The Story of an Age: Pera Palace

The Story of an Age: Pera Palace

Opened on a summer night in 1895, Pera Palace has witnessed a long history from the modernization of the empire to the foundation of the republic in its 150-year history. We are now guests in the past of Pera Palas Hotel, which has entered our agenda again with the Netflix series “Midnight at Pera Palas”.

The Story of an Age: Pera Palace
In the TV series “Midnight at Pera Palas”, journalist Esra goes to the hotel to write her article titled “The 130 Best Reasons to Stay at Pera Palace”. (Photo: Morteza Atabaki/Netflix © 2022)
The Story of an Age: Pera Palace
Pera Palace Hotel

On a Sunday evening in 1883, a train was about to depart from one of the historical stations of Strasbourg towards the pearl of the Orient, Constantinople, this train was the famous Orient Express. With the railways built from Europe to the east, Istanbul has now become Europe’s new favorite, and ambitious business people and European high society come to Istanbul with the magnificent wagons of the world’s most luxurious wagon company, Vagon Lts. And of course, the European travelers of Orient Express started to look for a hotel where they could stay in the same comfort when they landed in Istanbul. Built on this need, the hotel would become Pera Palas. Pera Palas, which was opened with a ball in June 1895, appeared before the people of Beyoğlu when they turned from Pera Street to Asmalı Mescit Street. This is how the story of an era came to be.

The story of Pera Palas, which we look at once again with the series “Midnight at Pera Palas”, started with the need for a luxury hotel to stay in Istanbul, almost 150 years ago. While watching “Midnight at Pera Palace”, I was wondered “What is the history of this famous hotel?”, then I started to scroll through the pages of the book to make a news about Pera Palas, like Esra, the curious journalist of the series. I did not have the enchanted key of Agatha Christie left in room 411 of Pera Palace, so it was not possible for me to go back to the past. However, Pera Palas: Beyoğlu’s Westernization Story (İBB Kültür, 2010) prepared by Kemal Öztürk, which I found on the library shelves, became a window to the history of Pera Palace. Now, let’s go back to the beginning: On a June night of 1895, we see Pera Palace on the corner of Asmalı Mescit Street from Pera, the avenue of the empire that opened to Europe, in the throes of modernization.

The Story of an Age: Pera Palace
Patisserie de Pera

“It is not our place to go to Pera Palas Hotel. We could not enter Tokatlıyan, or Pera Palace. Many years later, I was lucky to go there. That is, I did not enter the Marquise. They were too expensive for us. These are three hotels from the Imperial period: Pera Palas, Tokatlıyan and Park Hotel.”

Attila İlhan
The Story of an Age: Pera Palace
Kubbeli Lounge

Although not a fully Western city at the time, Pera was the Ottoman Empire’s gateway to Europe. (Attila İlhan would later call Pera “little Europe”.) While the European embassies located in various parts of Beyoğlu reflected the multicultural identity of the street, business people and high society people from Europe were bringing the spirit of the West to the city with the Orient Express. The hotel, which is one of the most magnificent buildings of the street, was the city’s first electric elevator and hot water building, apart from the Ottoman palaces. The hotel was so modern that because of the pressure, water could not flow to the upper floors of the hotel, so that special cups and basins were brought from Europe.

Every detail from A to Z was chosen from the most luxurious, it was built in the Arnuvo style that was fashionable in Europe at that time, and the traces of the Orient were not neglected in the interior decoration. Behind this architecture was the signature of the city’s famous architect, Alexandre Vallaury, who was educated in Paris.

The Story of an Age: Pera Palace

“Valluary is actually from around here. I remember his father being Levantine, a pastry chef or something if I’m not mistaken. But Valluary himself studied architecture in Paris, France, developed, here he is an architecture teacher at Sanayii Nefise.”

Murat Belge

The menu of this European hotel was also prepared according to the French cuisine; Although the first menu is not in the hotel documents, in Pera Palas: Beyoğlu’s Westernization Story, we see the menu for the third anniversary celebration of the hotel: “Mari Luis Kosome, turtle soup, feminine bouquets, Brazilian salmon, flower girl style smoked beef, imperial partridge style, Strasbourg foie gras paste, cherry sorbet, fried chicken, duke fries, asparagus with sauce, toast, mixed ice cream, coffee and dessert.”

Orient on one side, Europe on the other… The laughter of Pera and European society went beyond the walls of Pera Palace and resounded in the shining waters of the Golden Horn at midnight for years. Until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. At this point in the story, Esra, a journalist who traveled through time, can stop us and say that the magnificence and entertainment continued at Pera Palas in those years as well. As a matter of fact, it is not unfair, because Pera Palace was able to survive in those days with its splendor despite wars and various deprivations. However, from some rooms of the hotel, not laughter was reflected in the waters of the Golden Horn, but the thoughtful and troubled gaze of an Ottoman commander whose eyes were colored by the calm waters of Rumelia. While the calendars were showing 1918, Istanbul was occupied for the first time in 465 years. Mustafa Kemal was the guest of room 101 of Pera Palace.

“He met with foreign journalists here. He met with the last rulers of the empire. He met with the sultan, of course, not here, but in the palace, but with the princes here. In other words, very important points that will decide the fate of Turkey have been determined here, shaped here, enlightened here. It would not be wrong to say that it was at least partially so.”

Prof. Dr. Jak Deleon
The Story of an Age: Pera Palace

Mustafa Kemal, who preferred Pera Palas between 1917-1926, sometimes to take important decisions and sometimes to host his guests, stayed in Pera Palas until he moved to his house in Osmanbey, especially during the occupation years. There is even an interesting anecdote about the days when Mustafa Kemal stayed in room 101: According to what is told, one day when Mustafa Kemal came to Pera Palace during the occupation years, the occupation commanders wanted to invite him to their table. Mustafa Kemal, on the other hand, responds to this invitation as follows: “Although it seems like they are the owner of Istanbul right now, they will be gone soon. Therefore, they are guests here. We also welcome guests. So if they wish, they can come to my table!” It is not known whether this incident really happened, but the occupying forces, who held about 80 rooms of Pera Palas during the years when Istanbul was occupied, left not only from Pera Palace, but also from Istanbul as they had come, months later.

The Story of an Age: Pera Palace

With the recapture of Istanbul from the occupying forces and the establishment of a new regime in Ankara in 1923, the face of Pera Palas also changed. Yes, it was still the face of Pera opening to Europe, but now it was more national. With the Republic, the modernization of the society was realized by the reconstruction of the national identity, and the face of Pera Palas guests was also changing. Manufacturers and business people from Anatolia were staying at Pera Palas. The regulars that the Orient Express carried from Paris just for the balls were no longer there. Although the hotel changed a little with the difficulties brought by the war years and after, it preserved its reputation in the 1930s and 40s as it always did. Not long after, when the Second World War came, the lightning of the political scene once again flashed in Pera Palace. On March 11, 1941, the British Ambassador to Sofia Randell was assassinated with a bomb inside the hotel. Jak Deleon describes the explosion in which 6 people died: “After going towards the bar, that is, just after turning the corner, the hotel lobby is blown up with a loud noise. Sure, it’s a huge explosion. Up to the 5th floor, the windows of the doors are blowing. The front of the hotel swells outward and part of it explodes.” Rendall survived the assassination by being on the top floor of the hotel at the time of the explosion, so this assassination attempt, enough to bring Turkey into the war, fails. It is possible to see the traces of the explosion in the cracks in the walls and columns of the hotel today.

The Story of an Age: Pera Palace

Pera Palas hosted the world of literature as well as the heavyweights of politics from the First World War to the Second World War. Agatha Christie, who stayed at the hotel intermittently from 1926 to 1932, is one of these famous writers. It is even said that the author wrote the Murder on the Orient Express here, but the accuracy of this anecdote is not certain. Because the author recently stayed at the Tokatlıyan Hotel.

The Story of an Age: Pera Palace

Ernest Hemingway and Greta Garbo are among the artists staying at the hotel. Another regular of his was Istanbul writer and academic Jak Deleon. Deleon kept his habit of going to the hotel three or four times a week for orange juice, and continued to drink orange juice at Pera Palace, which he entered for the first time when he was four years old. The following words of Deleon, who also wrote a book about the hotel in 1987, summarize the history of Pera Palas:

“I come three or four times a week and stay for at least two hours. Here I am emptying my mind of daily worries. On the other hand, I fill it with creative action. I think Pera Palas is a socket, a dynamo that an Istanbul writer can plug into. While studying English-American literature at university, I became interested in history and came to Pera Palace as if I wanted to see an old relative who had been neglected for a long time. It was the mid 70’s and Pera Palace was very tired. The curtains were torn, the plaster was falling off, you wanted coffee, they boiled chickpeas and brought them. However, in this hotel, which was opened by Abdulhamid II in 1892, such magnificent balls were held that Orient Express would carry regulars from Paris just for those balls.”

The Story of an Age: Pera Palace

Pera Palas, which witnessed the bloody plunder of events of 6-7 September after the two world wars, and the loss of culture after Beyoğlu gradually filled with casinos and lost its identity, is on the corner where we turn from Pera Street to Asmalı Mescit Street, without losing its glory for about 150 years. It is not known whether Beyoğlu will return to its old times one day, but drinking orange juice at Pera Palace, just like Jak Deleon did, may make you feel that the heart of Cadde-i Kebir is still beating. Let’s finish this article, in which we look at Pera Palace, a symbol of Istanbul’s modernization, with the sentence of Charles King, the author of the book Midnight at Pera Palace, with the preface of the book: “After all, Istanbul is a tolerant city.”

“We are on the same peninsula as you,” he says.
And then it disappears in an old street of Pera”
“In an Old Street of Pera”, İlhan Berk

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