BLOG 37 19/07/2016 In the Footsteps of “The Embroiderer”. Istanbul: City of dreams.
In the Footsteps of “The Embroiderer”. Istanbul: City of dreams.
As recent events have shown us, Turkey is not immune to the problems arising out of conflicts internally or with it’s neighbours. These sorts of events are not new to Turkey – far from it. Ever since the Greek War of independence began in 1821, the Ottoman Empire, and later, the Turkish Republic, has undergone huge changes, many of which have swept through the country with the ferocity of the Turcoman hoards on their unstoppable migration across the vast Eurasian Steppes.
A great part of my novel, The Embroiderer is set in Istanbul and I thought I would revisit my protagonists to see what was happening in the world they inhabited. Until the very last part in the book, I chose to refer to Istanbul as Constantinople as the story is written from a Greek perspective and they have always referred to it as that rather than Istanbul.
In his book, Istanbul: Memories and the City, the writer, Orhan Pamuk, mentions the word – hüzün – a type of melancholia or nostalgia for the past. He states that for Turks, hüzün allows them to embrace their past with a sigh of resignation. “For the poet, hüzün is the smoky window between him and his world. The screen he projects over life because life itself is painful: an ache that finally saves our souls and gives them depth”. I also believe that Greeks share this same sense of huzun, especially the Greeks of Asia Minor. It is perhaps to this feeling that I looked the most when creating The Embroiderer although at the time I wasn’t aware it had a name.
When Artemis dies by her own hand during the Massacre of Chios in 1822, the Ottoman Empire was ruled by Sultan Mahmud II. He not only had to contend with the Greek uprising but with internal divisions among his own kind – namely the infamous Ali Pasha, aided by his sons, who wanted to break away from the Empire and install himself in charge of the area around Ioannina in Northern Greece. Mahmud would spend the rest of his life ferociously trying to reform an empire teetering on the brink of destruction. Under the pretense of protecting the Eastern Orthodox Christians from Ottoman tyranny, and to protect their bases along the Black Sea and access through the Straits to the Mediterranean, the Russians circled like vultures and the other Great powers were equally determined not to surrender territory to the Russians. This cat and mouse game would go on well until after the Great War and its legacy still resonates today. As if this wasn’t enough, Mahmud also had to contend with corruption among the Jannissaries – the elite infantry units that formed the Sultan’s household troops and bodyguards. Created in 1383 by Sultan Murad I, they had become an impediment to reform. In 1826, the Janissary barracks were set on fire resulting in the deaths of over 4,000 Jannissaries. Many more were killed throughout the city and captured prisoners were put to death by decapitation in the fort at Thessaloniki which came to be known as The Tower of Blood.
Then came the Tanzimat, a period of reform that began in 1839 and ended with the Constitution Era in 1876. One of the main reasons for the Tanzimat was to secure its territorial integrity against nationalist movements. The reforms were also meant to grant more freedom to the non-Muslim subjects of the Empire allowing them to integrate into Ottoman society. In the middle of this period the Ottoman Empire and it’s allies, Britain and France, fought in the Crimean War 1854-56, known at the time as The Great War with Russia and which many know through the Siege of Sevastopol, the Charge of the Light Brigade and Florence Nightingale at Scutari (now called Uskudar) with her lamp. The Tanzimat reforms peaked in 1876 with a new constitution aimed at checking the power of the Sultan but the new Sultan – Abdulhamid II (who had originally signed it), quickly overturned it and regained absolute rule. This era coincides with one of the main protagonist’s rise to fame – the matriarch of the family, Dimitra. Through her embroidery she becomes a wealthy woman, feted by the Sultan’s mother and the wives of eminent Pashas. Yet nothing could stop the tide of nationalism. In 1878, the year Dimitra’s daughter, Photeini, marries, the schoolteacher, Sotirios, from Salonika, Serbia declares independence. In 1885, the year Photeini gives birth to her own daughter, Sophia, the empire is heading for a catastrophe.
A large part of The Embroiderer is set during the final years of the empire. Dimitra’s granddaughter Sophia has established herself as a couturier in Istanbul. The empire is now run by The Young Turks and their initial party – the CUP (Committee of Union and Progress) begins a series of military and social modernization. Sophia and her new husband, the artist, Andreas, watch all this with interest and at the same time, she becomes embroiled in her family’s involvement with a Greek secret society intent on regaining Istanbul and the Aegean area under the banner of The Great Idea. At this point, Sophia’s life is blessed. The fame of her couture house La Maison du L’Orient has reached Paris where she is asked to design an outfit for the launch of Paul Poiret’s The Thousand and Second Night. She has a happy marriage with two children, a wonderful home in the European suburb of the city with views that take in the whole of the Bosphorus, and the world is her oyster. It all falls apart with the outbreak of The Balkan Wars 1912/13. All the Greeks are now under suspicion.
The empire does not recover from the loss of lands during the Balkan Wars and worse still, it has been dealt a huge psychological blow. Without time to recover, The Young Turks, now referred to as The Three Pashas – Enver Pasha, Naval Minister, Djemal Pasha, and Talaat Pasha plunge the empire into the Great War on the side of the Central Powers. Sophia’s world crumbles. It is further eroded when the Greek army occupies Smyrna in 1919. During this period, Istanbul becomes a haven of intrigue and spies many of who gather at the prestigious Pera Palace Hotel, directly opposite La Maison du L’Orient and the hotel of choice for many who choose to travel to Istanbul on the Orient Express. Together with her lover, the Grand Duke Nikolai Orlovsky, a white Russian in exile, Sophia inhabits the shadowy world of Mata Hari and Mustafa Kemal who at this point is in secret negotiations with disenchanted high-ranking members of the Turkish army. Throughout the Greek occupation, Istanbul is occupied by the Allies and the long-standing friendship between Greeks and Turks is at an all-time low.
Sophia leaves Istanbul in 1922 with the intention of rebuilding La Maison du L’Orient in Smyrna, but after a humiliating Greek defeat by the Turkish army and the burning of almost all of Smyrna, she finally leaves for Greece and begins a new life as a refugee. The Turkish Republic is proclaimed and she will never set foot on Turkish soil again. Like Greece, Turkey will undergo many upheavals on the road to democracy.
The district in which Sophia set up her couture house was known as Pera in which was situated the Pera Palace Hotel. Most visiters to Istanbul today know it as Beyoglu. It links up with Galata, famous for the Genoese watchtower. In its time the Grande Rue de Pera, now known as Istiklal Caddesi, (Independence Avenue), was the most fashionable place to shop. Revered for its prestigious shops filled with luxury goods, it was here that society’s wealthiest, most influential and most stylish shopped. All the signs were displayed in a multitude of languages, especially, French and Greek. In a world were coffee shops belonged to the domain of men, a new clientele arose along this street, catering for women – elegant tea and coffee salons known as Zaharoplasteia – refined cake shops. Sophia was a regular customer to one in particular- Zaharoplasteion Olympia where she would sit and discuss the fate of the Greeks in the empire with her close friend Markos.
Pera has changed enormously. Vestiges of that world still remain. Embassies moved to Ankara but many of the original buildings still remain, some as consulates. In the area of Phanar, now Fener, a place once populated by mainly wealthy Greek merchants and bureaucrats and still home to the Patriarch of Constantinople, it’s still possible to find whole streets of beautiful wooden mansions, old churches and synagogues. And in the old area of Sultanhamet, where Dimitra and Photeini rescued Ali Agha from a fearful slave master, and who grew to be a loyal member of Sophia’s household, serving her faithfully as her bodyguard until his untimely death, the streets are now filled with cafes and frequented by tourists in search of artefacts from the old world.
When our modern-day protagonist, Eleni goes back to Istanbul in 1972, in search of her family’s past, she does manage to find some of it, especially in the covered bazaar which after all these years, still sells authentic antiques in kiosks handed down to families through the generations, some of which still display the tugra – the Sultan’s seal of approval – over the doorway.
Today, the Pera Palace Hotel still attracts visitors in search of luxury and glamourous past and the Venice Simplon Orient Express still terminates at the nearby Sirkeci Station. The palaces where Dimitra, Photeini and Sophia visited – the Topkapi and the Dolmabahçe (the Cirahan has been turned into a luxury hotel) are still there, as are many of the waterside yali’s but the chatter of women in the harem have long gone –ghosts conjured up in the hüzün of our memory. Turkey will still continue to evolve but the splendour that is Istanbul, the city that straddles two continents, will always remain.
“The Embroiderer” is a beautifully written novel spanning the 19th and 20th centuries, set against the backdrop of the Greek War of Independence in Turkey and Greece. It was published on 5th November 2014 and is available to buy in paperback and as an ebook.