September 14, 2014

Istanbul - City Lights

THE “Queen of Cities”, as it was known in Byzantine times, was perfectly sited at the intersection of continents, cultures and seas. Istanbul may have been a great and ancient centre of civilisation, but there is nothing serene or timeless about the place. The city has been shaken by abrupt alterations in its physical and cultural landscape, thanks to both human violence and acts of God. It has seen sieges, pogroms, earthquakes, and fires both deliberate and accidental. Between 1569 and 1918 it was transformed by at least 16 huge blazes.

Charles King, a historian and social scientist at Georgetown University, has chosen an unusual way of capturing this dizzying volatility. His book, “Midnight at the Pera Palace”, examines one shortish slice of history, from late Ottoman times to the second world war and its immediate aftermath, and one small site: a hotel which at various times has epitomised luxury, faded elegance, downright seediness and conspiracy.

Of course, the story of the Pera Palace, which was built in 1892, must be told in the broader context of Turkish and European history. So Mr King’s lens has to switch deftly between close-up and wide-angle shots. With nice vignettes, he explains how the hotel’s owners and clients shifted in response to the changing fortunes of the city and the country. 

Read more on The Economist: Istanbul: City Lights


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