 1923, it was sold to the Turkish citizen of Lebanese origins Misbah Muayyeş in 1927 – their portraits hang across from each other outside the Orient bar in the hotel, a vivid representation of the mingled and traumatic origins of modern Istanbul.
On the other hand, after the war and the occupation by British, French and Italian soldiers (1918-1923), new waves of immigrants – “displaced, impoverished, and desperate” – came to town; King is particularly interested in the change of destiny of aristocratic White Russians struggling to reinvent themselves after the communist revolution: they brought to the shores of the Bosphorus memorabilia to be sold at second-hand shops in Pera – silver, china, icons, snuff boxes, jewels and decorations, embroidery, Eastern eggs – and innovative styles of entertainment, from symphonic music to circus and night cabaret, that had a strong impact on life in Beyoğlu and pushed a new generation of native Istanbullu artists to emerge.
Among the Russians, there were also political refugees of any possible tendencies – such as Leon Trotsky, who spent a few years on Büyükada island – and spies: and the Pera area became “a battleground for intra-Russian [political] disputes and a potential target for Bolshevik agents” involved in covert activities. The Pera Palace itself became a centre of espionage.
King is at his best when he makes fascinating figures of the past alive, with verve and detailed precision. One of them is Thomas Whittemore, an America pastor and amateur archeologist,who help thousands of Russian students find a place in foreign universities, founded the Byzantine Institute of America, and (re)discovered the mosaics of Hagia Sophia. But prominent are also Chaim Barlas and the Apostolic Delegate Angelo Roncalli (later Pope John XXIII), who helped Jews flee to Palestine during World War II; the singers Rosa Askenazi, Hrant Kenkulian, and Seyyan; and Keriman Halis, miss Universe in 1932.
Today, after some decades of neglected decadence, the Pera Palace Hotel has acquired again its former splendour: and it stands brilliant and magnificent as “a reinvented version of its old self”. It was bought by the Dubai-based Jumeirah group a few years ago and completely restored; Orient Express themed concerts, balls, champagne receptions, afternoon tea in the Kubbeli lounge, and other cultural events let their guests enjoy the magic and luxurious atmosphere of an exuberant past.