Jack Birns's 1950 journey on the Simplon Orient Express was interrupted by the Cold War: being an American, he was denied a Bulgarian visa. Via a detour he traveled to the Bulgarian-Greek-Turkish border triangle and continued his trip from there.
The area around the Maritsa river illustrates the complicated political history of the Balkans. After Bulgaria, the Simplon Orient Express entered both Greece and Turkey twice. Distrust between states caused many strict border controls. In the Turkish enclave around the railway station of Edirne, Birns witnessed that not only borders were shifted but also people.
by Arjan den Boer
In 1950 the Simplon Orient-Express could still traverse Bulgaria, although some passengers were refused. The following years the complete train had to be diverted via neighboring countries.
In 1953 Bulgaria allowed the Simplon Orient Express to enter again.
Art students were deployed to beautify the surroundings of the railway line to make a good impression on Western travelers. One of these students was Christo.
After being refused entry at the border between Yugoslavia and Bulgaria, Jack Birns and his companion went back to Belgrade. They took a plane to Greece and traveled by train to Svilengrad on the Bulgarian-Greek border. There the Cold War was also apparent. Greek soldiers searched the wagons for communist guerrillas.
In 1948 the Simplon Orient Express had been temporarily cancelled due to the Greek Civil War. Railway lines were targets of sabotage and attacks. In 1949 warfare reached a conclusion with the Communists on the losing side. A period of harsh repression followed.
In 1871 Adrianople (present-day Turkish Edirne) was connected to the Chemins de Fer Orienteaux. Because of the railway course the station was not located inside the city but across the Maritsa. When this river became the border with Greece in 1923, the area around the station remained Turkish. Consequently, after Bulgaria the train first entered Greek territory, then ran a short stretch through Turkey, entered Greece once more and finally reached Turkey proper.
In 1971 Turkey constructed a new railway to Edirne outside of Greece. The old station was taken out of service and the building was put into use by the University of Thrace in 1998. A steam locomotive still reminds of the railway.
The ancient city of Edirne, once the temporary capital of the Ottoman Empire, deserved a grand station. It was built in 1914 by the Turkish architect Mimar Kemaleddin, who combined traditional Ottoman architecture with contemporary styles and techniques.
At Edirne station Birns saw a large group of women wearing fur coats. They were ethnic Turks, who had lived in Bulgaria for centuries but where now forced to leave the country. In 1925 Bulgaria and Turkey had concluded an agreement on this, and Bulgaria was implementing this ruthlessly in 1950.
A total of 140,000 Turks were deported. They were only allowed to bring their clothing, which is why most women bought a fur coat to retain some of their assets. According to the LIFE report, “Bulgarian Communists usually find ways to steal peasants' money and land before letting them go.”
Nowadays refugees go in the opposite direction. Every year tens of thousands of Afghans, Syrians and Africans try to enter the European Union via Turkey. The Greek border is patrolled extremely heavily. Refugees regularly drown attempting to cross the Maritsa river.
Shortly after departing from the station of Edirne the train entered Greece again. To prevent further loss of time after the numerous border controls, locomotive exchanges were limited in 1950. After Edirne the Turkish locomotive was controlled by a Greek train driver until the next Turkish border.
The TCDD 45510 locomotive was built in 1924 in France and has been in service until the late 1970s.
The railway lines in northern Greece were constantly checked for landmines, a favored sabotage method of the communist guerrillas. On the left of the photograph we see an inspector checking the railway sleepers with a stick.
The Greek village of Pythion is mainly known for its border station, a compulsary stop for all trains running between Greece and Turkey. Until 1972 this also applied for trains from Bulgaria and beyond, such as the Simplon Orient Express and later on the less luxurious Direct Orient Express. Through-carriages running to Thessaloniki and Athens were already disconnected from the carriages for Istanbul in Yugoslavia, so they did not pass through Pythion.
The simple wooden station building dates back to the time of the Chemins de fer Orienteaux. At that time Pythion was still part of the Ottoman Empire and not yet a border station, otherwise it might have been given a more impressive building.
Photos show local third-class coaches coupled to the 'luxury' Simplon Orient Express at Pythion. Some of their passengers are drinking generously from bottles of white wine.
In the Greek-Turkish border region, Birns and Rowan met a sergeant of the Greek border police. The stripes on his uniform show that he had been in service for 15 years. On various photos we see him on duty along along the track, inside the train and in a telegraph office.
In front of a simple mud house, probably at Pythion, he posed with his wife, daughters and parents or in-laws. In turn, the border guard used Birns's camera to take a picture with the photographer and his companion.
The size of his photos suggests that Jack Birns used two cameras: a 35 mm and a medium format camera. The cameras were from the German manufacturers Rolleiflex and Contax.
The square medium format photos are sharp and usually perfectly exposed.
The rectangular 35 mm pictures are not always focussed and sometimes reveal the film grain, giving an impressionistic result.
Both cameras are visible on photos Jack Birns and correspondent Roy Rowan took of each other. This reveals that Rowan sometimes operated the cameras.
Twin-lens reflex (TLR) camera: the photographer was looking through the upper lens, the photo was taken with the lower lens.
Compact rangefinder camera, similar to the famous Leica. Because it could focus easily it was suitable for quick snapshots.
The bridge over the Maritsa river between Pythion and Uzunköprü is the only rail link between Greece and Turkey. The steel posts of the 180-meter long railway bridge are painted with red Turkish flags on one side and blue Greek flags on the other side. A fortified watchtower stands on the Greek river bank.
The single-track line was never electrified. In 2011 the train service between the two countries was terminated because of the economic crisis in Greece. In 1950 it was the start of the final leg of Jack Birns's photo tour.
Jack Birns photographs the Simplon Orient Express in 1950
Previous and next issues:
[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.
LIFE photo archive hosted by Google
Archives of American Art: Christo