The impossible glamour of Istanbul

Jeremyy Seal in The Telegraph:

IstanbulIt’s no surprise that imperial splendour should so often have been the keynote in published histories of Istanbul, for more than 1,500 years the glittering capital of the Byzantines and latterly that of the Ottomans. But this book tells of the unfamiliar interwar period, perhaps the most humbling era for the world’s one-time greatest metropolis, which necessarily makes it shorter on gilt and glory than it is on pawnshops, penury and the stench of stale wine. It’s a counter-intuitive approach, but one that succeeds brilliantly in portraying the eclipsed city and its often exotic cast of the destitute, the dispossessed and the defiant – prostituted Russian princesses, scheming spies, out-of-work artists, impresarios and arms dealers as well as familiar figures like Leon Trotsky, Kemal Ataturk and Turkey’s national poet Nazim Hikmet – at a time of unparalleled social upheaval. With the Turks’ defeat in the First World War, Allied forces occupied Istanbul, intent on divvying up the lands of the Ottoman Empire; and though Ataturk’s nationalists were to drive the Greeks out of Anatolia and recover the city on the Bosphorus from the Allies in 1923, they wasted no time in instead making Ankara the capital of the newly proclaimed Turkish Republic.

But with the backwaters beckoning, belittled Istanbul had already embarked on perhaps the most compelling and affecting period in all its long history, one that was especially shaped by the flight to Istanbul of some 185,000 White Russian soldiers, aristocrats and assorted camp followers. In this vivid narrative’s many tangled threads – war and occupation, displacement, espionage, radical social reform, the nationalists’ persecution of the city’s minorities, the women’s movement, the remarkable blossoming of the city’s jazz age – it’s the human detail that always impresses.

More here.