Istanbul, Constantinople, Byzantium. Whatever you call it, it’s one of the most important, interesting, and complicated cities in history. It was the seat of the hold-out Roman Empire when Rome fell. It was the seat of the spiritual leader of Islam. It was on the forefront of modernization in the Middle East. It was also a haven for the dispossessed. And it was a hell for them, as well. Religious and political turmoil were the city’s stock and trade.
With this book, Charles King focuses on the years between the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the end of the Second World War. He uses the Pera Palace as a kind of geographical anchor within the city and the region, though he doesn’t stay quite as tethered to it as I’d have hoped. The Pera Palace was built to serve passengers on the Orient Express, and unlike many other similar luxury hotels of its time, it still exists (I just looked it up, and room costs don’t seem to be too outlandish).
Over the years, the hotel changed hands as the society around it changed time and again. This book is a bit more aimless or less focused than King’s Odessa. I often found myself struggling to keep track of just what events were happening in relation to others. There is a timeline at the end of the book that helps to lay some major events out, but it was still something of a struggle.
That aside, this is an excellent book with lots of very interesting information. Having read Lost to the West (a history of the city from when it became part of the Roman Empire until its conquest by the Ottomans), I found this to be an especially interesting glimpse into another era of the great city. As always, I’m fascinated by the connections to other books I’ve read and by the threads of history I’ll have to follow in the wake of reading this.
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