Mata Hari and the Orient Express

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August 5th 2015
Published: August 5th 2015
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The Orient Express – the name conjures up images of luxury and louche characters. What I hadn’t realized is that Sirkeci Station in Istanbul was the terminus for the Orient Express.

While the Orient Express no longer runs from Paris to Istanbul, Sirkeci Station still sees passenger trains stop at its platform, and the station itself still retains its architectural beauty.

The station was built in 1890, and in 1892 the Pera Palas Hotel was built on the other side of the Galata Bridge with the express purpose of housing passengers on the Orient Express. It quickly became the favorite place for European visitors to lay their heads. It was the first hotel in Istanbul to have electricity, to have an electric elevator, and to provide hot running water for its guests.

I wanted to follow the story of the Orient Express, so I started at Sirkeci station, which is also a stop on Istanbul’s (very efficient) tram line, and links to the Marmaray line, which is an underwater rail tunnel linking the European and Asian sides of Istanbul. Sirkeci station is pretty quiet now, and the waiting room is mostly empty. There is, however, a small railroad museum at the station with a lot of memorabilia from the CFOA (Chemin de Fer Ottaman d’Anatolie) and TCDD (Türkiye Cumhuriyeti Devlet Demiryolları, the Turkish state railway.)

The station is currently undergoing renovation, but the waiting room is still open, and from there you can see to the Bosporus or walk to the ferry. Getting across the street is another matter, though. Turkish drivers – especially Turkish taxi drivers – give no quarter to pedestrians, and in fact seem to speed up when they see one about to cross the street.

I took the tram across the bridge, and started walking down the street Meşrutiyet Caddesi. I come across a building with signs out front for an exhibition. I thought this might be the Pera Museum, another place that was on the list of places I might visit. It was not; it was the Istanbul Research Institute which was hosting an exhibit called “Journey to the Center of the East” about European travelers to Istanbul between 1850 and 1950, and the heyday of the Orient Express fit neatly into that timeframe.

The exhibit was full of old travel posters and photos
Chemin de Fer OttomanChemin de Fer OttomanChemin de Fer Ottoman

bell hanging in the museum at Sirkeci Station
of European tourists from the 1920s and 30s. They also had a loop of the trailer for the movie “Murder on the Orient Express.” I find old travel posters interesting, and have several at home. Probably a good thing they didn’t have a gift shop.

Just up the street from there is the Pera Palas (now Pera Palace) Hotel. Pera Palace is owned by the Jumeirah Group out of Dubai, of which Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Ruler of Dubai, is the majority owner. The gentleman at the door – I wouldn’t dare call him a doorman – was perfectly turned out. His impeccably tailored suit probably cost more than I spend on clothes in three years, though if you knew how I dressed that wouldn’t tell you much. Suffice it to say, the Jumeirah group is continuing the standard of luxury that had been set at the end of the 19th century.

Among its many famous guests, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey, had once resided here, and the hotel has kept his suite as a museum. Though the museum was actually closed when I got there, the gentleman at the door told me to go on into the lobby and he would find someone to show me Ataturk’s rooms. Ataturk was an impressive figure who moved the Ottoman Empire into a modern, secular state.

However, cool as it was to see the desk where Ataturk probably laid out the basis for the modern Turkey, what really gets my imagination stirring are some of the other visitors. Agatha Christie was a frequent guest, she preferred room 411, and is said to have written her novel “Murder on the Orient Express” while staying here. Ernest Hemingway refers to the Pera Palace in his short story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” One of my very favorite novelists, Graham Greene, wrote “Stamboul Train” while here, and Alfred Hitchcock was a visitor, too; the ambience perfectly fits his style of storytelling.

But unquestionably, the most intriguing part of the hotel’s history are the spies that graced its premises. Mata Hara, the exotic dancer and German spy, stayed at the Pera Palas in 1897. During the Second World War so many undercover agents sat in the bar and the lobby that the hotel manager posted a sign asking them to relinquish their seats to paying guests. At the end of WWII, Kim Philby, a British intelligence agent who spied for the Soviet Union, was also a guest here. And of course we only know the names of the spies who were caught. Who knows how many plans were discussed, how many secret betrayed within these walls?

In 1843 the French writer Gerard de Nerval wrote:

“What a bizarre city, this Constantinople! Glamour and destitution, tears and joy… People act more arbitrarily here than anywhere else, but that also comes with more liberties; four different communities coexist without hating one another too much. Turks, Armenians, Greeks, and Jews. As children of the same land they show far more tolerance to one another than our various provincial people or diverse partisan groups ever could.”

Additional photos below
Photos: 23, Displayed: 23


Air France posterAir France poster
Air France poster

Air travel hastened the demise of the Orient Express
Pera Palas lobby Pera Palas lobby
Pera Palas lobby

The lobby retains the elegance of a bygone era
sedan chairsedan chair
sedan chair

Passengers were transported from the train to the hotel via this sedan chair.
stained glassstained glass
stained glass

in the station waiting room

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