Ten books for travelling to Turkey
Ten Books to Read about Turkey | Small Group History Tours Turkey
One of the world’s few trans-continental nations, Turkey is where east meets west, Europe meets Asia, and religion meets modernity. The capital city, Istanbul – once Byzantium, and then Constantinople – has been at the centre of empires, including Greece, Rome, Byzantium, and the Ottoman Empire. Today, Istanbul is one of the world’s great cities, home to a world-class collection of monumental architecture, and a vibrant contemporary heart that still thrives in the ancient city.
Befitting this grand history, Turkey has inspired writers both ancient and modern. Here at Odyssey traveller, we’ve uncovered ten books most likely to interest the traveller to Turkey: covering ancient history, poetry, contemporary politics, and even a cookbook.
If you’re interested in Turkey, you may also be interested in our previous articles about the Ottoman Empire:
You may also be interested in some of our lists:
- Ten Unimaginable Destinations (including the underground city of Derinkuyu)
- Ideas for Visiting Turkey
Ten Books to Read About Turkey
Xinru Liu – The Silk Road in World History (2010)
Historians use the term ‘Silk Road’ to refer to the complex of ancient trade routes linking East Asia with Central Asia, South Asia, and the Mediterranean world. This network of exchange emerged along the borders between agricultural China and the steppe nomads during the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.E.-220 C.E.). In their quest for horses, fragrances, spices, gems, glassware, and other exotic goods from the lands to their west, the Han Empire extended its dominion over the oases of the Takla Makan Desert. Eventually this domination became the lengthy land routes linking China to the caravan city of Palmyra in the Syrian desert, or the sea route linking Northwest India, the Arabian and Red Seas, ending in Alexandria. These routes meant that Chinese silk reached the Mediterranean world, while other goods flowed back to China.
The Silk Road survived the turmoil following the end of the Han and Roman Empires and reached its golden age during the Early Middle Ages, as the Byzantine Empire and the Tang Empire became centres of silk culture, establishing the models for high culture across the Eurasian world. Islam extended silk culture to an even larger area, paving the way for an expanded market for textiles and other commodities. By the 11th century, however, the Silk Road was in decline because of intense competition from the sea routes of the Indian Ocean. Using supply and demand as the framework for analysing the formation and development of the Silk Road, Liu’s 2010 book examines the spread of new ideas, religions, and values into the world of commerce, thus illustrating the cultural forces underlying material transactions. This effort at tracing the interconnections of the diverse participants in the transcontinental Silk Road exchange will demonstrate that the world had been linked through economic and ideological forces long before the modern era.
Louis de Bernieres – Birds Without Wings (2004)
In the long-awaited successor to Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, de Bernieres vividly brings to life a small village in southwestern Anatolia in the waning years of the Ottoman Empire. Birds Without Wings is populated with characters as real as our best friends, launched into the maelstrom of twentieth-century history. De Bernieres uncovers a world where nationalities and civilisations intermingle; a village where everyone speaks Turkish, but write in Greek letters. It is a place that has room for a professional blasphemer; where a brokenhearted aga finds solace in the arms of a Circassian courtesan (who isn’t Circassian at all); where a beautiful Christian girl named Philothei is engaged to a Muslim boy named Ibrhim. But all of this will change as Turkey enters the modern world. Epic in sweep, intoxicating in its sensual detail, Birds Without Wings is an enchantment. de Bernieres insists it exceeds its better-known predecessor. Discover for yourself.
The Guardian called it “a Turkish take on War and Peace”. Read their interview with Bernieres here.
Richard Stoneman – A Traveller’s History of Turkey (1993, updated 2015)
Turkey has been at the centre of empires for millennia – Persia, Rome, Byzantium, and the Ottoman Empire. All of these civilisations have made their mark on the landscape, architecture and art of Turkey. A Traveller’s History of Turkey offers the traveller a concise and readable account of the region from prehistory to the present day, covering everything from the Flood of Noah, the early civilisation of Catal Huyuk, through the treasures of Troy, Alexander the Great, the Romans, Seljuks, Byzantines, and the golden age of the Sultans. Finally, the book considers the great changes wrought by Kemal Atatürk in the early 20th century, before exploring contemporary Turkey, which is increasingly a powerful force on the world stage.
Norman Stone – Turkey: A Short History (2011)
In Turkey: A Short History the celebrated historian Norman Stone deftly brings the reader through the complex story of Turkey’s history, from the arrival of the Seljuks in Anatolia to contemporary Turkey’s attempts to join the European Union. Stone’s account is of epic proportions, populated by larger than life figures: Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, Sultan Süleyman the magnificent, and Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey. For six hundred years, Turkey was at the heart of the Ottoman Empire. Stone vividly brings the global reach of the Ottomans to life, showing how they brought Islam to the gates of Vienna, and controlled territory extending from North Africa to the Persian Gulf to the River Volga.
Stone examines the reasons for the astonishing rise and slow decline of this world empire. Paralleling today’s debates over the position of Turkey (placed between two continents), in the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire was at the centre of the Eastern Question, as the Great Powers argued over a declining empire. Stone concludes the book with a trenchant examination of the Turkish republic created in the aftermath of the First World War, a place where east and west, religion and secularism, and tradition and modernisation, are vibrant and sometimes conflicting elements of national identity.
Ates Orga (editor) – Istanbul: A Poetry of Place (2007)
When Mehmed the Conqueror first wandered through the ruins of the Byzantine palace, the words of the Persian poet Ferdowsi were on his lips: ‘The spider spins his web in the Palace of the Caesars/An owl hoots in the towers of Afrasiyab’. Mehmed was not alone in being inspired to poetry by Istanbul. As the capital of two great empires, confluence of Asia and Europe, Istanbul has been immortalised by legions of poets throughout her long history, from paupers to sultans, natives and visitors alike.
This pocket-sized book collects some of the finest poems about Istanbul, from Jason and the Argonauts to the fans of Galatasaray Football Club. Poems in this collection include the exquisite love poetry of the Ottomans, epic sagas of Turkish nationalists, the epigrams of sultans, and romantic couplets of visiting diplomats. Reflecting the long cosmopolitanism of this trans-continental city, the collection includes poetry by Turks, Jews, Kurds, gypsies, Armenians, Greeks, and Russians. The collection also includes work by W B Yeats, Sergei Esenin, Nazim Hikmet, Charles Kingsley, Lord Byron, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Bedri Rahmi Eyuboglu, Orhan Veli, Vita Sackville-West and Suleyman the Magnificent.
Eugene Rogan – The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East (2015)
By 1914 the powers of Europe were sliding inexorably toward war, and they dragged the Middle East along with them into one of the most destructive conflicts in human history. In The Fall of the Ottomans, the award-winning historian Eugene Rogan brings the First World War and its immediate aftermath in the Middle East to vivid life, uncovering the often-ignored story of the region’s crucial role in the conflict. Unlike the static killing fields of the Western Front, the war in the Middle East was fast-moving and unpredictable, with the Turks inflicting decisive defeats on the Entente in Gallipoli, Mesopotamia, and Gaza before the tide of battle turned in the Allies’ favour. The postwar settlement led to the partition of Ottoman lands, laying the groundwork for the ongoing conflicts that continue to plague the region today. A sweeping narrative of battles and political intrigue from Gallipoli to Arabia, The Fall of the Ottomans is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the Great War and the making of the modern Middle East.
Orhan Pamuk (trans. Erdag M. Goknar) – My Name is Red (1998)
At once a fiendishly devious mystery, a beguiling love story, and a brilliant symposium on the power of art, My Name Is Red is a transporting tale set amid the splendor and religious intrigue of sixteenth-century Istanbul. One of the most prominent contemporary Turkish writers, Orhan Pamuk was awarded the Novel Prize in Literature in 2006.
The Sultan has commissioned a cadre of the most acclaimed artists in the land to create a great book celebrating the glories of his realm. Their task: to illuminate the work in the European style. But because figurative art can be deemed an affront to Islam, this commission is a dangerous proposition indeed. The ruling elite therefore mustn’t know the full scope or nature of the project, and panic erupts when one of the chosen miniaturists disappears. The only clue to the mystery–or crime? –lies in the half-finished illuminations themselves. Part fantasy and part philosophical puzzle, My Name is Red is a kaleidoscopic journey to the intersection of art, religion, love, sex and power.
A New York Times review notes how the book “brush[es] up against our own tradition’s questioning of the place of art”. Read Richard Eder’s review here.
Nicole and Hugh Pope – Turkey Unveiled: A History of Modern Turkey (1998)
In what has been described as a ‘deeply revealing guide to modern Turkish culture and politics’ (The New York Times Book Review), Nicole and Hugh Pope provide a glimpse into a culture that has long been misunderstood. Turkey Unveiled is the only book in many years to attempt to fill a gap in perception with regard to this extremely complex country, and the paperback edition includes an epilogue that brings the book totally up to date, with coverage of the most recent developments in Turkey.
Throughout the last generation Turkey has opened up to the outside world, increasingly revealing a pluralistic and dynamic society. The authors, who speak fluent Turkish and have reported from Turkey for over a decade, provide a rich mosaic of contemporary Turkey and its formative past. The strengths and weaknesses of the Ottoman Empire, the Armenian tragedy, the ongoing Kurdish struggle, and the controversial legacy of the brilliant but autocratic founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, are all here. They also provide portraits of new leaders who have broken taboos and ushered in new freedoms at a time when other forces attempt to pull Turkey back into the Middle Eastern vortex. Nicole and Hugh Pope, combining analysis with understanding, make recent developments in Turkey intelligible for both the general reader and the millions of visitors welcomed by a burgeoning tourist industry.
If you wish to read about some of the more controversial aspects of Turkey’s history, Christopher de Bellaigue’s Rebel Land: Unraveling the Riddle of History in a Turkish Town (2009) examines the Armenian tragedy.
David Fromkin – A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East (1989, updated 2009).
The Middle East has long been a region of rival religions, ideologies, nationalisms, and ambitions. All of these conflicts – the hostilities between Arabs and Israelis, and the tensions between Iraq’s competing sects – are rooted in the arrangements, unities and divisions imposed by the Allies after the First World War. In A Peace to End All Peace, David Fromkin reveals how and why the Allies drew lines on an empty map, remaking the geography and politics of the Middle East. Focusing on the formative years of 1914 to 1922, when all seemed possible, he delivers in this sweeping and magisterial book the definitive account of this period, showing how the choices made put the Middle East on a road that led to the conflicts and confusions that continue today.
David Dale and Somer Sivrioglu – Anatolia: Adventures in Turkish Cooking (2014, new edition coming out in 2020).
Turkish-born (and Sydney-based) chef Somer Sivrioglu and co-author David Dale reimagine the traditions of Turkish cooking, presenting recipes ranging from the grand banquets of the Ottoman Empire to the spicy snacks of Istanbul’s street stalls. In doing so, they explain their take on the classics and reveal the surrounding rituals, myths, jokes and folk wisdom of both the old and new Turkey.
Somer and David bring us more than 150 accessible recipes with rich colour photographs, shot on location in Turkey. Also included are feature spreads on local Turkish chefs and producers and their specialities, adding another fascinating layer to the book. Take a unique glimpse into the worlds of old and new Turkey with this beautiful, multidimensional cookbook.
Visit Turkey with Odyssey Traveller:
Odyssey Traveller organises cultural tours to Turkey. Our tours take you from Istanbul to Cappadocia in eastern Turkey, before winding back up along the west coast. On our journey, you will see many of Turkey’s most important heritage sites: the Topkapi Palace, the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and the Goreme Open Air Museum. Our trip also includes a walking tour through the archaeological ruins of ancient Ephesus (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and Antalya. In order to ensure you have a memorable trip, our private tour takes a cruise down the Bosporus and visits the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul.
On our trip, we provide hotel accommodation along with a number of meals at a local restaurant, so that you have many opportunities to try the many delicious varieties of Turkish food. In order to ensure an authentic and informed experience our tours are led by an expert tour manager, joined in each location by an experienced local guide. Click here to see the full itinerary and sign up.
About Odyssey Traveller:
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