March 15, 2013

Pearl of Istanbul: Agatha Christie's whodunnit


david ellis

AT her grand opening in 1892 she was hailed as the Pearl of Istanbul, a visionary hotel whose luxuries and services were of the likes never before seen in Istanbul – nor in much of Europe for that matter.

But after a hundred years of attracting the rich, the famous, the adventurous and the infamous, this Pearl's lustre was waning; in 2008, aged and frail, she withdrew from public life to undergo a face-lift that would take two-and-a-half years and cost a staggering AU$32-million.

And when last month she removed the last of her dressings, the Pera Palace Hotel could once again lay claim to truly being The Pearl of Istanbul.

Originally built to provide accommodations for the affluent who rode the famed Orient Express train from Paris to Vienna and ultimately Istanbul, the Pera Palace Hotel attracted myriad admirers.

Agatha Christie slid into town on the famous train in the early 1930s and booked herself into the hotel's room 411 to write Murder on the Orient Express. And then from Room 411 she disappeared in circumstances more bizarre than anything she'd ever created in her intriguing whodunnits.

Ernest Hemingway also found the Pera Palace a wondrous ambience in which to write, as did Graham Greene, while Greta Garbo regularly retreated there in search of solitude.

More infamous was an exotic dancer named Margaretha Zelle who performed at the hotel. To her audience she was known as Mata Hari – and she was eventually executed for spying for Germany against France in World War I.

Later in the Cold War, an English public servant named Kim Philby was posted to Istanbul as First Secretary of the British Embassy, a cover for his real role as a spy for British intelligence agency MI6.  But Philby was a traitorous double-agent, also working for Russia's KGB, and used his time in Istanbul to frequent the Pera Palace to loosen-up staff from the next-door American, as well as his own Embassy, at the bar.

And he spent hours sipping on drinks while on an old 2-piece telephone at the end of the bar, a phone that many believed he had been able to manipulate to tap into lines into and out of the two embassies.

Philby was later stripped of the OBE he'd been awarded for his British Intelligence work, after helping two other British double-agents, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean escape to Russia, and himself defected to Moscow as well.

But as intriguing as all this is, it has always been overshadowed in the history of the Pera Palace by Agatha Christie's bizarre disappearance after writing Murder on the Orient Express, and finally being found hiding in a small hotel in England's country Harrogate after an 11-day search.

She claimed not knowing how she got there, blaming the shock discovery of her husband's infidelity for memory loss. But more weirdly, after her death in 1976 a manager of the Pera Palas found a note in a hotel safe in Christie's handwriting: "The key to my disappearance will be found in my diary," it said. The manager called in a clairvoyant – who remarkably found a key between a skirtingboard and floorboards of Christie's room 411.

What it would open is still a mystery, and as her diary has never been found,  the reason she hid the key there remains as intriguing today as ever…

The just-completed refurbishment of the grand old Pera Palace saw 30 guest rooms removed to allow more light into the central foyer and lobby of the hotel, a new art deco restaurant named Agatha opened in Christie's honour, and the hotel's room 101 in which founder of the modern Turkish state, Kemal Ataturk regularly stayed, refurbished as a museum to his memory.

Original gold-tinted chandeliers have been re-touched with gold leaf, thousands of metres of hand-laid marble and mahogany re-polished and re-stained, and while an additional two modern lifts have been installed, the original 1890s steel and timber "cage lift" has been retained and is still a popular novelty with guests.

Guest rooms have been refurbished with 21st century luxuries whilst retaining their late-Victorian theme, including chairs individually hand-embroidered with English rose motifs.

The Pera Palace Hotel as been officially listed as a "national hotel-museum" and is well worth a visit when in Istanbul.    



[] ISTANBUL's Pera Palace Hotel as colourful as the stuff of novels.

[] AGATHA Christie's Room 411 at the hotel in which she wrote Murder on the Orient Express – then vanished for 11-days – with her photo on the wall.

[] THE ornate interior of the just-refurbished Pearl of Istanbul.

[] ELABORATE gates to the original cage lift that's as popular as ever with guests at the Pera Palace.

[] FINDING out whodunnit – the author on the Pera Palace's old two-piece telephone said to have been used by British double-agent Kim Philby to eaves-drop on the unsuspecting.

Originally 25 OCTOBER 2010

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