The best books about Istanbul

3 authors have picked their favorite books about Istanbul and why they recommend each book.

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Book cover of Strolling Through Istanbul: The Classic Guide to the City

Strolling Through Istanbul: The Classic Guide to the City

By Hilary Sumner-Boyd, John Freely,

Why this book?

This very personal guide to the former Byzantine and Ottoman capital by two ex-pat college professors was the cicerone that fuelled my generation's love affair with the city. Through its pages, we learned how to explore Istanbul's topography of sea and hills, and how to get lost in its back streets while remaining alert for something remarkable we would otherwise have passed by. Entertaining as much in the bath as out on the street, Strolling is still the most companionable and informative of guides, even though the city it describes has grown exponentially since the book's first publication in 1972.

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Book cover of Bosphorus: The Ultimate Guide

Bosphorus: The Ultimate Guide

By Saffet Emre Tonguç, Pat Yale,

Why this book?

Tonguç is probably Turkey’s most famous travel guide and Yale is the former writer of the Turkey Lonely Planet guide. Together they’ve written a beautifully put-together guide to the Bosphorus, the watery strait that connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara and the Golden Horn. Each entry includes the history and images of neighbourhoods along the waterway, but it’s the quirky anecdotes, nostalgia, and personal photographs, combined with exhaustive coverage of every park, palace, mansion, fountain, mosque, church, synagogue, and other examples of architectural majesty found in them that makes this guide invaluable.

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The best books for exploring and understanding Istanbul

Book cover of Turkish Letters

Turkish Letters

By Ogier De Busbecq,

Why this book?

Living in a world where we can look at images of places we’re planning to travel without even going there means it’s easy to forget the importance of letters sent from foreign countries. Especially ones as well written as these. Ogier De Busbecq was an ambassador for the Hapsburg Empire in the court of Suleyman the Magnificent in the 16th century, but his observations, comments, and snippets of gossip read like he was in Istanbul last month. He had a keen eye for detail and nothing escaped his notice – palace machinations, dirty politics, and even prison conditions, gleaned…

From the list:

The best books for exploring and understanding Istanbul

Book cover of Turkish Awakening: A Personal Discovery of Modern Turkey

Turkish Awakening: A Personal Discovery of Modern Turkey

By Alev Scott,

Why this book?

Turkish Awakening is the result of Alev Scott’s desire to discover the land of her mother’s birth and explore contemporary Turkish life and politics. Scott combines personal insights with an objective gaze to focus on a confusing and often contradictory culture, to try to unravel the complex relationships between modernity and religion unfolding in Turkey today. She chats with taxi drivers, examines how sex work and transgender inhabitants coexist, sometimes uneasily, next door to conservative Muslims recently relocated from the country, and explores the impact of popular soap operas featuring the newly rich on the aspirations of ordinary Turks and…

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The best books to understand the heart & soul of Turkey and its people

Book cover of Three Daughters of Eve

Three Daughters of Eve

By Elif Shafak,

Why this book?

The individual conflicts described in this book stem from the reality of relationships that are supposed to be in a certain way, but somehow get twisted into something different, rather forbidden, or at least with blurred boundaries. I love the interweaving of spirituality, cultural diversity, and the parallel timelines, past and present. The characters are complex and represent different value systems. Swinging between their own personal struggles, trying to find suitable answers to the big questions of life, they get caught in a web of events that lead to surprising consequences. 

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Book cover of The Historian

The Historian

By Elizabeth Kostova,

Why this book?

The Historian is brilliantly brooding. Kostova builds a wonderfully gothic atmosphere of menace using a combination of history and legend to make her fiction utterly believable. The novel is fascinating, delving behind the iron curtain as it does. Her characters are strong and step right out of the page for the reader, so you are completely gripped by their story throughout.

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Book cover of My Name Is Red

My Name Is Red

By Orhan Pamuk, Erdag Goknar (translator),

Why this book?

A murder mystery narrated by the victim, just as much in the dark about who killed him as we are. That alone would be enough to draw me in, but this novel has so much more – above all, a subtle insistence that we get to grips with a completely new way of seeing. The victim and each of his potential murderers are artists, their actions constrained or compelled by the rules which governed representation in 1590s Istanbul – ingrained in them since childhood. They cannot represent shadows, because God needs no light to see us by, nor perspective because…

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Book cover of The Sheen on the Silk

The Sheen on the Silk

By Anne Perry,

Why this book?

Anne Perry is a superb mystery writer who ventured once into the Byzantine world with this novel and I am so glad she did. The story takes place in 1273, twelve years after the overthrow of the Latin rulers who had occupied Constantinople since the horrific attack by the leaders of the Fourth Crusade in 1204. The city still struggles to recover and a young woman, Anna Lascaris, who has learned medicine from her father, decides to disguise herself as a eunuch to more easily find out who framed her brother for murder, which resulted in his exile to a…

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Book cover of Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature

Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature

By Erich Auerbach, Willard R. Trask (translator),

Why this book?

Auerbach wrote this book while he lived in exile in Istanbul, having fled from the Nazis. This forced him to turn his attention very closely to the original texts, classical in their reputation from the ancient through the medieval, and the early modern period. He demonstrated brilliantly the true value of thorough philological work and the great yield of close reading, profiling all of pre-modern European literature in a unique fashion. This book lives on until today.

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Book cover of A Tudor Turk: The Chronicles of Will Ryde & Awa Maryam Al-Jameel

A Tudor Turk: The Chronicles of Will Ryde & Awa Maryam Al-Jameel

By Rehan Khan,

Why this book?

This riveting Young Adult novel sets the action on a stage in which “East” and “West” are not divided as typically imagined, but intertwined economically, politically, and culturally. Moses’ staff has been stolen from Topkapi Place and a team of Ottoman janissaries is sent on a mission through Italy and England to recover it. The team is made of free and formerly enslaved men and women hailing from rising empires and those lost. Their struggles offer a searing account of the Ottoman, West and North African, and European dependence on the trade of enslaved human beings. And while…

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