After traversing seven countries, LIFE photographer Jack Birns started on the last leg of his journey. Istanbul was the terminus of the Simplon Orient Express, which had started from London — or rather Calais.
After not very America-minded Yugoslavia and visa problems in Bulgaria, Birns and his companion will have entered Turkey with some relief. During the 250-kilometer trip Birns photographed everyday life in and around the railway stations of Eastern Thrace.
The train entered the ancient city of Constantinople over the same track as the first Orient Express in 1888. Even though Turkey was modernized since Ataturk, arrival at the Sirkeci station had barely changed since Ottoman times.
by Arjan den Boer
At Uzunköprü the train entered Turkey permanently, following the earlier border crossing at Edirne and a short drive through Greece.
The wooden station building of Uzunköprü dates back to 1873, when the Chemins de fer Orientaux were laid. After 140 years the simple building is still in use and recently was restored.
The tender of the locomotive, a Turkish one from Edirne onwards, was refilled with coal. There was no crane or hoist — porters were carrying baskets of coal on their backs over a ramp.
Under a tree near Uzunköprü station, black-veiled Muslim women are having a picnic with the sleeping car of the Simplon Orient Express visible in the background.
At Uzunköprü the Simplon Orient Express reached its largest form. Five Turkish third-class coaches and six freight cars were added. A great difference to the pre-war situation, when the entire train consisted of first-class carriages. In 1950 only one sleeping car and one day coach completed the entire route from Paris to Istanbul.
At Uzunköprü the Simplon Orient Express was provided with a Lokantali Vagon or dining car.
Wagons-Lits restaurant cars were not allowed in Yugoslavia and Bulgaria, but there was one again on the Turkish leg. According to the LIFE article, the service ran at a loss, but the tradition was kept alive. Indeed, only one lone diner can be seen on the photo.
The teak dining car dated from around 1910. By 1925 Wagons-Lits switched over to steel carriages. However, the old wooden cars remained in use for a long time, especially in Turkey and Eastern Europe. Shortly after World War II, rolling stock shortage also caused reuse of old cars. They no longer had their luxury Belle Époque furnishing.
Pehlivanköy is one of the few small towns on the Chemins de fer Orientaux route that has a brick station building, even if it is not large. Birns's photographs show how passengers were collected from the station by horse-drawn carriages.
Around the station of Çerkezköy there was a lot of activity. Passing soldiers and railway officials had no problem with someone sitting on the rails.
From Çerkezköy it is still about a hundred kilometers to Istanbul.
The train pulled into the old city of Constantinople at Yedikule. The railway line cuts through the ancient walls of Theodosius and runs right past the Fortress of Seven Towers. Jack Birns's photos show the train passing one of the towers.
This exact spot now marks the entrance of the Marmaray tunnel, completed in 2013, which runs under the old city and the Bosphorus. The railway track used by the Orient Express is now put out of operation.
Marmaray is an underground railway line under the Bosphorus connecting Europe with Asia. For this prestigious project the ancient city is also tunneled and new stations are being built. The tunnel is over 13 kilometers long, of which 1387 meters run under the Bosphorus. After much delay during construction, partly caused by archaeological finds, the tunnel was inaugurated in late 2013.
The last kilometers before the terminus the line runs directly behind the sea walls, which were built to protect Constantinople against attacks from the sea, but proved to be no obstacle for the knights of the Fourth Crusade.
Behind the wall lie the grounds of the Topkapi Palace. During the 1872 railway construction the sultan gave up part of the palace gardens to improve the access to the city.
Just past the Seraglio Point, the promontory separating the Sea of Marmara from the Golden Horn, Sirkeci railway yard begins. A sign on the signal box announces the final destination: Istanbul.
The 3,000 kilometer journey to Istanbul had taken 80 hours. The average speed of less than 40 kilometers per hour was due to border delays and stock shortages. Just before the Second World War the journey time was only 56 hours.
Jack Birns actually divided the journey in several stages, and it probably took him about two weeks.
On photos taken upon the arrival at Istanbul Sirkeci station we can see soldiers, porters, conductors and passengers. However, the station seems a little quiet compared to other stations and considering the size of the city.
The windows of the Simplon Orient Express carriages reflected the horseshoe arches and rose windows of the striking station building.
The 1890 station was designed in lavish Oriental style by the German architect August Jachmund, who had studied Ottoman architecture. He attempted to bring East and West together — just like the Orient Express.
For almost hundred years, Sirkeci was the terminus of the Orient Express. In 1977 the last direct train left for Paris. Until 2012 trains where running to the Balkans, including the Bosphorus Express to Bucharest with through-coaches for Belgrade. The last local train left Istanbul Sirkeci in 2013.
Because of the new railway tunnel under the Bosphorus the former Orient Express track now lies deserted.
The station building is preserved as a monument. Tourists can visit a small railway museum or see dancing dervishes in the station hall. The Orient Express restaurant's terrace offers a view of the former departure platform.
After reaching the terminal station Birns's job was almost done. He only needed to take some atmospheric pictures of Istanbul. For this he selected among others the Nusretiye mosque with the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn as a backdrop. Behind the mosque lie the quays of Tophane, where goods were unloaded. Nowadays Istanbul Modern is located here and cruise ships moor along the quay. The mosque is currently under restoration.
Birns and Rowan probably returned to LIFE's Rome office by plane in early May 1950. Their report was published in LIFE Magazine on September 11, 1950. From a total of 1750 photos 30 were selected. Rowan's report was not fully included but summarized by an editor.
The article concludes with a high-contrast image of the Marmara Sea with a plume of smoke of the Simplon Orient Express.
Birns's photographs provide a unique documentation of the latter days of the legendary Simplon Orient Express, which was discontinued in 1962.
End of line is reached as the Simplon-Orient Express, trailing a long plume of smoke, steams into the city of Istanbul, where the sun silhouettes the dome of the Haghia Sophia mosque and Turkish fishing smacks on Sea of Marmara.
LIFE, 11 September 1951
In 1954 Jack Birns quit his job as a photo journalist and went into business. After his retirement he became interested in his old photos again. In 1991 Birns had a photo exhibition entitled Intrigue on the Orient Express at the Carnegie Art Museum in Oxnard, California. In 2003 his book Assignment: Shanghai was published, but his photos of the Simplon Orient Express have never appeared in book form.
Jack Birns died in 2008. In the same year Google digitized LIFE's photo archive. For the first time all of Birns's photos were published, but without details such as place names. By studying and comparing these photos, retours was able to reconstruct his journey in seven episodes.
[Rowan, Roy (correspondent) and Birns, Jack (photographer)] LIFE rides the Simplon-Orient Express. Europe's most famous train has lost its luxery but kept its air of intrigue. LIFE september 11, 1950 p. 137.
Sölch, Werner Orient-Express. Glanzzeit und Niedergang eines Luxuszuges Düsseldorf 1974.
Google Cultural Institute: LIFE Photo Collection
Los Angeles Times: Orient Express Rides Again