One of the great pleasures of travel is anticipatory reading. I did a great deal of it prior to our Istanbul trip, and I thought it might be useful to share the books I enjoyed with others. The following books are, with one exception, widely available in the U.S. Some are guidebooks in the conventional sense, others are historical books or historical fiction, and still others are useful resources for learning about Turkish food, language, or culture.
The best overall guidebook we used was Eyewitness Guide to Istanbul. While the information in the guide was not always completely up-to-date (for example, it says that a visa for a U.S. citizen is $20, when in fact the cost is now $40), we found it generally reliable and extremely easy to use. The plentiful pictures and maps are great visual references, and the guide itself packs a tremendous amount of useful information into a slim volume. While touring Topkapi, Aya Sofya, and other major sights, we noticed that about a quarter of the tourists had their own copies of Eyewitness: Istanbul open to the relevant pages.
Another guidebook we used, but which we did not carry with us, was the hefty Strolling Through Istanbul by Hilary Sumner-Boyd and John Freely. Written in the 70’s and updated in the 80’s, this book gives no information on hotels, restaurants, or other practicalities. Instead, it is just what its title suggests: a guide to strolling (and I do mean strolling) though Istanbul, soaking up the rich historical and architectural history. Full of fascinating anecdotes and rich in detail, this is a scholarly book, yet not stuffily so. The authors’ deep affection for and extensive knowledge of the city is apparent on every page. Note that while this book is almost prohibitively expensive here in the States, that you can buy it for $12 from the bookstore that sells English books about Turkey on Divanyolu Street, which is the main thoroughfare through the historic Sultanahmet distric.
After Hilary Sumner-Boyd’s death, his junior colleague John Freely went on to write several popular histories of the city, one of which, Istanbul: The Imperial City, traces the city from its origins to the present day. The book, in my opinion, suffers slightly from adhering to a chronological sequence of rulers, but within that sequential narrative it is sufficiently entertaining and, more to the point, provides an excellent overview of the city’s history. The last section of the book, "Notes on Monuments and Museums," is a comprehensive list of the city’s historic sites. By the way, here’s a bit of trivia for you: this is the book that Hugh Grant recommends to Julia Roberts in the film "Notting Hill."
Another John Freely book, Inside the Seraglio focuses on the private world of the sultans, to the exclusion of practically everything else, really. Again, the book is a chronological account of the various rulers throughout the centuries. Details of life in the harem, the intricacies of palace etiquette, the bloodthirsty intrigues, and the supporting roles of court officials, eunuchs, consorts, and slaves flesh out the portraits of the Ottoman sultans' decadent private lives.
Sir Steven Runciman’s The Fall of Constantinople has been reprinted numerous times since its initial publication, testimony to its enduring qualities. Runciman, an authority on Byzantium and the Crusades, constructs a very sympathetic portrait of the beleaguered Byzantine rulers, whose shrinking empire ultimately consisted of little other than the imperial city of Constantinople itself. The death throes of the empire and ultimate Ottoman triumph are vividly recounted by Runciman, who was a master stylist as well as historian.
As a companion to the Runciman account, Lord Kinross’ The Ottoman Centuries: The Rise and Fall of the Turkish Empire takes up the story where Runciman leaves off, explaining the wondrous rise and slow decline of the Ottoman empire. He has a gift for weaving the various social, political, and economic issues effortlessly into the narrative, making the "whys and wherefores" of the various events and rulers more comprehensible. An enormous book, but an engrossing one. In fact, my one disappointment with my pre-trip reading was that I was not able to lay hands on a copy of Kinross' universally acclaimed biography of Atatürk.
Speaking of Atatürk, his monumental figure looms large in one of my favorite books on Turkey, Jeremy Seal’s A Fez of the Heart: Travels around Turkey in Search of a Hat. Seal traveled throughout Turkey on a personal odyssey to search for the origins and meaning of the fez, a form of headgear outlawed by Atatürk in 1925. The conceit of the book – that the author is searching for fezzes – is an appealing one, as is Seal himself, sympathetic and yet bemused by modern Turkey’s apparent contradictions. An interesting amalgam of travel book and cultural history.
Ostensibly a children’s book, but with adult appeal as well, A 16th Century Mosque by Fiona MacDonald is a lavishly illustrated and simply written account of the construction of the Blue Mosque, with basic explanations of the Islamic faith and its spread, the Ottoman Empire, and Suleyman the Magnificent and his court. It makes an excellent reference before a visit to Istanbul’s mosques, the Blue Mosque in particular.
Orhan Pamuk’s most recent book, My Name Is Red, was a literary sensation in Turkey and, with its translation and publication elsewhere in 2001, is causing a stir in the English-speaking world as well. It has been likened to The Name of the Rose and other cerebral historical mysteries, and the comparison is not misplaced, though personally I found Pamuk’s strong aesthetic and philosophic bent reminded me more of Lady Murasaki’s 11th century classic, The Tale of Genji. Pehaps it was Pamuk’s attentiveness to emotions and the symbolic use of setting and detail that brought that comparison to mind. The mystery involves the death of an artist and centers on the various pupils of a certain master illuminator. Written from the perspective of all of the suspects, as well as numerous other characters, the 59 short chapters form the shards of a brilliant discourse on philosophy, religion, politics, the relationship of Christianity vs. Islam/West vs. East, and the meaning of art. A highly original novel, dense with complex characters and intricacies of plot.
Another Pamuk novel, The White Castle also reflects Pamuk’s fascination with the East/West dichotomy. Ottoman society is viewed through the eyes of the Italian protagonist, who, in the 17th century, is taken prisoner by the Turks and made a slave to a young scholar in Istanbul. That the Turkish scholar and the Italian are almost identical physically is the key to this enigmatic novel. This was one of Pamuk’s earlier novels, and it’s interesting to note how his fascination with identity works itself out into full flowering in My Name Is Red and perhaps other novels (these are the only two I’ve read at this point).
A friend who had been to Istanbul and knew I was planning to go gave me a most delightful Christmas present, a copy of Philippa Scott’s Turkish Delights. Beautifully photographed and arranged, the book explores Turkish influences on the West, with numerous plates showing how Turkish dress, art, and architecture influenced their Western counterparts. I hadn’t much appreciation for the artistic inspiration that Turkey provided to other cultures until I read this book. A feast for the eyes and the mind alike.
Speaking of feasts, a good guide to Turkish food is Eat Smart in Turkey: How to Decipher the Menu, Know the Market Foods & Embark on a Tasting Adventure. The title says it all, really, though I might add that there are a number of recipes included, plus tips on finding and using Turkish ingredients, and most useful glossary of Turkish food.
Finally, while I can’t claim to have made much headway into learning Turkish before arriving in Istanbul, what little I did learn was from Turkish: A Complete Course for Beginners by David Pollard and Asuman Celen Pollard. Had I been more diligent, I’ve no doubt I would have been able to master the rudiments of Turkish with the help of this basic text. As it was, skimming through the chapters at least gave me some appreciation for the subtleties of the Turkish language and a passing familiarity with its more salient characteristics.