“Timely . . . brilliant . . . hugely enjoyable, magnificently researched and deeply absorbing.”—Jason Goodwin, New York Times Book Review
At midnight, December 31, 1925, citizens of the newly proclaimed Turkish Republic celebrated the New Year. For the first time ever, they had agreed to use a nationally unified calendar and clock.
Yet in Istanbul—an ancient crossroads and Turkey's largest city—people were looking toward an uncertain future. Never purely Turkish, Istanbul was home to generations of Greeks, Armenians, and Jews, as well as Muslims. It welcomed White Russian nobles ousted by the Russian Revolution, Bolshevik assassins on the trail of the exiled Leon Trotsky, German professors, British diplomats, and American entrepreneurs—a multicultural panoply of performers and poets, do-gooders and ne’er-do-wells. During the Second World War, thousands of Jews fleeing occupied Europe found passage through Istanbul, some with the help of the future Pope John XXIII. At the Pera Palace, Istanbul's most luxurious hotel, so many spies mingled in the lobby that the manager posted a sign asking them to relinquish their seats to paying guests.
In beguiling prose and rich character portraits, Charles King brings to life a remarkable era when a storied city stumbled into the modern world and reshaped the meaning of cosmopolitanism.
Istanbul in the interwar years was a city in transition: the multilingual, multiethnic ancient seat of the Islamic caliphate and the Greek Orthodox Church became in half a generation an aggressively modern, secular Turkish metropolis, its gaze shifted from orient to occident. "The city whose very geography united Europe and Asia became the world's greatest experiment in purposeful reinvention in the Western mold," says King, professor of international affairs at Georgetown University. He tells the story of Istanbul through the eyes of the Pera Palace, the city's most glamorous hotel and witness to assassinations, bombings, and the "intrigue... seemed to be the city's common currency." This is a case study in rapid social change, redolent of incense and gunpowder, a cultural biography of one of the few cities that can claim the title of capital of the world. King investigates the fate of eunuchs when the harem had been disbanded forever and explores how cinema overtook the traditional art of shadow puppetry. A diverse cast, ranging from Muslim beauty queens and Georgian royalty to Leon Trotsky, have left their mark on Istanbul, and King nimbly weaves their threads with enough color to draw in general readers and enough detail to satisfy specialists. Photos.