The Sirkeci Train Station’s biggest claim to fame is the fact that it is the last stop in Europe, and, in its heyday, it was also the last stop of the famous Orient Express, the famous long-distance passenger train that first arrived in Istanbul in 1895. During its glory years, it carried kings, princes, and statesmen to Istanbul and was met by uniformed dragomans (guide-interpreters) from the European Embassies. One of its most famous passengers in later years was the legendary writer Agatha Christie.
The Orient Express departed from Paris with stops in France, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria, ending in Istanbul. It took 80 hours for the 3,094 kilometer trip. As train travel lost popularity, first the direct Orient Express stopped running on May 19, 1977 and then the shortened route Orient Express stopped running in 2009 after being in service since 1883. (The “original” Orient Express should not be confused with the Venice Simplon Orient Express, a luxury train which utilizes restored coaches used during the 1930s. Today, it mainly travels between Calais and Venice, but makes one trip to Istanbul annually.)
So, when, why, and how was the Sirkeci Train Station built? After the Crimean War, the Ottomans concluded that a railway connecting Europe with Istanbul was necessary. After a few failed attempts, the concession for the “Rumeli Railroad” was awarded to Bavarian-born banker Baron Maurice de Hirsch from Belgium. The route was to extend from Istanbul via Edirne, Plovdiv, and Sarajevo to the shore of the Sava River, by the Danube River in Belgrade. The first 15 kilometers, from Istanbul to Halkalı, was completed in 1871. Yeşilköy was thought to be too far away from Eminönü (the main business district of the period) for a starting point, so an extension of the line to Sirkeci was requested. It was suggested that the line take a route through Beyazıt and run underground down to the Golden Horn. However, Sultan Abdülaziz did not agree, and instead gave permission for the railway to pass through the grounds of the Topkapı Palace. As a result, some of the beautiful forest and exquisite palace gardens, together with parts of the ancient walls, were destroyed to make way for the railway line. The extension was completed in 1872 and the “temporary” train station in Sirkeci was built in 1873.
German architect and engineer August Jachmund was commissioned by Sultan Abdülhamit II to begin construction of the new train station on February 11, 1888, and the opulent station opened on November 3, 1890. After graduating from Berlin University, Mr. Jachmund had come to Istanbul to research Ottoman architecture, and gave lectures on architectural design at the School of Polytechnics (now called Istanbul Technical University) in Istanbul. Having gained the trust of Sultan Adülhamit II, he was appointed the Sultan’s advisory architect.
Jachmund felt that the most important statement that the architecture of the building should convey was that this site was where the West ended and the East began – or where the West meets the East. As a result, the design had to incorporate an oriental style. His plans included bands of bricks for the facade, windows with peaked arcs, stained glass and a wide entrance door, reminiscent of the stone portals from the Seljuk period. The foundation of the building was granite and the facade was built with marble and stones from Marseille. For heating, large tile stoves, purchased from Austria, were installed in the waiting rooms and the lighting of the terminal was provided with 300 gas lanterns. The terminal was further decorated with several great clock towers. The oriental style created by Jachmund was much admired and influenced the designs of other architects for railway stations throughout Central Europe.
The Sirkeci Train Station has been serving passengers arriving and departing from Istanbul for over a century. Managed by the Turkish State Railways (TCDD), electricity was installed in 1955. While waiting for their trains to arrive, passengers can indulge their nostalgia for the past at the Orient Express Restaurant, which opened in 1890. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was a meeting place for journalists, writers, translators, and some of the elite. Totally renovated in 1984 and serving Turkish cuisine at moderate prices, today the restaurant is a popular spot for tourists. To take a trip down memory lane, make sure to also visit the Sirkeci Garı Demiryolu Müzesi (the Sirkeci Train Station Railway Museum), full with memorabilia from days past.
Unfortunately, today, you will have to use your imagination to picture the Sirkeci Train Station during its earlier glorious years. The train station is in dire need for restorations and due to the congestion and noise in the area, you can no longer hear the whistles of trains that once kindled a spirit of adventure and images of faraway places.