Istanbul Intrigues » Chapter 2-Sailing to Istanbul
2 Sailing to Istanbul
He who has burnt his tongue on hot soup, blows on his cold yogurt.
The small, dirty old Romanian ship chugged southward from the Black Sea. The sun reflected in bright gashes from the blue Bosporus’s little waves and made Istanbul’s minarets and mosque domes glisten brightly. “On the hills of Asia to the left, on those of Europe to the right, the ancient stone buildings gave off the warm glow of permanence. It was peace, bright and quiet peace. It was strange, disturbing and shameful…. It made me nervous. It felt unnatural that from those shores came no vibrations of fear and grimness, no odor of death.” Thus wrote CBS radio correspondent Cecil Brown, in his diary of his arrival in Istanbul during World War II.
To the north, an hour’s sailing up the Bosporus waterway, was Russia. Only two hours’ drive to the west was the Bulgarian border. Istanbul remained a city still at peace, but it was on the inferno’s edge. During the war years, the grand art deco dining room of Istanbul’s best hotel, the Park, was a truce zone where Britons and Germans, Americans and Japanese, Hungarians and Greeks, businesspeople, soldiers, journalists, diplomats, and spies of every nation and description eyed each other from adjacent tables. The food was good, there were no wartime shortages, and drink flowed freely in the adjoining wood-paneled bar.
Across the broad Ayas Pasha Boulevard from the stucco Park Hotel stood the German consulate. From his study, Ambassador Franz von Papen had a fine view of the hotel and the Bosporus strait beyond. Fishing boats, brusque freighters, and boxy ferries moved north, south, and between the European and Asian shores. The ships performed an unending dance. In the distance, Asian Anatolia’s green hills rose behind the Shemshi Pasha and Mehmed Pasha mosques. On the eve of World War II, about 740,000 people lived in the city and nearby villages.
Istanbul was a worthy successor to its earlier incarnations as the great imperial capital of Constantinople and Byzantium. No city in the world had a more beautiful–or more strategically powerful–setting than those hills along the Bosporus. The waterway threaded like a strong, broad river south from the wine-dark Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara and thence to the Mediterranean. The word “bosporus” originally meant “the inside of the throat,” an unpoetic but accurate description of the waterway’s value. The city was fought over so often because it controlled the main land route between Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, as well as the door to and from southern Russia.
On each shore villages famous for their fine fish and mussels punctuated the Asian east coast, where ancient Greece’s great cities and many-towered Troy once flourished. Up the Bosporus sailed the Argonauts in search of the Golden Fleece. The powerful currents ran past the pure springs of the Sweet Waters of Asia, the ruins of abandoned palaces and fortresses, the village of Bebek, the plush yacht club and the foreign ambassadors’ summer retreats; the narrow roads, the antique wooden mansions of princelings and merchants, and the old sultans’ palaces and mighty cathedral mosques.
The city’s waterways resembled the letter “Y.” Forming the long northeast arm, the Bosporus flowed past Istanbul’s modern Beyoglu district, where most foreigners lived, and then by old Galata’s steep streets and cramped houses. There it met the shorter, upper-left arm: the narrow Golden Horn, a natural canal that stretched 4½ miles to the northwest. It provided, a French visitor wrote in 1635, “the goodliest, the deepest, and the most commodious [port] in Europe.” The Y’s stem was the Sea of Marmara, through which the passage continued southward toward the Mediterranean.
Thus, Istanbul had every conceivable natural advantage. It was located
on the trade and strategic crossroads of Europe, Asia, and the Middle East while it also linked the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. There were fresh springs, abundant fish, and a generally mild climate. Snow was rare and the summer heat was cut by cool breezes. No city, or emperor, could ask for more.
Constantine, the Roman emperor, founded the city in 413 A. D. as capital of his realm’s eastern provinces. After the empire split, Emperor Theodosus III expanded and rebuilt Constantinople as Byzantium, capital of the surviving, Greek-speaking Byzantine empire. For a thousand years thereafter, the strengthened walls withstood numerous assaults–by Goths in 478, Persians in 616 and 626, Arabs in 668 and 716 to 718, Russians four times between the ninth and eleventh centuries, and Turks in 1422. It was captured and plundered only in 1204 by rapacious Christian crusaders who had supposedly come to save it from Moslem conquest.
Byzantium’s power decayed due to internal divisions and the westward advance of the Ottoman Turks. Its complex, conspiracy-ridden politics gave the world a new word, “byzantine,” to describe such a situation. In 1453, the city was again besieged by the Turks, this time led by the dynamic Sultan Mehmed II. Farmlands that furnished the city’s food were captured or put to the torch. When the Byzantines stretched a chain across the Golden Horn to keep out the Ottoman fleet, the sultan ordered that seventy ships be built and then dragged, over the hills above the city one night in May. At dawn, seemingly by magic, this Turkish fleet appeared in the Golden Horn. Cut off and attacked from all directions, Byzantium fell as church bells tolled its death. Mehmed entered triumphantly and was afterward known in the West as “the Conqueror.”
The city itself, however, did not suffer by this defeat. As Istanbul, it became the capital of the Ottomans’ empire. Mehmed and his successors proved apt builders as well as generals. The Aya Sophia Cathedral, built in 538, was transformed into a place of Islamic worship. Gigantic new Moslem mosques–the famed Blue and Fatih, Süleymaniye, Kariya, and Koca Mustafa Pasha–were built on the adjoining hills.
The Galata district, given by a Byzantine emperor to Genoese mer- chants in the thirteenth century, continued to be a commercial center.
Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 by Christian persecution were welcomed and well-treated. The Great Bazaar prospered; palaces were built with harems and treasure houses. The empire’s tribute flowed into the capital; artists and artisans adorned it. Through Istanbul’s gates marched armies to conquer all the lands from Egypt in the south to the border of Persia in the east and onto the very doorstep of Vienna in the west.
The city flourished for over 450 years until the empire finally collapsed after World War I. Having sided with Germany, the Ottomans suffered a terrible defeat. Millions of Turks were dead from war, disease, and famine. Most of the large Armenian Christian minority had been slaughtered by the Moslems or had fled. The British and French took over the Arab lands, occupied Istanbul in 1919, and enthroned a puppet sultan there. The Turks had lost the half-millennium-old empire which had given them their identity and institutions. A Greek army occupied much of the remaining territory.
At this moment of national catastrophe, General Mustafha Kemal led a revolt from the interior, drove out the Greek army, and established Turkey as a republic in the early 1920s. He was not only the savior of a totally prostrate country but also a reformer determined to make it a modern nation. One of his innovations was to select Ankara over Istanbul as capital in order to develop hitherto neglected Anatolia, Turkey’s eastern hinterland. “Henceforth,” he declared in 1919, “Istanbul does not control Anatolia, but Anatolia Istanbul.” Yet although Istanbul’s 1500-year reign as a capital ended, its economic and cultural power survived.
The handsome leader radiated power and authority. A man of immense energy, he would drink and gamble all night and then arise after a short nap to conduct the nation’s affairs. In 1921, a U.S. Navy officer described him as strikingly youthful, with “high cheek bones, somewhat hollow cheeks, small reddish and very trim mustache, steel blue eyes.” His face was “not intellectual but subtle and mercuric…. You got a sense of concentration…with immense possibilities of inexorability, cruelty even, yet [with empathy] and a broad outlook.”
An absolute faith in his own mission rallied a dispirited, disoriented people. With the help of his friend Ïsmet Ïnönü, he began rebuilding the country and forging its new self-image. Previously, “Turk” had been a word of opprobrium applied to backward provincials. The elite saw
itself as Ottoman; the majority thought of themselves as Moslem. Now a new slogan was proclaimed: “It is great to be a Turk!”
“We now belong to the West,” the leader said, and must adopt new customs. The Turkish language was simplified and written with Roman rather than Arabic letters, the Moslem clergy’s power was broken, the legal code was revised, and the wearing of the veil by women was banned. The fez, the brimless headdress which the new leader called “a sign of ignorance, of fanaticism, of hatred against progress and civilization,” was replaced with European-style hats. He also decreed for the first time that everyone must choose a last name. Lists of suggested ones were posted everywhere. Parliament voted him the name” Atatürk,” that is, “Father of the Turks.” A parliamentary regime was established, but there was only one party and Atatürk was the state’s unquestioned master.
Yet even with all these changes, Istanbul remained a symbol of exoticism and romance for Westerners. The romantic route for those wishing to visit Istanbul was via the world’s most famous train, the Orient Express. Running from Paris to Istanbul twice a week, the Express took fifty-six hours to complete the 2000-mile trip across seven countries. Its passengers included emperors and crooks, diplomats and maharajas, spies and diplomatic couriers. King Boris of Bulgaria and Romania’s King Carol, alongside his famous mistress Magda Lupescu, sometimes took the controls when the train passed through their countries. The millionaire arms’ merchant, Basil Zaharoff, and Calouste Gulbenkian, son of the world’s wealthiest man, were frequent passengers who met their wives on the train.
Agatha Christie, Graham Greene, Eric Ambler, and John Dos Passos were among the writers it inspired. Dos Passos once described the trip east in his distinctive newsreel-poetry style: “Day by day the hills get scrawnier and dryer and the train goes more and more slowly and the stationmasters have longer and longer moustaches and seedier and seedier uniforms until at last we are winding between a bright-green sea and yellow sunburned capes. Suddenly the train is trapped between mustard-colored crumbling walls, the line runs among rubbish heaps and cy- presses. The train is hardly moving at all, it stops imperceptibly as if on a siding. Is it? No, yes, it must be…Constantinople.”
The first view of the city from the train’s windows was the Fort of the Seven Towers. The Sea of Marmara and then the great mosques
appeared. As the train rounded Seraglio Point, it steamed past the sultan’s old harem and the fifteenth-century Topkapi Palace. There was magic in the clean lines or the wooden houses, mosques, and palaces. The hills gave way to startling vistas of blue waters, old Ottoman cemeteries with stone turbans atop the pillar tombstones, and the crowded bazaar full of enough gold, jewelry, and carpets to furnish the whole world.
One of the city’s true admirers was a rotund little Italian peasant named Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, whose modest house was only a few blocks away from the Park Hotel and von Papen’s consulate. Roncalli rode regularly on the Orient Express. “In the train,” he wrote, “you can relax, read, pray, observe the beauties of nature and the variety of people.” He was the Vatican’s legate and apostolic vicar to Istanbul’s few Catholics. Fifty-eight years old in 1939, Roncalli came from an Italian village where his family had lived for four and a half centuries. His desk was adorned only with photos of relatives and a Phillips radio for listening to shortwave broadcasts. Forbidden by Turkey’s secularist regime to wear clerical garb, he donned a sober coat, unfashionable suit, and bowler hat. But spartan habits did not bar his enjoyment of a garden ablaze with roses and magnolias.
Roncalli’s simple, sincere piety was inherited from his humble background as a peasant child, scholarship student, and then a hospital orderly and chaplain in World War I. He emerged from this experience a modernist and supporter of the incipient Christian Democratic movement in Italy.
Many years later, as Pope John XXIII, he would put his beliefs into practice, but now Roncalli was in disfavor. After making a speech in 1925 critical of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, with whom the church was on excellent terms, Roncalli was exiled first to Bulgaria for ten years and then to Istanbul. His years in Greek Orthodox and Moslem lands would make him ecumenical; from exile in the provinces he gained the perspective of a parish priest rather than that of a Vatican prince.
Yet the prospects for Roncalli’s career during his time in Istanbul could not have been poorer. It was not merely humility that prompted him to write on first coming to Istanbul, “I have achieved very little…. I feel humbled and ashamed before the Lord…but I look to…the future with imperturbable and confident serenity.” With a self-deprecating
sense of humor, Roncalli called himself the “Vatican’s postman in the Middle East.”
“I am fond of the Turks,” he noted in his journal, and he added, “It is my special intention, as an exercise in mortification, to learn the Turkish language.” He drew inspiration from watching the hundreds of fishing boats strung with lights on the Bosporus each night. The cheerfulness of the fishermen, who labored even in the pouring rain, made him remark, “Oh how ashamed we should feel, we priests, ‘fishers of men,’ before such an example! …We must do as the fishermen of the Bosporus do, work night and day with our torches lit, each in his own little boat.”
But Roncalli also learned from the tragedy of an era so full of war and dictatorship. A state’s greatness, he concluded, could not be measured by “military enterprises, diplomatic agreements or economic successes,” but only by “justice embodied in law.” Amid ruins of the vanished Greeks, Romans, and Ottomans who once governed from Istanbul, Roncalli concluded that Catholicism could survive only by adapting to changing times rather than by imitating the unbending but mortal empires of the past.
While Roncalli sought spiritual lessons from Istanbul, more worldly visitors saw the city as romance incarnate. A Hungarian writer recorded an enchanting twilight in the old quarter: “A mélange of tightly built, dilapidated Turkish houses with closed balconies, primitive caravan-series, modern buildings, churches and ruins of all ages, densely and capriciously grown together along large squares and narrow, meandering, badly paved streets, that silhouette of many thousand years of glory and squalor [under] the immaculate minarets and the compact domes of Aya Sophia and the Blue Mosque.”
An American navy officer rhapsodized: “I have seen Istanbul from many points of vantage: from Haydarpasha, in the morning haze, when it is a city out of an Eastern fairy tale; from the minaret of the Blue Mosque at midday, when it is hard and clear like a Canaletto; and from the Seraglio point at sunset, when the towers and minarets cast strange shadows. It remains for me the most beautiful city in the world; blessed in its God-given setting…majestic in its man-made mosques and palaces; fascinating in its variety; mysterious in its contrasts of quiet gardens and milling crowds.”
The more skeptical New York Times correspondent C. L. Sulzberger thought of Istanbul as “sixteen centuries of empire piled on empire in ramshackled hodgepodge, rimmed by rushing waters and jerry-built filth, pierced by the thrust of minarets.” President Atatürk had introduced some new features: gardens, Taksim Square, and straight modern avenues to accommodate trolleys and motor cars. Most important of the latter was Istiklal Caddesi (Independence Boulevard). The Aya Sophia was now transformed from mosque to museum as a secularist symbol. The sultan’s palaces–the Mideast-style Topkapi and European-style Dolmabahce-became museums as symbols of republicanism. Istanbul University, opened in 1453 as a school of religious studies, was refurbished to promote modern learning and science.
The orderly, disciplined character of the people made it easier for Atatürk to rule. Turks, a British intelligence report accurately noted, “have inherited a natural dignity, restraint, and courtesy, but keenly resent injustice or insult. There is great personal courage, frugality, hardihood, and loyalty to a trusted leader.” They were proud, stubborn, respectful of hierarchy, and secretive. Impervious to threats, Turks were quick to take offense but steadfast in friendship.
These same military virtues, however, also constrained progress. As in the sultan’s court, personal success depended on winning favor from the powerful. Subordinates feared taking the smallest initiative. An American visitor saw this system in action when the director of a large hospital took him on a tour. Seeing many flies entering the wards through open windows, the guest expressed surprise that no one closed them. His host explained this was not how things worked. Unless the director ordered something, even the closing of a window, no nurse or orderly would dream of being so disrespectful as to do it.
Officials would delegate no power but were loathe to accept responsibility. Asked why Turkey’s cabinet ministers stayed a month or two in Europe for medical treatment every summer, an American diplomat explained, “Lectured by the prime minister and plagued with questions by their own subordinates it is no wonder that they show signs of wear and tear.”
Foreigners were hospitably but suspiciously received. The Turks were secretive, highly sensitive to dissent, and quick to suspect subversion. The smallest details of army operations and government deliberations
were jealously concealed. The ubiquitous secret police (Emniyet) watched everyone and everything with a quiet effectiveness that made other intelligence agencies seem amateurish. It kept detailed files on foreign residents and tourists in Istanbul, gathering information from numerous hotel, restaurant, embassy, and transport workers, as well as others, on its payroll.
Istanbul’s people themselves mixed the ethnic groups and cultures of East and West. The Turks passionately embraced European clothes, manners, and secularism. Communities of Greeks, Jews, and Armenians also maintained their own customs, languages, and dress. The champion relay-race team of Protestant-run Robert College, reflecting this mélange, included a Turk, a Greek, an Armenian, and a Bulgarian.
In this cosmopolitan atmosphere, foreign institutions were permitted, as long as they did not interfere with Turkish politics. In addition to Robert College, run by American Protestant missionaries, there were German, French, and Italian schools. Italian Fascist and German Nazi party cells operated freely among their nationals; foreign governments subsidized Istanbul newspapers in their own languages. Several long-settled “Levantine” British families played an important role in Istanbul’s commerce and later with British diplomacy and intelligence. The American community in Istanbul included the often wild, heavy-drinking adventure seekers working for Socony-Vacuum Oil or Liggett & Myers Tobacco and the earnest midwestern teetotalers from the missionary institutions. Both groups later provided cadre for U. S. intelligence operations.
During the summer months, ambassadors escaped from Ankara’s heat to Istanbul’s breezes. Each of them had his own yacht. The American vessel, the Hiawatha, hosted such visiting dignitaries as Douglas MacArthur and Eleanor Roosevelt. During the war, these boats would take ambassadors on Bosporus “fishing trips” that concealed secret meetings.
The diplomats and their families passed the summer days of the late 1930s in rounds of parties, receptions, tennis games, and picnics, as well as swimming, fishing, or hunting expeditions. There was always time to go to the yacht club, headquarters of local high society. Rejans, the White Russian restaurant favored by Atatürk, featured waitresses who reputedly were former czarist duchesses. And Istanbul was where
Hungarian-born Zsa-Zsa Gabor, then married to a Turkish diplomat, learned to be glamorous.
Diplomatic work was rarely urgent. As late as 1941, much of the U.S. embassy’s correspondence with Washington concerned efforts to sell a piano belonging to an embassy couple who had been transferred home. The ambassador also lashed out at the frustrations of life in Ankara: “I suppose that I am getting the jitters having had to live a better part of my three years in the intellectually and spiritually sterile climate of this cardboard capital in the wilds…having had to send away first my children and more recently my wife, and to make out with the companionship of a couple of lovable but ungovernable native dogs–having pleaded in vain with the Department for more than a year to equip us with the personnel to meet a situation of predictably increasing difficulty, having received from the Department scarcely a word of guidance or of help.” He concluded that the only time State was interested in his post was when it suspected “some scullduggery about furniture.” The secretary of state’s “main preoccupation” seemed to be Mrs. Gillespie’s piano, he complained, concluding, “To hell with Mrs. Gillespie’s piano!”
The Turkish government’s main objective in the late 1930s was to ensure that the country remained this quiet. It wanted to prevent war or avoid being dragged into one. World War I was remembered as an unmitigated disaster in which, in Atatürk’s words, “millions of men were sacrificed for no purpose.” Moreover, while Turks made fine soldiers, their military equipment was obsolete. Istanbul’s wooden houses were kindling for a conflagration if bombed from the air. The country had no stockpiles of supplies. Consequently, Turkey tried to stay on good terms with all the powers, including Germany, its World War I ally, which had trained much of its army. The Nazis sought to tie Turkey to Germany by economic means, buying 62 percent of its exports in 1937.
Fear and hatred of Moscow was Turkey’s underlying incentive for cultivating London and Berlin. Turkish mothers made their children behave by threatening that the Russians would get them if they were bad. But Russia’s historic ambitions, rather than its Communist ideology, were the source of this attitude. Turks remembered the czars’ steady advance southward. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth
centuries, a dozen Russo-Turkish wars had cost the Turks much of their territory and hundreds of thousands of Turkish refugees who fled Russian-occupied lands. Moscow had wanted to conquer Istanbul and control the Bosporus strait which held the key to Russia’s southern flank. The Turks knew that the Russian Revolution had not changed those goals.
During the late 1930s, Turkey’s leaders knew that their country was in danger as a powerful Germany and U.S.S.R. sought to extend their influence. The Balkans, as southeast Europe was often called, were again–as they had been in 1914–a tinderbox. On September 29, 1938, the British and French surrendered western Czechoslovakia to Hitler at Munich. This concession, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain proclaimed, preserved “peace in our time.” In contrast, small countries like Turkey saw the betrayal of Czechoslovakia by the bigger powers as an intimation of their own impending mortality.
Winston Churchill advocated a British alliance with all the “smaller states that are menaced, who are going to be devoured one by one by the Nazi tyranny.” But he was out of power and out of step with Britain’s policy of appeasing Hitler. Even if London had behaved differently, the southeast European states were individually too weak and divided among themselves to resist. Only Atatürk’s continued presence at the helm calmed his nation amid these dangers. When rumors began circulating in Istanbul that Atatürk was ill, the government censored any publication of them. A newspaper that dared mention his absence from an October 1938 event was closed for three months.
Censoring reports of Atatürk’s illness, however, could not preserve his health. At 10 a.m. on the morning of November 10, 1938, the 58- year-old Atatürk died in his room at the Dolmabahce Palace. The entire nation was traumatized. Work ceased and everything closed. In Istanbul, crowds of frightened, weeping people poured into the streets and milled around for hours. Some reverently listened to a recital of Atatürk’s life; others grabbed newspapers as they appeared on the stands. “We have lost our leader at a very inopportune time,” a Turkish diplomat dryly wrote in his diary .
A new leader was needed quickly. The next morning, 200 miles to tthe east, in Ankara, parliament elected Ïsmet Ïnönü as the new president. He was the logical choice.
During World War I, Ïnönü had fought the Russians and served in the War Ministry. But he refused to stay a single day in Istanbul when foreign troops occupied it in 1919, so he defected to Atatürk’s nationalist forces. Ïnönü rose steadily in that army and directed its great victory over the Greeks at Ïnönü, from which he later took his name.
During the republic’s first fifteen years, Ïnönü was Atatürk’s prime minister. A few months before Atatürk’s death, the two proud men quarreled over a minor issue. Ïnönü resigned. But Atatürk spoke well of him even during their estrangement. When Ïnönü became president, a leading politician noted in his diary, “Only from this point on will his true political character become clear because up until now you could not understand what he did on his own initiative or on Atatürk’s.” Compared with the handsome, energetic Atatürk, Ïnönü was quiet, plain, and straitlaced. Where Atatürk was stormy, Ïnönü was patient. Atatürk’s qualities were essential to establishing a regime; Ïnönü’s were appropriate for consolidating one.
Atatürk’s casket was placed in the throne room of Istanbul’s Dolmabahce Palace as hundreds of thousands of people walked from all the city’s quarters to view it. On November 17, crowds at the palace entrance became so disorderly that mounted police charged them. In the ensuing panic, a dozen people were trampled to death. Many Turks asked whether this was a sign of coming disintegration.
Two days later, the funeral ceremonies began. They were designed to close the old era and calm the nation. Six black horses pulled a gun carriage bearing Atatürk’s coffin through Istanbul to the Bosporus. There it was loaded onto a Turkish cruiser for the trip across to the Asian shore. Around the ship ranged most of the Turkish navy and warships from Britain, Germany, France, the U.S.S.R., Romania, and Greece. On the Asian side, the coffin was put onto a special train that puffed slowly eastward, stopping briefly at stations lit by flares and filled with flowers and mourners.
The next morning, the coffin was met in Ankara by a delegation led by Ïnönü. The procession marched to the parliament building, where torches with smoky flames made the sky black with grief. Soldiers cried while Ïnönü proclaimed Atatürk “a heroic human being that our own nation raised.” There was no religious ceremony, only the nationalist pageantry Atatürk had favored.
On the morning of the twenty-first, a company of soldiers, flanked by ten admirals and generals, pulled the wagon bearing Atatürk’s remains through Ankara’s streets to the Ethnographic Museum, where the body would lie until a tomb was completed. The crowd silently watched the colorful parade led by the dignified, obsolete cavalry, followed by ambassadors and small military units from nations that would soon be at war. Next came Ïnönü, his cabinet, military commanders, and the diplomatic corps.
Although they had buried him, the Turks would not let Atatürk die. During all his years as president, Ïnönü would always hear “the name ‘Atatürk’ on every tongue, ” said one contemporary politician, ”as if he was still walking in Atatürk’s shadow. And this shadow was getting gradually wider, longer and darker.” As the international crisis rose around them, Turks would comment, “Ah, Atatürk, what are we going to do without you?” The government had extended the mourning and ceremonies for as long as possible. Yet with Atatürk dead, Ïnönü bore the burden of saving the country in its time of danger. And what perilous days these would be!