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Ten Great Books set in ISTANBUL

12th October 2021

Istanbul is the latest location for our ‘Ten Great Books Set In…’ series. Ten great books set in Istanbul. Istanbul is a major city in Turkey that straddles Europe and Asia across the Bosphorus Strait. Its Old City reflects cultural influences of the many empires that once ruled here. In the Sultanahmet district, the open-air, Roman-era Hippodrome was for centuries the site of chariot races, and Egyptian obelisks also remain. The iconic Byzantine Hagia Sophia features a soaring 6th-century dome and rare Christian mosaics.

‘All other cities are mortal, but I think Istanbul shall be eternal as long as mankind exists‘ – Istanbul saying

Ten Great Books set in ISTANBUL10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World by Elif Shafak

‘Haunting, moving, beautifully written – and based by an extraordinary cast of characters who capture the diversity of modern Turkey. A masterpiece’ Peter Frankopan

‘In the first minute following her death, Tequila Leila’s consciousness began to ebb, slowly and steadily, like a tide receding from the shore. Her brain cells, having run out of blood, were now completely deprived of oxygen. But they did not shut down. Not right away…’

For Leila, each minute after her death brings a sensuous memory: the taste of spiced goat stew, sacrificed by her father to celebrate the long-awaited birth of a son; the sight of bubbling vats of lemon and sugar which the women use to wax their legs while the men attend mosque; the scent of cardamom coffee that Leila shares with a handsome student in the brothel where she works. Each memory, too, recalls the friends she made at each key moment in her life – friends who are now desperately trying to find her. . .

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Born in the Purple by Dora Ilieva

It is Anno Domini 1083. At the Blachernae Palace in Constantinople, a princess is born. What will her fate be? Will she be married off in order to create an advantageous political alliance? Or will she be sent to a monastery for showing disobedience? Anna Komnena refuses to follow the suffocating traditions of her time. Despised by some, admired by others, she decides to break the chains of subjugation and follow her heart. For the freedom of her mind and spirit, she will pay a heavy price.

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The Drowning Guard by Linda Lafferty

Each morning in the hour before dawn, a silent boat launches on the Bosphorous, moving swiftly into the deepest part of the waters halfway between Europe and Asia, where a man will die…

The Drowning Guard is the tale of the Ottoman princess, Esma Sultan—one of the most powerful women in Ottoman history and unlike any other woman in the Islamic world. In a gender reversal of Scheherazade in 1001 Arabian Nights, Esma seduces a different Christian lover each night, only to have him drowned in the morning. The Sultaness’s true passion burns only for the Christian-born soldier charged with carrying out the brutal nightly death sentence: her drowning guard, Ivan Postivich.

The Drowning Guard explores the riddle of Esma—who is at once a murderer and a champion and liberator of women—and the man who loves her in spite of her horrifying crimes. This textured historical novel, set in the opulence and squalor of Istanbul in 1826, is woven with the complexity and consequences of love.

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Ten Great Books set in ISTANBULThe Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin

A concubine is strangled in the Sultan’s palace harem, and a young cadet is found butchered in the streets of Istanbul. Delving deep into the city’s crooked alleyways, and deeper still into its tumultuous past, the eunuch Yashim discovers that some people will go to any lengths to preserve the traditions of the Ottoman Empire.

Brilliantly evoking Istanbul in the 1830s, The Janissary Tree is a bloody, witty and fast-paced literary thriller with a spectacular cast.

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Body Count by Barbara Nadel

Any bloody death will lead Inspectors Çetin Ikmen and Mehmet Süleyman out onto the dark streets of Istanbul. On 21 January, a half-decapitated corpse in the poor multicultural district of Tarlabasi poses a particularly frustrating and gruesome mystery. But as the months pass and the violence increases, it turns into a hunt for that rare phenomenon in the golden city on the Bosphorus: a serial killer.

Desperate to uncover the killer’s twisted logic as the body count rises, Ikmen and Süleyman find only more questions. How are the victims connected? What is the significance of the number 21? And how many Istanbullus must die before they find the answers?

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city-pick Istanbul by Heather Reyes (editor)

Over sixty superb writers reveal what makes Istanbul one of the world’s most extraordinary cities:

Orhan Pamuk makes his own museum
Elif Shafak shops in the Grand Bazaar
William Dalrymple rides the Bosphorous ferries
Oya Baydar pictures some ordinary lives
Geert Mak enjoys the Galata Bridge
Orhan Kemal comes in from the countryside
Maureen Freely adores her adopted city
Yashar Kemal recalls a moving tradition
Rory Maclean travels by ‘magic bus’

Introduction by Barbara Nadel.

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Ten Great Books set in ISTANBULIstanbul by Richard Tillinghast

Istanbul, City of Forgetting and Remembering, by Richard Tillinghast, is a travel book in the classic tradition of Robert Byron, Evelyn Waugh, Patrick Leigh Fermor, and Jan Morris. The author is an old Istanbul hand who first visited there fifty years ago and has seen it change over the years from a provincial backwater to today’s vibrant metropolis. His introduction to the city’s art and architecture, culture, history, literature, and cuisine ranges widely and knowledgeably through the city’s Byzantine, Ottoman, and Turkish roots, all of it framed by the author’s own voyages of discovery. With Tillinghast as a guide through Istanbul’s cafés, mosques, palaces and taverns, and along its streets and waterways, readers will feel at home both in the Constantinople of bygone days and on the streets of the modern town. His Istanbul is a densely layered place of deep memory, where the ghosts of Byzantine emperors, theologians, and courtesans rub elbows with Ottoman sultans, poets, and dervishes.

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Istanbul Istanbul by Burhan Sönmez

“A wrenching love poem to Istanbul told between torture sessions by four prisoners in their cell beneath the city. An ode to pain in which Dostoevsky meets The Decameron.” —John Ralston Saul, author of On Equilibrium; former president, PEN International

“Istanbul is a city of a million cells, and every cell is an Istanbul unto itself.”

Below the ancient streets of Istanbul, four prisoners—Demirtay the student, the doctor, Kamo the barber, and Uncle Küheylan—sit, awaiting their turn at the hands of their wardens. When they are not subject to unimaginable violence, the condemned tell one another stories about the city, shaded with love and humor, to pass the time. Quiet laughter is the prisoners’ balm, delivered through parables and riddles. Gradually, the underground narrative turns into a narrative of the above-ground. Initially centered around people, the book comes to focus on the city itself. And we discover there is as much suffering and hope in the Istanbul above ground as there is in the cells underground.

Despite its apparently bleak setting, this novel—translated into seventeen languages—is about creation, compassion, and the ultimate triumph of the imagination.

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Farewell Fountain Street by Selçuk Altun, Mel Keene (translator), Nilgün Dungan (translator)

Ziya Bey has six months left to live. From his mansion on Farewell Fountain Street, the Ottoman aristocrat plans to tie up some questionable business affairs and say goodbye to the people he cherishes. He hires Artvin, a disillusioned professor with a troubled past, to assist him. Intrigued by his employer’s mysterious household, Artvin spends the days uncovering Ziya Bey’s turbulent life story.

The two men become bound together as they reveal dark elements from their pasts. But when Ziya Bey releases Artvin from his duties sooner than expected, Artvin inherits a spiral of violence he cannot control.

In this gripping ride through the streets of Istanbul, two men learn one another’s secrets. But can either of them learn to live with themselves?

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Like a Sword Wound by Ahmet Altan

Altan’s Ottoman Quartet spans the fifty years between the final decades of the 19th century and the post-WWI rise of Ataturk as both unchallenged leader and visionary reformer of the new Turkey. The four books tell the stories of an unforgettable cast of characters, among them: an Ottoman army officer, the Sultan’s personal doctor, a scion of the royal house whose Western education brings him into conflict with his family’s legacy, and a beguiling Turkish aristocrat who, while fond of her emancipated life in Paris, finds herself drawn to a conservative Muslim spiritual leader. Intrigue, betrayal, love, war, progress, and tradition provide a colourful backdrop against which their lives play out. All the while, the society to which they belong is transforming, and the Sublime Empire disintegrates. Here is a Turkish saga reminiscent of War and Peace, that traces not only the social currents of the time but also the erotic and emotional lives of its characters.

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What amazing and varied books there are set in Istanbul! If you have any to add to the list, please do so in the Comments below…

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