Last summer in Paris, we visited an exhibit at the Institute du Monde Arabe, featuring cars and artifacts of the Orient Express and its mystique. A significant part of the exhibit, given the venue, focused on the exotic spell it had for Europeans precisely because it traveled from the familiar, across the Balkans, and into the exotic East.
And for most of its time, from 1890 to 1977, the terminus was Istanbul's Sirkeci Terminal, above. Below, a sample of the advertising that emphasized the exotic.
The Ottoman Empire, in the 19th
century, was clearly a shadow of its
former power; it had lost Greece in 1821, other parts of the Balkans in subsequent years, and control of Egypt to the British, who were anxious to protect their Suez Canal investment. A series of wars involving Britain and France on the one hand and Russia on the other focused on Turkey's Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits, Russia's hope of access to warm-water ports. None of these left Turkey stronger, although it was on the winning side.
So, by the end of the century, anxious to show the Ottoman Empire as still a strong power, and a modern one, the Sultan ordered the construction of rail lines from Istanbul (then Constantinople) to connect with the rest of Europe. By 1883, that was accomplished, but the trains stopped in Varne, north of the city, and passengers switched to boats to arrive in Istanbul. Unsatisfied, the Sultan ordered a station in the city, and one worthy of his power.
The result was Sirkeci Terminal, just below Topkapi Palace (the Sultan allowed the trains to run (out-of-sight) just below his gardens. A German architect was hired, with instructions to make the station grand, but to reflect Ottoman styles and culture as well. He did, and it became a model not only in Turkey, but elsewhere in Europe. The station opened in 1890.
Today, the station stands largely empty, as air travel has replaced most of the international routes, although the station is still home to the Bosphorus Express and another daily train that connect to Greece and the Balkans, and from there to western destinations...but it is not the same.
The station, with its gorgeous fittings, is not derelict, and is currently under renovation. And behind and under the old station, there is a new one, built for one of Turkey's most exciting rail innovations, the Marmaray tunnel, opened last summer. Marmaray links rail lines on the European and Asian sides of Istanbul, for the first time connecting Istanbul's two subway and commuter rail systems. Because Sirkeci is located next to the Eminonu ferry terminal, it's an important transfer point for those traveling where the Marmaray trains don't yet go.
Below, a Marmaray train on the upper track (the others are underground, along with a switch engine moving cars. Below that, the entrance to the underground new station for Marmaray, and further below that, Haydarpasa station, on the Asian side. Passengers from the Orient Express who were continuing to Baghdad, Cairo, Beirut, Jerusalem and beyond crossed the street from Sirkeci to board the ferry to Haydarpasa, where the next train awaited them. Haydarpasa is being redeveloped now as part of Marmaray.
Passengers also had the option of a meal on arrival or while waiting for the train; the elegant cafe, yesterday's restaurant, is still open and attracts tourists. It looked nice, but since the staff on hand treated me as if my camera would disturb the place settings or perhaps reveal a hidden spy, the picture is limited.
Another feature of the station today is a small museum, free admission, showing artifacts and history of not only the Orient Express, but the Turkish railway system. It's worth a look, especially for railfans like me, but some exhibits are a bit puzzling. For instance, the display of typewriters. As it happens, I'm also a typewriter fan, but I can't imagine what motivated the display beyond merely having them available!
Some more views of the station's lovely detailing...
And, inevitably (it IS inevitable, isn't it?) the station cat.