Our story begins at a train station in Aleppo, Syria. Hercule Poirot is about to board the Taurus Express for the first leg in his journey to London.
The train station in Aleppo c. 1934
The Taurus Express Route in the Middle East
Aleppo, or "Halab" in Arabic, is one of the world's oldest continually inhabited cities. At one time, it was Syria's largest city and the hub of industry and finance.
Today, we know it because of the deadly fighting that took place since 2012 when rebel fighters launched their attack to oust the current government and take control over northern Syria. By 2016 and with the help of Russian troops, the government regained control over the region.
One can find references to Aleppo as far back as the 20th Century BC in Egyptian texts. By the 18th Century BC, it was the capital of Yamkhad. It became an important trading post between the Mediterranean and the Middle East and was a significant part of the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires.
In 636 AD, it fell to Arab Muslims by 636 AD under Umayyad Caliph Sulaiman and its Great Mosque was built. By the 10th Century, it had become the capital of the northern Syrian Hamdanid dynasty. Almost 200 years of war with the Byzantines, Fatamids, and Seljuks brought great despair to the city. By the 13th Century, it regained prosperity under Ayyubid rule, only to be attacked by the Monguls, the plague and Timur. By the 16th Century, it became part of the Ottoman Empire and was restored to glory as the trading hub between East and West. By the 18th Century, France and Great Britain outlined modern Syria, which cu the city from southern Turkey and northern Iraq.
Today, Aleppo's population is mostly Sunni Muslims, Arabs, Kurds, and Turkomans and boasts the largest population of Christians in Syria mixed with Armenians, Shia and Alawite communities.
From Aleppo, our hero journeys across Syria to the Bosphorus Strait (which doesn't sit too well with him ) to Stamboul (Istanbul, Turkey) where he connects with the Simplon Orient Express.
The Bosphorus divides Istanbul and because it connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara, it is considered the boundary between Europe and Asia. It is 19 miles (30 km) long, with a maximum width of 2.3 miles (3.7 km) at the northern entrance and a minimum width of 2,450 feet (750 metres). Its depth varies from 120 to 408 feet (36.5 to 124 metres) in midstream. Bosporus literally means “ox ford” and is traditionally connected with the legendary figure of Io, who in the form of a heifer crossed the Thracian Bosporus in her wanderings.
Its shores offer an impressive view of architectural styles ranging from imperial palaces to mosques to towers to residential homes that trace Turkey's magnificent and multi-cultural history.
Landmarks to watch during a cruise include the Dolmabahce Palace, built in the 19th Century and served as the primary residence of six sultans.
Another landmark is the Rumeli Fortress or Rumelihisari. Built around 1451 by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II.
The Maiden's Tower was built, according to legend, by an emperor who wanted to protect his daughter from an oracle's prophecy.
Once across the strait, our hero arrives in Stamboul and dines at the Tokatlian Hotel before resuming his journey.
A city by any other name would be just as intriguing (my apologies to William Shakespeare). Stamboul has changed hands, governments, and names as often as one changes socks!
Names in historical sequence:
Stamboul or Stambul is a variant form of Istanbul, Greek for "the town." Stamboul was used in Western languages as an equivalent of Istanbul, until the time it was replaced by the official new Turkish form in the 1930s. Constantinople referred to the metropolis as a whole, but Stamboul referred to the central parts located on the historic triangular peninsula between Europe and Asia. Today, it is a section about 9 square miles (23 square km).
Portions of the walls of Stamboul remain and isolate the peninsula from the mainland. The walls are 4.5 miles (7km) long and consist of a double line of ramparts protected by a moat. The higher inner wall is about 30 feet (9metres) high and 16 feet (5 meters) thick.
Stamboul, Constantinople, Turkey postcard
This photochrome print of Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) is part of “Views of People and Sites in Turkey” from the catalog of the Detroit Publishing Company (1905). The print shows the inner district of Stambul, as seen from across the Golden Horn. The 1911 edition of Baedeker’s The Mediterranean, seaports and sea routes: Handbook for Travellers described Stambul as “the chief seat of the Oriental merchants and the petty traders” in Constantinople, where “the old Oriental characteristics of the city still survive,” despite the ravages of “destructive fires (as in 1865 and 1908) and earthquakes (the last in 1894).” Along the banks of the Golden Horn, considered “one of the finest natural harbours in the world,” were not only quays and docks for commercial and naval ships, but fish-markets and other busy harbor scenes. Stambul is the oldest part of the city, located on the historic peninsula on the European side of the Bosporus that was enclosed by the double Theodosian walls built in the early fifth century.
Crossing the Galata Bridge, Poirot heads to the Tokatlian Hotel
Tokatlian Hotel in Stamboul
Christie would first stay at the Tokatlian in 1928 as it was THE place to be and it only made sense that Poirot dine there while waiting for the Orient Express.
Tokatlian hotel postcard
One of the hot spots in the novel is the Tokatlian Hotel. Built in 1897, it was destroyed by fire in 1954. It is held to be one of the most admired hotels of its time, and Agatha Christie also penned Hercule Poirot checking in to the Tokatlian Hotel in "Murder on the Orient Express". Mainly Postcards 222.delcampe.net
But it was another hotel, the Pera Palas that was supposed to be the place Christie retreated to during her 1926 disappearance. Allegedly, a medium envisioned Christie at the Pera hiding a key to a secret diary under the floorboards of room 411. As such, the Pera has dedicated the room to the author, featuring her typewriter and all of her novels.
Pera Palas Hotel, Agatha Christie' s Room
"Examining the photographs and news cuttings on the walls and a typewriter of similar vintage to one Agatha would have used, Mathew said: 'It's very nice to be in a place that has real associations with her - she really did stay here.' One of the novels on the shelves was, of course, Murder On The Orient Express."
Her grandson, Mathew Prichard
The Simplon Orient Express route is identified by the green line
Back on the Orient Express, Poirot arrives in Belgrade. When he steps off the train for some fresh air, the wind and snow send him back inside.
Winter in Belgrade
Belgrade, Yugoslavia c. 1933
Like Istanbul, Belgrade's history is vast and varied, with many cultures and kingdoms sharing the landscape.
Settlements around Belgrade can be traced to prehistoric times (4500-3200 BC). The city is located on the Danube and Sava rivers where some of the most important prehistoric remnants of Neolithic man were discovered including sod houses, implements weapons, earthenware, jewelry, etc. It was originally named Singidunum (Singi means "round" and dunum means "fortress" or "town." It's river location also made it a huge strategic target.
The Romans conquered Singidunum in the 1st Century AD and was under their rule for 400 years. The Belgrade Fortress was built above the junction of the rivers under the rule of Roman Legion Flavia Felix. Over time, the fortress was expanded, destroyed, and rebuilt by various rulers and conquerors. In the 2nd Century, the city grew in military importance under the emperor Hadrian and by the 3rd Century was center of the Christian diocese. It was also the birthplace of the future emperor Flavius Jovianus.
As the Roman Empire was winding down, Singidunum became the border of the Byzantine Empire after it fell to the Huns in 441 AD. After a few more invasions by various barbarian tribes, Byzantine emperor Justinian I rebuilt the city and fortress. By the 6th Century, it was conquered by the Mongols, then the Slavs who changed the name of the city to Beograd, Slavic for "white fortress" due to the color of the stone used to rebuild the fortress. More tribes, more conquerors…Hungarians, Byzantines, Bulgarians…
The Serbian rule began around 1284 when Dragutin was given the land by his father-in-law, Hungarian King Ladislav IV and introduced the Servian Orthodox Church. The Turks conquered it by 1521 and for 150 years, they enjoyed some level of peace. The Serbs regained control in the 19th Century. You get the idea…Enter World War I. Belgrade became the capital of the newly-created Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes.
By 1936, Belgrade became a tourist resort with 23 hotels, 33 restaurants, 433 guest houses, 427 taverns, 197 bistros, 318 inns, and the tourism board was created. Enter World War II. Belgrade became the capital of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. It was relatively peaceful for decades when Yugoslavia fell in 1991. Belgrade has been the capital of the Republic of Serbia since 2006.
Shortly after all of our guests settle in on the Orient Express from Belgrade, the train is stopped literally in its tracks by intense snow. What else could possibly go wrong?