Here’s a shelf’s worth of my favourite Turkey books, a mix of travel books, guides, histories, novels and social portraits which is lighter on Turkish writers than it should be. My own books are there, not necessarily on merit but because it is my shelf.
Birds Without Wings by Louis de Bernieres (2004).
This novel, blending human saga and brilliantly rendered history, does for late-Ottoman Turkey what War and Peace did for Napoleonic Russia. Challenging in parts (the history is a complex one by any standards), it nevertheless evokes end-of-Empire Turkey quite magnificently. Highly recommended – and essential for those staying near the ruins of Kaya, Fethiye, where the novel’s action is centred.
Aegean Turkey; Turkey’s Southern Shore; Turkey Beyond the Maeander; and Lycian Turkey by George Bean (1960s).
The wonderfully digestible entries contained within these four volumes, classics of popular archaeology, make them bibles among ruin-thusiasts of Turkey. They are out of print, inexcusably, and only occasionally turn up in second-hand bookshops – which explains why photocopied pages covering particular ruins are actively trafficked among devotees.
Snow by Orhan Pamuk (2002)
This Nobel-Prize winning author, Turkey’s pre-eminent literary voice, is as demanding as he is compelling; I failed to finish My Name is Red which others have hailed as Pamuk’s masterpiece. No such problems with this one, a moody and noirish psycho-political drama set in the dreary snowscapes of Eastern Turkey.
The Bridge by Geert Mak (2008).
Acclaimed Dutch writer’s unflinching portrait of the penurious existences eked out among the tenements and underpasses flanking Istanbul’s Galata Bridge, and a sobering reminder of the social and political issues which characterise this metropolis and the country at large.
Journey to Kars by Philip Glazebrook (1984)
An elegant, occasionally mordant account of a Turkish journey made in the coup-ridden 1980s, and an exploration of what Turkey has meant to travellers, both in Victorian times and in the recent present.
The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay (1956)
A novelistic travelogue which recounts the progress of a love-lorn would-be writer and her eccentric retinue through northern Turkey in the 1950s. A gem of a book, by turns hilarious and heart-breaking.
A Fez of the Heart by Jeremy Seal (1995)
An account of journeys through 1990s Turkey in search of the old fez, the headgear banned by Atatürk as a symbol of the old order he set about overturning from the 1920s.
Crescent and Star by Stephen Kinzer (2001)
The outstanding title in the crop of political and social analyses of Turkey aimed at the general reader, correspondent Stephen Kinzer’s book offers exceptional insights into the country’s achievements and its problems.
Constantinople by Philip Mansel (1995)
Magisterial account of Istanbul’s centuries under the Ottomans, dizzying in its brilliantly researched detail, this is a work of exceptional historical substance and insight.
Santa: A Life by Jeremy Seal (2004)
In unequal parts biography, travelogue and history, this book recounts the posthumous odyssey of Nicholas of Myra, bishop of a town in Byzantine Turkey, whose cult carried his name across Europe, and details how this Christian saint morphed into Santa Claus.
The Loom of History by Herbert J Muller (1958)
Unjustifiably neglected historical narrative which explores Turkey from its mythical beginnings right through to the republican present, this is a splendidly learned overview, even if it flags in the latter chapters.
Ionia by Freya Stark (1954)
The doyenne of Middle Eastern travel honours her readers with the mistaken assumption that they are as grounded in the classics as she is, which can cause some head-scratching. Even so, there is much in this account of her travels in the Turkish coastal region of Ionia that is at once lyrical, learned and lovely.
Meander by Jeremy Seal (2012)
An account of a journey by collapsible canoe down Turkey’s original winding river, mixing contemporary issues with a richly detailed exploration of the region’s abundant history.
The sharp-eyed will note that the de Bernieres and Lycian Turkey have been snitched…