Journey to the Center of the East 1850-1950

100 Years of Travelers in İstanbul from Pierre de Gigord Collection

Women and men in Ottoman costumes. (ca. 1890) by Sebah & Joaillierİstanbul Research Institute

Travel Liberates

The movement of “Traveling to the East” was part of the “Eastern Question.” Encompassing continental Europe in the 18th century, the idea opening up to the “Levant” from the “Grand Tour” was transformed throughout the 19th century. Initially traveling on behalf of academic institutions, missionaries and all kinds of amateur researchers that have left their studies behind, set foot on Eastern lands in order to discover the world of Antiquity, collect information on social life, and follow in the footsteps of ancient myths. 

Penning the classics of travel literature, these travelers were followed by tourist groups after the Crimean War. Guided by travel companies instead of academic institutions, these curious crowds began to appear in almost all parts of İstanbul. They were obsessed with the Eastern image the previous generation of travelers had created: the Sultan’s harem, whirling dervishes, stray dogs, and female sexuality hidden behind the veil and the chador were the most provocative aspects of this image.

European tourist. (1867-04-22) by Abdullah Frèresİstanbul Research Institute

The repertoire of the itinerary was roughly the same: Sultanahmet Square, Saladin Mosques, the Grand Bazaar, the Spice Bazaar, Beyoğlu, the Bosphorus, and the Prince’s Islands.

Colored postcard with Haydarpaşa Train Station. (1907)İstanbul Research Institute

During the same period, mass tourism gave rise to hotels in the city. Hotels such as Londra (London), Tokatlıyan, Bristol, and Pera Palace opened their doors to European tourists as well. Throughout the years, the slogan of the “travelmania” instigated by the “Eastern Question” remained the same: Travel Liberates!

Wagons-Lits’ office in Karaköy Square. (Early 1930s)İstanbul Research Institute

From the Creativity of Coincidences to the Monotony of Itinaries

Vehemently opposing the classic rules of travel organized as part of a logic, Gérard de Nerval described himself as a capricious traveler that surrendered himself not to the simple logic of railway travel, but to the randomness of passenger cars. Rather than struggling to survive in the blinding arena of rules, his priority was to enjoy dreams as pure as a small child’s in the cradle of randomness. 

Pera Palace Hotel. (Late 19th century) by Sebah & Joaillierİstanbul Research Institute

In a letter he wrote to his publisher Timothée O’Neddy, de Nerval complained about the social predictability of stations, the punctuality of scheduled boats, and criticized the new geometry of life Europe has established: “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.

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. Four different communities coexist without hating one another too much. Turks, Armenians, Greeks, and Jews.

The decline of creative travel and its transformation into a monotonous act of consumption, on the other hand, was a commercial adventure that extended from the reign of Sultan Abdülmecid to the present.

Interior view from the Pera Palace Hotel. (Late 19th century) by Abdullah Frèresİstanbul Research Institute

Pera Palace

By late 19th
century, the European bourgeoisie’s interest in İstanbul was on the rise. Going
into operation during this period, the new hotels of İstanbul were considered
the modern architectural symbols of the city. Built for the affluent customers
of La Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, which ran the Orient Express
between Paris and İstanbul, the Pera Palace Hotel was the most famous of these.
Pera Palace was completed in 1894 and opened its doors in early 1895, offering
the most luxurious amenities of the period: an elevator, hot water, and radiators… 

Designed by architect Alexandre Vallaury, the hotel reflected the classic lines of Orientalism coupled with the highly popular Eclectic style of the period. The ballroom, for example, epitomized the Orientalist influence. It featured one large and one small dining hall on both ends. Throughout the years of Armistice, these halls were almost transformed into the headquarters of the Occupying Forces and a number of critical decisions concerning the future of the Ottoman Empire were made in their mystical atmosphere.

Poster for Simplon-Orient-Express. (1921) by Roger Brodersİstanbul Research Institute

Karaköy pier. (1900-10) by T. Wildİstanbul Research Institute

A Pleasure Guide to Travel  

The primary principle of a programmed journey to the East was to lift the shawl draped over modernity and allow tourists to enjoy the pleasure of reality that emerged from the contrasts. In that respect, the Europeans were highly impressed with seeing the rundown historical fabric of the ancient İstanbul within the walls against the backdrop of the modern face of the future, namely Galata-Beyoğlu.

Hoping to be left entirely in the past, the more this civilization of fez and chador stumbled on the path to modernization, the more it was augmenting the pleasure Westerners derived from watching such a display of tragedy.

Roaming the streets of the city freely was not advised by the guides, for as much as the stumbling modernization increased the pleasure the West took from the city, a wall of security in the fullest sense had not yet been built for a city still unrestrained by law. The guidebooks of the period were filled with warnings about the challenges and unfavorable circumstances tourists visiting İstanbul could face. In reality, each warning was a reflection of the prejudices deeply rooted in the minds of foreigners.

Colored postcard of the Orient-Express in the Salzbourg Station. (20th century)İstanbul Research Institute

The Image of the East

The image of the East was a product neither of reality, nor of the imagination; it was a tool of expression of the intellectual construct, where the two were integrated and one could act as the raison d’être of the other. Shaped by the observations and dreams of European travelers, these images also determined the perspective of tourist groups visiting İstanbul.

The palace of the mighty sultan, harem women, seaside mansions of the Bosphorus, Sultanahmet Square, beggars, whirling dervishes, stray dogs, firefighters, cemeteries, and other social values that represented a complex cultural design altogether comprised both an open invitation to the East and a point of reference for the West.

Advertisement for the Orient Express show that was held at the Trianon Concert. (1896)İstanbul Research Institute

Prior to 1883, trains running to İstanbul were not part of a definite schedule or program. Departing from Paris, Berlin or Rome, the trains transported not only the upper classes, but valuable commercial goods to İstanbul. In time, special cars reserved for luxury-seeking European bourgeoisie were also added to the rakes of wagons. These special cars were the harbinger of the Orient-Express, which would soon appear on the railways.

Postcard of the Orient-Express. (1888) by Jules Chéretİstanbul Research Institute

Spreading rapidly across Europe in the 19th century, the passion for luxury travel reached a new height following the inauguration of the Paris-İstanbul line of the Orient-Express in 1883.

As the historic operator of the Orient-Express, Wagons-Lits organized rides to İstanbul via the Danube until 1889.

Having purchased the Pera Palace in 1895, the company made no concessions on comfort and offered the cuisine and music of the countries on its itinerary to select guests.

Scientific cruise organized by the Revue Générale des Sciences [Journal of General Sciences] (Güz 1903) by Anonimİstanbul Research Institute

Completing its final journey on May 27, 1977, the Orient Express is considered one of the ultimate cultural icons that the East and the West created together.

Karaköy pier (1894) by Anonimİstanbul Research Institute

Souvenir de Constantinople (20th century)İstanbul Research Institute

Wagons-Lits’ advertising light in Karaköy (1930s) by Anonimİstanbul Research Institute

Sea voyages to İstanbul had two different itineraries that historically complemented one another: the north route reaching İstanbul via the Danube – Black Sea and run by the Danube Maritime Company between 1829 and the 1870s and the Mediterranean-Adriatic –south– route brought into service in 1833. Cruise ships run by Messageries Maritimes in 1851 would depart from Marseille, France.

This line was also the one most frequently used by the Young Turks fleeing the oppressive regime of Abdülhamid II. The 20th century witnessed the first scheduled flights organized by airline companies. In 1923, a French-Romanian airline company, which later took on the name CIDNA (Compagnie Internationale de Navigation Aérienne), began flying to İstanbul via Vienna, Budapest, and Belgrade.

Bristol Hotel (1909) by Anonimİstanbul Research Institute

The tree pillars of the organized travels commencing in the 19th century were the middle and upper class travelers, travel companies, and the accommodation and service sectors. Organized for a specific timetable, the İstanbul stop of these activities offered, in a the company of a guide, a tour the still-touristic parts of the city and the historic monuments. The area within the borders of the Historic Peninsula was –and still is– of particular importance in terms of both Byzantine and Ottoman cultures. At its heart were Sultanahmet Square and the Grand Bazaar. The area offered a glimpse into the traditional culture of İstanbul as well as the diversity of human profile.

Hamal, Porter (ca. 1880) by Abdullah Frèresİstanbul Research Institute

Windows to the West: Hotels of Istanbul

Hotel management was a new profession for İstanbul in mid-19th century. It would be wrong to evaluate the emergence and function of these modern venues solely from a commercial point of view. For the pro-modernization people of İstanbul, the hotels also served as windows to the West.

Postcard showing the Park Hotel in Ayaspaşaİstanbul Research Institute

Hotels such as the Pera Palace, Tokatlıyan, and Bristol not only offered luxury accommodation to European tourists, but they also functioned as schools in which locals of the city could learn the ways of modern culture.

Interior view from the Pera Palace Hotel. (Late 19th century) by Abdullah Frèresİstanbul Research Institute

Piano and dance lessons offered in the hotel advertisements appearing in newspapers of the period prepared the groundwork for Western decorum.

Interior view from the Pera Palace Hotel. (Late 19th century) by Abdullah Frèresİstanbul Research Institute

Credits: Story

Curators: Ekrem Işın, Catherine Pinguet
Coordinators: Zeynep Ögel, Erkan Bora, Gülru Tanman
Translation: Melis Şeyhun Çalışlar
Digital Adaptation: Irmak Wöber, Umut Koca

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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