Article by Benjamin Welton.
Straddling the ancient Bosphorus, Istanbul (alias Constantinople and alias Byzantium) has always been more of an idea and an ideal than a city. Istanbul is where the Orient and the Occident meet. It has been home to Greek traders, Roman emperors, Byzantine bureaucrats, and Turkish sultans. Istanbul, in the words of Daily Telegraph writer Sarah Knapton, is where “Christianity meets Islam and Turkish pop merges with the call to prayer.”
As such, Istanbul’s history is littered with long ago battles and struggles between competing powers. As both the gateway to Europe and Asia, this city has been a contested site ever since the Roman emperor Constantine the Great rechristened the ancient Greek port of Byzantium as Constantinople, and when the Ottoman Turks captured the city from the last Byzantine monarch Constantine XI Palaiologos in 1453, the rest of the Christian world looked on in horror as Muslim forces put their crescent flag on what had recently been European soil. The fall of Constantinople and the birth of Istanbul not only signaled the rise of the Ottoman Empire (which would go on to become the world’s greatest Muslim power), but it also put Europe on high alert. Not since the Battle of Tours in 732 had Muslim forces seemed so poised to upset the balance of power in Europe, and it would take two Ottoman failures at Vienna to finally stop this takeover from coming to full fruition.
During the founding days of European espionage, Istanbul was the struggle point – the genius loci – of the so-called Great Game between the British and the Russians, both of whom were vying for dominance in Central Asia. From the British perspective, Istanbul, as the all-important city of the Ottoman Empire, was a place that needed to be protected from foreign encroachments. A large part of British foreign policy during the Victorian era was the task of propping up the “sick man of Europe” as a bulwark against the Tsarist forces, who for their part were dedicated to the idea of becoming the sole leader of all Slavic peoples in Eastern Europe. As part of this, the Russians wanted a weak and ultimately fragmented Ottoman Empire that was unable to resist Russian influence in the Balkans.
Throughout the nineteenth century and into the Cold War, Istanbul was a den of spies and secret agents. This fact, along with the city’s intoxicating perfume of exotic spices and its many bazaars and cluttered cafes, made it the perfect setting for spy stories. One of the earliest is Graham Greene’s Stamboul Train, which was released in the U.S. as Orient Express (it was released two years before Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express). In Greene’s novel, the train serves as a metaphor for the interlocking lives of the profiled passengers, most of whom find themselves caught up in the dizzying whirlwind that was pre-World War II Europe.
An even better representation of this world is Eric Ambler’s The Mask of Dimitrios (released in the U.S. as A Coffin for Dimitrios). Ambler’s novel opens in Istanbul with the Turkish policeman Colonel Haki outlining the semi-mythic exploits of the criminal Dimitrios to the English crime writer Charles Latimer, and thus setting the novel’s plot in motion. A year later, Ambler would again revisit Istanbul with 1940’s Journey into Fear – a novel that once again pits an amateur spy against more concentrated and professional forces.
So by the time that Ian Fleming came to write From Russia, With Love, Istanbul, which serves as the novel’s setting along with the Orient Express, had already been well established as the premiere city for international espionage. As a nod to this fact, Fleming puts The Mask of Dimitrios in Bond’s hands in From Russia, With Love.
Incidentally, Eric Ambler (right) advised his friend Fleming on Istanbul – sometimes over lunch at Scott’s in London. He also provided Fleming with accounting advice and was the reason that Peter Janson-Smith became Fleming’s literary agent.
Ian Fleming, From Russia With Love:
From the first, Istanbul had given him the impression of a town where, with the night, horror creeps out of the stones. It seemed to him a town the centuries had so drenched in blood and violence that, when daylight went out, the ghosts of its dead were its only population.
Fleming didn’t just write about Istanbul though; he lived it and loved the place. In fact, Barbara Broccoli, the daughter of the legendary Bond film producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli and the producer of every James Bond picture since 1995’s GoldenEye, has called Istanbul “Fleming’s favourite city,” while her father’s autobiography (When the Snow Melts) claims that Fleming was his true self in Turkey – a bon vivant enamored with the food, the sounds, the sights, and the beautiful belly dancers.
It is no wonder then that when The Guardian’s Richard Williams argues for the potency of Fleming’s prose, he invokes a passage about Istanbul:
Fleming was capable of phrases that could lodge themselves in the memory for life, such as his description of the platform of Istanbul’s Sirkeci station, as Bond prepares to board the Orient Express, ‘throbbing with the tragic poetry of departure’.
Whilst in Turkey, Fleming wrote a letter home from the set of the film in the guise of a humorous news report claiming the film “will be even better than Dr. No“. His six-page pocket notebook letter, written in the third person, gives a unique historical insight into the reasons why Fleming visited the production in Turkey.
When I asked him if anything else of importance was happening in Turkey…Fleming gave this typical Thrilling Cities sitrep: “The wild flowers are late but fabulous. There is a desperate shortage of caviar. The 1962 rose petal jam is of an excellent vintage’…Meanwhile the typescript of the next James Bond is on the way to Jonathan Cape – setting, Japan. Title: You Only Live Twice…”
Fleming’s official business was to unravel a snarl in the script, but his secret purpose was to make sure that the rats & bats in his book got into the film (his man-eating crabs got lost in Dr. No) & he returns satisfied about the rats (550 at 10 shillings each in the authentic grey) but the bats in the Istanbul cisterns are proving difficult to marshal & photograph in the underground murk.
As the old adage goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Whatever its name, Istanbul has always been a city on the edge, a city teetering under the weight of its own intrigue. So long as powers, both big and small, look to influence global events, Istanbul will play a role. In fact, ever since the outbreak of the civil war in Syria, Istanbul has served as a collection point for the various Middle Eastern powers that are all trying to influence events on the ground.While Istanbul’s heyday as the world’s biggest spy magnet may be long gone, the city still maintains an aura that is partially the product of history and partially the product of fiction.
After the success of 1963’s filmed adaptation of From Russia, With Love, Istanbul became somewhat of an institution in the Bond film series. 1999’s The World Is Not Enough was filmed there, and so too was the 2012 Bond film – Skyfall.
Outside of Bond, spy fiction writers have still not had enough of Istanbul, and recently both Joseph Kanon’s Istanbul Passage (2012) and Charles Cumming’s A Colder War (2014) make use of the famous Turkish city.
Read more by Benjamin Welton