How did Istanbul become one of the world's great modern cities?

In his book 'Midnight at the Pera Palace,' Charles King considers the rapid transformation of Istanbul – a Muslim stronghold as part of the Ottoman Empire – into one of the most cosmopolitan cities on earth.

'Midnight at the Pera Palace' is by Charles King.

A century ago, the beginning of the end comes for the Ottoman Empire, a onetime superpower turned also-ran on the international stage. Within a few years, the aftermath of World War I transforms the Turkish capital of Istanbul into one of the most cosmopolitan cities on earth.

How does a Muslim stronghold embrace Western-style intellectualism, nightlife, and culture? The story unfolds in Georgetown University professor Charles King’s fascinating and perceptive new book Midnight at the Pera Palace: The Birth of Modern Istanbul.

In this interview with Monitor contributor Randy Dotinga, King talks about the revolutionary effects of migration, the Turkish government’s surprising response to decadence in its midst, and the meaning of Turkey’s past as it plays a crucial role in the fight against terrorism today.

“This is a book about how one of the world’s great cities moved out of tragedy to the creation of something fundamentally new – this Islamic Jazz Age that we in the West and many Turks have forgotten about," says King.

Q: What does the end of the Ottoman Empire mean for Istanbul?

It was the home of the most powerful Muslim political leader in the world, the seat of the caliphate of the entire Muslim world. It was the political capital of an empire that stretched from Europe, making it a European power, to North Africa and the Persian Gulf. Suddenly, all of this comes to an end very quickly.

It’s capped off not just by an armistice but also a military occupation of the Ottoman capital. Istanbul was the only one of the defeated powers to have its capital occupied. Istanbul was divided into zones of occupation much in the way that Berlin would be divided after World War II. For average Muslims, this was a crushing defeat.

Q: Does Istanbul fill with the homeless and hungry like other places after the war?

Istanbul is choked with refugees who were fleeing the war in the Balkans plus Christian and Muslim refugees fleeing from the other parts of the Ottoman Empire. It had been a kind of island of relative stability in a country devastated by war.

Q: What were Istanbul and Turkey like before the war?

The Ottoman Empire had been in decline since the end of the 17th century. But if we think of how people actually experienced their lives, there was incredible optimism in the city and the wider empire if you rewind about a decade to 1908.

They’d gone through a political revolution. While it didn’t depose the sultan or end the sultanate, it brought what seemed to be a liberal constitution. The empire was modernizing, bringing back an elected parliament. From the prospective of average Muslims, things were looking up. Then comes the crushing defeat when people had been so positive about the direction of things before.

Q: Istanbul becomes a place of nightlife, jazz, and high-living after the war. We know about the glorious Berlin of “Cabaret” in the 1920s and early 1930s. Was Istanbul like Berlin? Is that a fair comparison?

During this era, places like Berlin, New York and Chicago, Shanghai, Beirut, and Cairo all have something in common: They’re major urban spaces that are fundamentally reinventing themselves because of migration in one way or another. That's the special sauce you need in all of these places.
In New York, it’s particularly Italians and Jews coming into their own. In Chicago, it’s the great migration of African-Americans from the South. In Shanghai, it’s Europeans.

In Istanbul, it’s a group of immigrants, but they’re Muslim immigrants. They’ve been pushed out of the Balkans, Greece, and the heartland of Turkey. There are also White Russians defeated in the Russian revolution fleeing south and German professors kicked out of their positions by the Nazis.
They begin to form this Western-oriented and often educated public elite. They become the ministers and the writers and the artists and poets of the new republic.

It’s this incredible turbulent, twisted time when everyone is reinventing themselves and starting over. Istanbul is reinventing itself as the country is reinventing itself.

Q: How do the leaders of Turkey react to all this compared to the Nazis in Germany who crack down on the free-living in Berlin?

If the excesses of the 1920s are met with the authoritarianism of the 1930s in Berlin and the Second World War, the experience in Turkey is exactly the opposite of that. The excess, the drinking, the cabarets, the music and art scene – all of this is embraced by the new Turkish leadership as representative of what it will be: a deeply Western, deeply European place.

This is an ironic story considering the way we perceive Islamic places these days. In this era, the Turkish model was to embrace all of these things as part of a new Turkish identity. You could continue to be a Muslim in a cultural sense, and you could also be modern and European and progressive at the same time.

Q: If the 1920s were a time when Turkey turned to the West, what are we seeing now in our modern era?

You’re seeing a re-Islamization of Turkish society in which Islam is much more in the public eye than it would have been in the past. You see a president who is himself very devout and whose wife is covered with a head scarf, a society in which you see far more women on the street wearing Islamic clothing than two decades ago.

For many liberal Turks, this is at best a step backwards.

Q: Is Istanbul at another turning point?

Istanbul is home to 13 million people and larger than two-thirds of the countries in the world. It’s the largest city in Europe, and the second-largest in the Middle East after Cairo.

This is a critical country and yet again, Turkey is facing a whole series of refugee challenges just like it faced in the 1920s and 1930s.

Q: What can we take from the story of Turkey over the last century?

Countries can transform themselves.

The story of the West over the 20th century is not the story of the progressive rise of liberal, democratic values. The story of the West is, in fact, a story of ups and downs. Monarchies and semi-authoritarian states were followed by the progressive opening of systems of the 1920s and 1930s and then followed by a deep dive into authoritarianism across Europe.

The Islamic experience is not that much different over the course of the 20th century. It’s about experimentation with monarchy and colonialism and a reinvention of states and polities in the Western mold.

In the 1920s, even while you have world-famous jazz singers coming through Istanbul, you also have more or less a one-party government. What we’re seeing is not a more hopeful story that all societies can become liberal and democratic, but in fact they go through their own phases of liberalism and democracy. They become more and less democratic depending on the context. There’s always a tension."

Q: This sounds pretty grim. Is there a reason for hope here?

The hopeful story is that the response to tragedy is often a reenergizing of society, a reinvention.

This is a book about how one of the world’s great cities moved out of tragedy to the creation of something fundamentally new, this Islamic Jazz that we in the West and many Turks have forgotten about.

It’s a hopeful story about people’s ability to remake themselves, to go from awfulness to a new energy both in terms of individual lives – a refugee family remaking themselves as natives – to an entire country reemerging as no longer an Islamic empire but a secular state.

Randy Dotinga, a Monitor contributor, is president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.

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