A young journalist travels back in time to 1919 Istanbul, accidentally disrupting the natural flow of history. She must act quickly to prevent the assassination of Ataturk – which would threaten the very existence of modern Turkey.

This is the plot of “Midnight At The Pera Palace,” a Netflix series based (very, very loosely) on the popular book by Charles King. I read King’s book several years ago, and found his nonfiction recounting of the Pera Palace Hotel’s long and storied history to be very entertaining. I have even spent a night at the famous hotel myself, but that’s another story.

Anyone who has read the book will notice immediately that we are on a very different journey in this eight-part series. At first, I was keenly disappointed, when the chimes struck midnight, an earthquake rumbles through the elegant room, and next thing we and the protagonist are staring around wildly disbelieving (“Is that Agatha Christie? Oh my God, it’s Ataturk!”). It was like watching a mishmash of “Back to the Future” and Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” I thought with dismay.

But after the first episode, I let myself just fall into the fantastical story. Misgivings aside, “Midnight at the Pera Palace” does have a lot to offer. Anyone who has been to the Pera Palace will appreciate revisiting its rich history, which is offered here in terms of how it serves the twisting, time-travel narrative.

The cast features many well-known Turkish actors. The journalist Esra is played by Hazal Kaya (a graduate of Bilgi University, where I teach as a matter of fact), and her “Doc Brown” assistant and Pera Palace manager friend Ahmet Bey is played by Tansu Biçet. Halut, the would-be assassin of Ataturk, is played by Selahattin Pasali.

Without giving away too many spoilers, Esra accidentally travels back to the Pera Palace in 1919, and due to a case of mistaken identity, is indirectly responsible for the murder of Peride at the hands of the conspirator Halut. Peride is a fictional historical character, daughter of the Pera Palace owner. In this recast history, it is Peride who is supposed to save Ataturk from an assassination attempt. Turkish history buffs of course know the famous true story of how Ataturk survived a real such attempt on his life, but was saved when a pocketwatch given to him as a present stopped the fatal bullet.

At any rate, with so much at stake, it is up to the enterprising Esra to assume the identity of the now-dead Peride. She must assume the manners and role of an early 20th Century daughter of powerful patriarch while at the same time get to the bottom of the plot to kill the future Father of Modern Turkey.

Like all time travel stories, “Midnight At the Pera Palace” enjoys playing with the trappings and mores of the past (“Knowing what we know now …”). For instance, somewhat predictably, Esra-as-Peride invokes the rage of her father through her millennial free spirited, assertive ways. And when she lapses into English when conversing with a British officer, her mystified sister asks aloud, “When did Peride learn to speak English?” which will probably make modern Turks chuckle, since for them, speaking English is as customary and commonplace as having a smart phone.

Another thought I had while watching the series was that it’s revealing and interesting to see the Pera Palace and its environs presented by Turks. King’s book, for those who haven’t read it (and I recommend it), is well-researched and carefully observed, with lots of dishy history on the hotel’s many stellar guests, and its role not only as the end point on the Orient Express, but as a character in some of the 20th Century’s most important events.

In the series, history again is more of a foil and backdrop, but directors Emre Şahin and Nisan Dağ and the cast allow we yabanci viewers a glimpse into how that pivotal time in Turkish history is viewed by Turks themselves. It is almost always more interesting to see history through the eyes of the locals, for they will have an eye for the little details, the mannerisms, ways and habits of speech, that may escape the notice of the outsider.

For example, there is the character of Sonya, a White Russian who was one of many forced to flee Russia following the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, and who is working as a maid at the hotel. She and Ahmet Bey sit and have a drink together at the hotel bar and their exchanges, while no doubt romanticized (would a recently arrived White Russian speak Turkish as fluently as Sonya does?), the scene is touchingly portrayed, and one can’t help but reflect on the current reality of thousands of newly arrived refugees from Ukraine, not to mention the millions of Syrians who’ve been here well over a decade.

Another revealing exchange occurs earlier in the series, when British officers patronizingly invite Mustafa Kemal to join them at their table. “Thank them on my behalf,” the Turkish general tells the waiter curtly. “But they are guests in our country. Tell them they are welcome to join me at my table.” Watching this scene, a yabancı such as myself reflects that Turkey, then as now, has always been home to many guests, welcome or not.

Watching Esra-as-Peride and Ahmet Bey scrambling, Marty McFly-like, around the city, eluding and following the conspirators, scrambling to restore history, to in effect, save Turkey, it also occurred to me that the directors wanted to show that Turkey is ever in search of its identity, and in a sense, ever-threatened from without and from within, by topsy-turvy events, chance or not.

Verdict: Give “Midnight at the Pera Palace” a shot, if you’re in between series at the moment. It’s time-travel angle may strike some as awkward and derivative, as it did me at first, but ultimately it’s a well-cast, beautifully shot and at times illuminating glimpse into one of the most interesting chapters of modern Turkish history. It reminds us that history is always being recast and rewritten, and has some fun along the way.


James Tressler, a former Lost Coast resident, is a writer and teacher living in Istanbul.