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Midnight at the Pera Palace

Charles King


The Birth of Modern Istanbul

When the Ottoman Empire collapsed, so many spies mingled in the lobby of Istanbul's legendary grand hotel, the Pera Palace, that the manager posted a sign politely requesting such "visitors" to relinquish seats to paying guests.

As a multi-ethnic empire transformed itself into a "Turkish" nation, Istanbul improvised. White Russian refugees sold family heirlooms on the sidewalk; an African-American impresario founded a jazz club; a Greek emigre songbird created a plaintive new sound; and a Boston proffessor unveiled the long-hidden treasures of the Hagia Sophia. A Miss Turkey became the first Muslim beauty queen, dazzling pageant judges across Europe. And at midnight on December 31, 1925, citizens of the newly proclaimed Turkish Republic celebrated the New Year on a nationally unified calendar and clock for the very first time.

The Pera Palace, long a symbol of progress, remained the place to be as Kemal Atatürk founded a new nation, Muslim feminist Halide Edip fought forn women's rights, Leon Trotsky hid out on an island in the Bosphorus from Bolshevik assassins, and the future Pope John XXIII secretly helped the Jewish activists who were spiriting thousands of people out of Nazi-occupied Europe. It survived even after bombs planted in the luggage of British diplomats by the Bulgarian secret service exploded in its lobby.

In this kaleidescopic portrait, Charles King re-creates an era in which a grand hotel, and an ancient city, became a global crossroads - a forgotten moment in the history of Europe and the Middle East. Masterfully written, this fascinating epic of jazz-age revolution and death-defying diplomacy on the Bosphorus is also a paean to the cosmopolitan virtues of diversity and tolerance, the lifeblood of the world's greatest cities.

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