The curators designed the first part of the exhibit like a movie set decorated with vintage accessories conveying the unequalled sumptuousness aboard.
Greeted by “ticket inspectors” in uniform, visitors can snake through the corridors and admire the opulent Art Deco interiors of a restored sleeping car, a salon car with deluxe Lalique inlays, and a bar/restaurant car. As we dart in and out of the luxurious cabins admiring the smooth velvet seats, the lustrous marquetry littered with cognac glasses, splayed cards, Gitanes cigarettes, leather gloves and beaded handbags it is not difficult to imagine the passionate love stories or the plotting of spies that took place in these opulent surroundings. Aboard the Orient Express ticket inspectors could be generously tipped for their discretion as they overlooked Basil Zaharoff, the infamous arms dealer, cynically negotiating trea- ties and armistices while in a neighbouring compartment whispered pacts between lovers were sealed with a kiss.
Facsimile objects, including Pierre Loti’s fez hat, Graham Greene’s noisy typewriter, Josephine Baker’s pearl necklace, Hercule Poirot’s spectacles or the stack of fake passports belonging to characters straight out of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express can be seen throughout the display as stirring reminders of cultural icons forever associated with the legendary train.
Film clips and voiceovers creatively provide pretext to eavesdrop conversations between James Bond and a sensuous Soviet spy in a sultry screen adaptation of Ian Fleming’s From Russia with Love or witness a crime scene attributed to the treacherous Mata Hari whose very name is redolent of adventure and intrigue.
As our impeccably dressed ticket inspectors politely assist us in disembarking our wagons lits we are guided into the luminously designed edifice with its 240 photo- sensitive shutters controlling the amount of sunlight entering the building. Once inside we are greeted by an impressive collection of posters, artifacts, model trains, photographic documents, and memorablia on the various train journeys and civilisations encountered.
Although crossing borders of the austere Austro- Hungarian Empire into Turkey seemed tricky enough, Georges Nagelmackers pan-European dream didn’t stop at Istanbul but went on connecting other far-flung destinations, including Cairo and Baghdad.
Pioneering globalism in a monumental lifestyle shift, enabled by the industrial revolution, Nagelmackers expanded rail networks and confronted westerners with the cultural and geopolitical realities of these faraway destinations. It quelled illusions about foreign cultures so often sensually sublimed in Harem scenes by Orientalist painters like Louis Courtat or Félix Ziem. Inversely it enabled wealthy Middle Easterners to travel the other way and discover Europe. In spite of travel insecurities, racial prejudices and social class distinctions its cozy compartments encouraged contact by provisionally blurring borders.
Through stained-glass windows the visitor can further explore “the art of travel”, which carried passengers from Paris to Istanbul in exactly 67 hours and 46 minutes (approximately three days and two nights) at a steady pace of 45km an hour, with its luxury trunks, dishware and restaurant menus, vintage guidebooks, travel ads, maps and itineraries. Glancing through the colourful posters, illustrating Syria’s medieval Aleppo citadel or Iraq’s Sassanian Ctesiphon arch, offers an eery contrast with the brutal reality both countries torn by civil war face today.
Elegant ladies sashaying along steam-shrouded plat- forms, trailing porters wheeling trolleys piled with hat- boxes, have long since succumbed to the cattle-truck conditions of the modern travel experience aboard high-speed trains and low-cost airliners flying from one crowded airport to another.
Financially ruined by the time of his death in 1905, Georges Nagelmackers vision announced a golden age of train travel which came about in the 1930s and continued until 1962, interrupted only by wartime. Istanbul’s Sirkeci Terminal by the Golden Horn remained the eastern- terminus until May, 1977.
Ending on a happy note, SNCF, hopes to relaunch the Orient Express service once more within five years carrying 150 passengers initially running between Paris and Vienna. Getting the legendary trainline back on track but fitted out with modern furnishing and fixtures would brand the Orient Express as a byword for what it hopes will set a new standard for luxury travel.
If successful, the legend of the Orient Express would be far from over …
Il était une fois l’Orient Express (“Once Upon a Time on the Orient Express”) is on display at the Arab World Institute through 31 August
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