#WKNDTravel: A literary trail in Istanbul

Anjaly Thomas
Filed on April 8, 2021

To a crime writer, Istanbul is the perfect setting, having within it, the heat and atmosphere combined with the murderous appeal that complements violence. Istanbul is a city that has wooed writers of crime, travel, history, classics and romance for centuries, wearing audaciously on its sleeve an unexplained air of mystery and orientalism — and providing the backdrop for books, movies and artistic creations.

Many writers fictionalised their stories inspired by the city’s magical ambience and rich history, making the city their home, if not permanent, at least transient.

The perfect crime setup

I had come to Istanbul to see what I already knew — then something happened. I was drawn into its mystery and gore glamourised by my favourite authors.

As a writer, I had the natural curiosity to find out why Istanbul had captivated a generation of writers and lured them to its back alleys. This city thrived in the pages of several bestsellers in my bookshelf, but I was eager to see the world they created. So began my journey into Istanbul’s literary past and considering that I was already drinking tea in the high-ceilinged Kubbeli Saloon Lounge at Pera Palace, I let my curiosity get the better of me.

Why did Agatha Christie choose this particular hotel and city to write Murder on the Orient Express? And before I saw the bottom on my teacup, I had made up my mind.

I would, I decided, employ my time looking for a version of Istanbul Agatha Christie, Ernest Hemingway, Ian Fleming, Orhan Pamuk, Leon Trotsky, Pierre Loti and more recently Peggy Hanson had immortalised. Bodies in the Bosphorus, a dead cat in the alley, blood stains on the carpets — I wanted to recreate the experiences in the present.

Considering that I was in the middle of it all, I began my exploration right there.

Pera Palace: Born to fascinate

In the year 1892, Pera Palace, a new hotel as luxurious as the Venice- Simplon Orient Express, was built to serve its important guests that included diplomats, actors, journalists, writers, businessmen and spies who arrived on the train. Pera Palace redefined Istanbul’s hospitality by becoming the first building with electricity (excluding Ottoman Palaces), electric elevator and provision of hot water. Enter the Queen of Crime Agatha Christie on the Orient Express, established herself in Room No 411 to write her bestselling Murder on Orient Express.

My pulse raced as the staff took me on a tour of Agatha Christie Suite, where much of the original and opulent Victorian furniture still remains. I swear I saw the writer herself seated at her typewriter, breathing life into Hercule Poirot and endowing him with faculties to solve the baffling murder of Ratchett (Cassetti).

Something in the room had inspired her. I fancied a stain on the carpet — but I was almost a century too late to know if that existed then, but I’ll admit Pera Palace had a “feel” to it. Making my way from Garbo Suites to the Piano Suites to Hemingway Suite, I fancied shadowy figures, spies and murderers appearing out of nooks and corners in the lobby. Years were no barrier between Christie and me because Pera Palace was the link between us. I drew energy and force from the author’s imagination. A chill ran through me as I descended the marble stairs. This hotel had been a beehive of activity during the world wars — with an equal number of spies and scribes crawling the corridors carrying secrets.

What other secrets were hidden in Pera Palace besides Christie’s famous key?

That being said, I had a bone to pick with Ms. Christie. She was, undoubtedly, the hotel’s most famous guest, but had heartlessly lodged Hercule Poirot at Hotel Tokatalian nearby. Her renowned Belgian detective never had the chance to step inside Pera Palace — unlike Ian Fleming’s James Bond, who appreciated the views of the Golden Horn on the first morning of his arrival… so the story goes.

Ernest Hemingway, writer and a journalist of Toronto Star, arrived here in 1922 covering Turkey’s National Struggle. Such was the impression of Istanbul in his mind that in 1936 when he wrote The Snows of Kilimanjaro, he promptly installed his main character Harry at Pera Palace Hotel. Technically, the writer and his creation, both have stayed here.

I mulled over another fictional character Henry Pulling and his aunt Augusta Bertram in Graham Greene’s Travels With My Aunt the next day as I journeyed to my next destination. Notice how everything always led to Pera Palace? But everything was forgotten as I pushed open the door to the Museum of Innocence.

A Nobel Prize and a museum

A short walk off stiklal, Istanbul’s famous shopping area, brought me to Çukurcuma, where a red-coloured building housed a famous literary achievement. The walk itself was filled with pleasant anticipation. How many times did Orhan Pamuk or his protagonist Füsun and Kemal walk this way?

I edged past antique shops in the side alleys as prelude to what was to come.

I opened the door. And with that movement alone, I had catapulted myself into the life of Kemal. Museum of Innocence was not a museum that celebrated history — it lived a story. Perhaps real. The author’s own.

Each room of the museum’s four floors was set up to represent a chapter from the Pamuk’s Nobel Prize-winning book of the same name. Every article replayed Kemal and Füsun’s emotions. As a reader who had journeyed through their love and loss, I established a connection with thousands of artefacts housed there. Every object, upon minute scrutiny, exploded into a story. The museum breathed. It was as real as my past which revealed in the form of my letters and diaries. Here were cigarette butts, ashtrays, shawl, letters — everything that Kemal and his lover had touched, felt, seen, experienced or used. Füsun sighed and laughed within these walls. It was her home. I spent over four hours in there — drawn into the life of Pamuk, Kemal and Fusun.

From here, I head to Nianta a rather affluent area of Istanbul to retrace the beginning of the novel. This was where Kemal, engaged to Sibel, fell in love with the 18-year-old Füsun and carried on a clandestine relationship at Merhamet Apartments overlooking Tesyikiys Avenue. The name had been taken off the apartment. And according to the book, Füsun who lived near here, eventually moved with her parents close by before moving to Çukurcuma.

Sivastopol Kökü: Trotsky’s favourite corner in Büyükada

Next on my itinerary was Buyukada, Trotsky’s favourite corner. I had put that down for Day Three. I needed to readjust my ideas about the city which had begun to reshape itself in my mind. Nothing mattered more than walking in the footsteps of my authors.

In 1929, Trotsky was exiled from Russia. He then came to Istanbul and made the beautiful house on Büyükada (the biggest of Princess Island) his home. I could see why he chose this particular place — it was as serene as it was beautiful. His surroundings greatly influenced his writing. It was here that he wrote his autobiography My Life, and The History of the Russian Revolution.

Although entry into the property was restricted, I did get an impression of being inside the large rather dilapidated house. Looking at it, I understood why decades after Trotsky, Elif Shafak chose this particular home to stay in when writing some of her novels.

Pierre Loti Hill

On Day Four, I hoped to achieve much in terms of visiting museums and houses of authors I admired. Shortly, a cable car ride brought me to Pierre Loti Hill with the spectacular views of the Golden Horn. But that was not the reason I was here. I was on the trail of Julien Viaud (Pierre Loti), a French Naval officer and writer, who arrived in Istanbul at the age of 26 in the year 1876, fell in love with a local woman and made Istanbul his temporary home. The hill was named after him. I mulled over the view and magnetic charm of this place over a cup of coffee at the Pierre Loti Café located on the ridge. This café, I was told, was nothing like it looked now. Back then, it was a small, humble place with few stools and a stove for brewing Turkish coffee.

Somewhere in the distance traffic roared and the muezzin called out. It didn’t matter. At the end of Day Two, I saw what made Istanbul addictive.

Istanbul was alive

I bent my steps to the Nazim Hikmet Cultural Centre (named after a Turkish poet) looking at the books and sipping Turkish coffee. I cast my eyes around. They come to rest on a group of serious-looking youngsters furiously discussing something — they were, I was told, young writers who used this space as a work and meet-up site. I watch them curiously trying to imagine what goes on in their mind. One of them might just be the next big thing in literature.

I ended my literary quest at the Flower Passage where Armanoush (a character from Shafak’s The Bastard of Istanbul) treated herself to delicious local meals. I did the same. I had come a full circle.

Late in the night, I stood lost in thought on the Galata Bridge looking into the water below. The waters of Bosphorus indeed ran deep. Whichever way you look at Istanbul — through the eyes of a reader or a writer — you’ll find mystery at every corner.



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