From the 1400s until World War I, the Ottoman Empire was the center of power in the Muslim world. Following the Great War however, the Empire’s ill-fated alliance with Germany and a growing nationalist movement gave birth to the country of Turkey. In its cosmopolitan hub Istanbul, a new culture developed resembling more Boardwalk Empire than pious Muslim city. Kojo joins author and Georgetown professor Charles King to discuss the history of modern Istanbul through the lens of its fanciest hotel.


  • Charles King Professor of International Affairs and Government, Georgetown University. Author of “Midnight at the Pera Palace: The Birth of Modern Istanbul”


  • 13:39:18

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFor over 500 years, the Ottoman Empire reigned supreme as the center of power in the Muslim world at the intersection of Europe, Asia and the Middle East. But in the aftermath of World War I the empire's ill-fated alliance with Germany and the growing nationalist movement gave rise to the secular country Turkey. In its cosmopolitan hub Istanbul, a new culture began to flourish with drinking, gambling and Miss Turkey pageants. It resembled more boardwalk empire than Ottoman.

  • 13:39:48

    MR. KOJO NNAMDILocals, tourists and occupying military forces all flocked to bars, cabarets and even brothels in Turkey's biggest city. At the epicenter of this Islamic jazz culture in its seedy underbelly was Istanbul's fanciest hotel, the Pera Palace. Here to discuss the history of modern Istanbul is Charles King. He's a professor of international affairs and government at Georgetown University and author of the book "Midnight at the Pera Palace: The Birth of Modern Istanbul." Charles King, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:40:17

    MR. CHARLES KINGThanks, Kojo. Nice to be with you.

  • 13:40:19

    NNAMDIFascinating book. It looks at the history of modern Istanbul through the lens of this hotel, the Pera Palace. What is this place? Why is it significant?

  • 13:40:27

    KINGSo this was the fanciest hotel in one of the most exotic and interesting cities in the world. It was set up in the 1890s to be the hotel that you would go to if you were traveling from Europe on the Orient Express. In fact, it was set up by the company that began the Orient Express, a Belgian firm called the Wagons-Lits Company. And they wanted a place for tourists to stay when they were doing the grand tour and extending that into the Ottoman Empire.

  • 13:40:53

    KINGAnd very quickly this hotel gained reputation as the place to be in Istanbul from the 1890s all the way up to today in fact. It's been recreated and reborn as a new luxury hotel in the center of the city.

  • 13:41:08

    NNAMDIIf you'd like to join the conversation, call us at 800-433-8850. Have you traveled to Istanbul? What questions do you have about its history and about what it's like today, 800-433-88500? You can send email to the hotel was built in 1892. It's still around today but you focus mostly on that period from World War I to World War II when this Islamic jazz culture emerged in Istanbul. What was that like?

  • 13:41:36

    KINGWell, that's right. The "Midnight at the Pera Palace" is a book that has the hotel at its center but it's really about this bigger story of this hidden Islamic jazz age of the 1920s and 1930s. A time when you had refugees pouring into the city, people who were the losers of the First World War or one or another kind of world-changing revolution. For example, in the 1920s they have more than 100,000 white Russians flooding into the city because they've been pushed out of the old Russian empire by the Bolsheviks. And they begin to open restaurants and jazz clubs and stock this new array of facilities that are now going to be part of Istanbul's emerging jazz culture.

  • 13:42:21

    NNAMDIBy one estimate there were, well, 40,000 prostitutes around that time in Istanbul. And the brothels were doing so well they started to support other businesses like doctors who could treat venereal diseases. How did prostitution become such a huge part of the culture in Istanbul?

  • 13:42:38

    KINGWell, in any port city of course prostitution brothels, either legal or illegal, are a big part of the local culture. But the thing that got the sex trade, if you like, rolling in Istanbul was not the long history of the harem. So people think that the Muslim harem was somehow a -- the origin of this wild and crazy sexual culture of the city. But it was, in fact, the fact that the city was occupied by foreign militaries right after the First World War.

  • 13:43:10

    KINGFrom 1918 to 1923 the allied powers in the First World War occupied the city. So you had British, French, Italian soldiers ruling Istanbul essentially as foreign occupiers. And any time you have a large army of occupation in a place, the sex trade is going to flourish. And that's the thing that caused it in the early 1920s.

  • 13:43:33

    NNAMDI800-433-8850, does post-World War I Istanbul sound like a place you're want to visit? What do you think about a Muslim country with a roaring 1920s culture, 800-433-8850? You can also go to our website So this cultural jazz, prostitution, drinking and gambling came right after a long period of Turkey being a part of a Muslim theocracy, the Ottoman Empire. How does a country go from religious rule to what you describe in "Midnight at the Pera Palace?"

  • 13:44:04

    KINGWell, it seems like a real revolution, a real complete turnover of public morality and so forth, but of course even during the Ottoman period there was a long tradition of drinking and of merry making, especially in this section of Istanbul called Pera. It was almost like you always had Las Vegas only a bridge away from the sultan's palace. It was a neighborhood, a red-light district where you would go, even in the Ottoman period, to experience those kinds of things.

  • 13:44:32

    KINGMany of the local restaurants or bars before 1918 or so were stocked or staffed by Greeks, Armenians, Jews, other minorities in the empire but there were certainly plenty of Ottoman officials themselves who took advantage of those facilities. Then later on after 1923, Turkey becomes a secular republic. It puts away the trappings of religious rule...

  • 13:44:55

    NNAMDIThe sultan was part of a coordinated kidnapping.

  • 13:44:59

    KINGThat's exactly right.

  • 13:45:00

    NNAMDIHow did that happen?

  • 13:45:00

    KINGThat's exactly right. One of the bizarre elements of the origin of all of this is that the sultan of the Ottoman Empire was in fact kidnapped, willingly I should say, by the British occupying forces. Because the sultan was at odds with the Turkish nationalists who were beginning to take over the government of the country in the early 1920s. He feared for his life. They had already abolished the sultanate, then he appealed through his orchestra leader, it turns out, to the British occupying general. And he spirited him away on a British warship to the Island of Malta and later on to that place where so many European royals, once they were deposed, made their future lives. And that's on the Italian Riviera.

  • 13:45:41

    NNAMDIBy getting rid of both the sultan and the caliph in Turkey, it starts to become what you were describing, a secular country. But this was supposed to be the center of power for all the Muslims in the world. How did other Muslims respond?

  • 13:45:56

    KINGWell, the caliphate was ended two years after the sultan was deposed. And that was a title that the sultan had carried for centuries, the temporal worldly leader of the Muslim faith. When the Turkish nationalists decided to end the caliphate, this was a huge deal. It created protests and violent revolutions all over the world as Muslims in India and what would become Pakistan and elsewhere opposed this.

  • 13:46:27

    KINGWhat's interesting is that in that event in 1924 is the back story of course to the reestablishment of the caliphate just a few months ago by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State. He is responding to an event that took place nearly a century ago.

  • 13:46:43

    NNAMDIThe Pera Palace was located at the end of the Orient Express, you pointed out, the gateway to Asia. But it's also on the edge of Europe, not far from the Middle East, kind of in the middle of all of those things. How significant has Istanbul's geography been in shaping its history?

  • 13:47:00

    KINGWell, Istanbul is a city that's of course located on two continents. Part of the city is in geographic Europe, part of the city is in geographic Asia. And so even in the geography you see this union of two different cultures and two different civilizations. And Istanbul also is of course the only place in the world that can claim to have been both the center of Christendom when it was Byzantium, the successor to the Roman Empire, and the center of Islam when the caliph in the person of the sultan ruled from that city.

  • 13:47:32

    NNAMDIA couple of questions about the Pera Palace. We'll go to Ken in Gaithersburg, Md. Ken, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:47:39

    KENYes. First, I am somewhat of Turkish origin myself. My grandparents were from Turkey. And I've stayed in the palace and I've stayed in the numerous really nice boutique hotels in the city. And I got to tell you, for service and amenities in general, overall warmth, the boutique hotels are much nicer. The other...

  • 13:48:01

    NNAMDIGo ahead, please.

  • 13:48:03

    KENThe question I had was, didn't Ataturk set up shop in the hotel and win run his revolution from there?

  • 13:48:10

    KINGWell, I can't comment on the quality of service in the various hotels. There are plenty of them in the city to enjoy. The story of Ataturk is very interesting because of course he's the person who becomes the founding president of the Turkish Republic and transforms this country from an empire into a modern state. It is true that very early in the period of British occupation, right after 1918, he stays in the hotel briefly because it was the best place to stay in the city at the time, and in fact meets with some of the British officials. This is in the months leading up to his starting what would become the Turkish revolution and the creation of the new republic.

  • 13:48:49

    NNAMDIKen in Gaithersburg, thank you very much for your call. And you may have already answered the question of Ken in Washington, D.C. but I'll let him ask it. Ken, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:49:00

    KENHi. I know that in the novel by Agatha Christie "Murder on the Orient Express" starts in Istanbul and they're all staying at the Tokatli (sp?) Inn Hotel, it is called by Agatha Christie. I wanted to know, is that a real hotel, was it a fancy hotel?

  • 13:49:20

    KINGThis is a very interesting question because of course the contemporary marketers for the Pera Palace these days -- and the hotel is run by a luxury firm from Dubai called Jumeirah, they have tried to make a great deal of the nostalgia surrounding Agatha Christie and the Pera Palace. I'm sorry to say however that she stayed, when she went to Istanbul, in another hotel called the Tokatli Inn. She also puts her Belgian detective (word?) in the Tokatli Inn at the beginning of "Murder on the Orient Express."

  • 13:49:50

    KINGThe Tokatli Inn was a real place. It was a few blocks away from the Pera Palace and was also a luxury hotel of that era. Unfortunately it has been, until very recently, a derelict shell on a main street in Istanbul. It's probably going to become a shopping mall.

  • 13:50:06

    NNAMDIKen, thank you very much for your call. Our guest is Charles King. He's a professor of international affairs and government at Georgetown University and author of the book "Midnight at the Pera Palace: The Birth of Modern Istanbul." 800-433-8850 is our number if you have comments or questions. How would it affect American culture if the U.S. let in as many immigrants and refugees as Turkey has? An issue we're going to get to shortly. Should they be doing more to help those fleeing from Syria today, 800-433-8850?

  • 13:50:36

    NNAMDITurkey used to be a place where people could escape to. Jews, for example, during World War II. Today a lot of people are trying to escape to Turkey from the conflicts in Syria. How has Turkey become a destination of sorts for refugees and how has that affected its culture?

  • 13:50:52

    KINGWell, the basic truth about the modern Turkish state is that like the United States it's a country of immigrants. We forget this about Turkey because of course it has an ancient culture, ancient civilization, ancient architecture and so on. But modern Turkey was the product of several waves of immigration. At the beginning of the 20th century, Muslims who were kicked out of the Balkans by the Christian states ended up, after the first and second Balkan wars and then after the First World War, coming to Turkey. And in fact creating the nucleus of the group that would become the bureaucrats and the politicians of the Turkish Republic, including Ataturk himself who was not born in what is today Turkey but was born in what is today Greece.

  • 13:51:38

    KINGAfter that in the 1920s and the 19302, you have more and more waves of immigration. The Russians coming through, kicked out by the Bolsheviks, German professors in the 1930s and then Jews during the Second World War. So that heritage, that multicultural heritage has been something that shaped the modern republic.

  • 13:51:56

    NNAMDIIndeed you write about the diversity of Istanbul. People were from all over, different origins and ethnicities. Some visitors who might be enemies on the battlefield ended up in the same jazz clubs. How did this hotel, the Pera Palace, play out as a place where enemies could meet?

  • 13:52:12

    KINGWell, it was a place where literally across a ballroom you might see someone whom you had been fighting just a few years earlier. In fact, I talk in "Midnight at Pera Palace" about an amazing incident where you have Joseph Goebbels staying at the hotel when he's on an official visit to Turkey in 1939 right before the Second World War begins. He's trying to pull Turkey onto the German side in the war. He stays there briefly, does a little tourism, has a few official meetings.

  • 13:52:42

    KINGA few months later a man named Haim Barlus (sp?) checks in. And Barlus is in fact a secret agent working for something called the Jewish Agency. The Jewish Agency's role was to try to spirit Jews out of Nazi-dominated Europe. So even in this hotel lobby you have people coming and going who are going to shape different strands of history.

  • 13:53:02

    NNAMDIIt's my understanding that at one point there were so many of those types of people in the hotel that they had to ask some of them to leave, make room for paying customers.

  • 13:53:12

    KINGThat's right. There was apparently a sign that was in the lobby asking people who were there on other kinds of business to leave for the paying customer.

  • 13:53:20

    NNAMDIOn to Emil in Falls Church, Va. Emil, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:53:25

    EMILYeah, thanks. Fascinating discussion. I've been wanting to go to Turkey for years. I notice that the air flights, certain airlines are down right now, their fares. And I just wondered how safe is it to go to Istanbul these days? Thank you.

  • 13:53:41

    MS. SARAH YAGEROh, Istanbul is an extremely safe city. The crime rates in Istanbul don't even compare with most major American cities. And there are magnificent flights that go directly there. Turkish Airlines, for example, has a direct flight from the Washington area and from plenty of other places too. Other parts of Turkey are perhaps less desirable right at the moment, along the border with Syria. But Istanbul is a wonderful city (unintelligible) ...

  • 13:54:04

    NNAMDII was about to say, we see the country involved in an almost ironic conflict with leaders of Islamic State declaring a new caliphate, trying to pick up the one Turkey got rid of in the 1920s. How is Turkey dealing with the Islamic State at its borders?

  • 13:54:18

    KINGThis is an issue, of course, that's been very important just in the last few weeks because the United States and other western allies have been trying to push Turkey to do more to stop the advance of the Islamic State. And of course right at the moment we have this incredible awful siege of the city of Kobani right on the Turkish border and the prospect of incredible barbarism if that city falls to ISIS.

  • 13:54:40

    KINGBut here again we have echoes of the interwar period because at that stage Ataturk put in place the idea of peace at home, peace abroad. Essentially calm within the country and having good relations with all of the states around it. And so the current government, I think, is the inheritor in a way of this idea of not getting involved in entanglements around their own borders.

  • 13:55:04

    NNAMDIHere is Richard in Arnold, Md. Richard, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:55:10

    RICHARDI just wanted to give you a call. I'm listening to your program. And my wife and I about eight years ago went to Turkey to go on a sailing trip. And we had the most wonderful time. We went down to Marmaris and we went on a what they call a flotilla run by a company called Sun Sail. And we sailed up and down the coast. And then later on we came back and we spent another two weeks traveling around. We had a great time.

  • 13:55:36

    RICHARDPeople were nice to us everywhere. We had wonderful adventures. We got to go to the palace, the boom (sp?) mosque and everywhere. And I'd go back to Turkey in a heartbeat, except that I'm a little bit old now to go back by myself. Unfortunately my wife's not with me now. But we had a great time. It was a great, great time.

  • 13:55:51

    NNAMDIYes. Apparently it's always been welcoming to strangers. Back to the Pera Palace. It was built, as we said, in 1892, over 120 years old. What is like today?

  • 13:56:01

    KINGWell, it's been refreshed and revived, perhaps not to everyone's taste but it's now very much a luxury hotel. If you had gone there 20 years ago or say (sic) , it would've been rather seedy. It was in a kind of down and out section of Istanbul that has now revived and is a major entertainment center in the city. It's owned by the Turkish government. The last private owner in the 1950s willed it to the government. So it's a government-owned hotel but they lease it out and it's now run by this Dubai firm Jumeirah.

  • 13:56:32

    NNAMDITurkey has seen a lot of conflict but you also talk about other forms of destruction in the book, earthquakes, fires. Has Istanbul been picked on by mother nature?

  • 13:56:41

    KINGIt seems to have been. In fact, most of the destruction that's happened in the city's history has been a result of these natural events, fires and earthquakes far more than being attacked or conquered. Even when the Ottoman's conquered the city in 1453, the level of destruction was nothing like what would happen in an ordinary fire season or during a major earthquake. And the real fear is of course that the next major earthquake that hits Turkey will -- could well hit in the center of the city. And of course that would be devastating because it's a massive, massive city, more than 13 million people.

  • 13:57:17

    NNAMDICharles King. He is a professor of international affairs and government at Georgetown University and author of the book "Midnight at the Pera Palace: The Birth of Modern Istanbul." Charles King, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:57:27

    KINGThank you, Kojo.

  • 13:57:28

    NNAMDI"The Kojo Nnamdi Show" is produced by Michael Martinez, Ingalisa Schrobsdorff, Tayla Burney, Kathy Goldgeier, Elizabeth Weinstein and Andrew Katz-Moses, to whom we are saying goodbye today but who's moving on to greater accomplishments. Brendan Sweeney is the managing producer. Our engineer is Toby Schreiner. Natalie Yuravlivker is on the phones. Podcasts of all shows, audio archives and free transcripts are available at our website To share questions or comments with us, email us at Join us on Facebook or send us a tweet @kojoshow. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

Related Links

Topics + Tags

Most Recent Shows