20 of the Best Books Set in Istanbul

Nobody seems to love Istanbul as much as authors. This does not come as a surprise! Istanbul is a storyteller’s emporium of possibility… Some of the greatest Turkish literature masterpieces […]

Nobody seems to love Istanbul as much as authors. This does not come as a surprise! Istanbul is a storyteller’s emporium of possibility… Some of the greatest Turkish literature masterpieces have been set in Istanbul, and this trend has continued with contemporary authors in recent years. As expected, there are thousands of books set in Istanbul, which brings us to the question; “Where should I start reading?” Here is a selection of 20 favourite Istanbul based novels.



CONSTANTINOPLE by EDMONDO DE AMICISItalian writer starts his travel classic with the question “Who could dare to describe Constantinople?” and answers his own question with memorable and a highly influential book about the city, “Constantinople”, published in 1877. Of course, Constantinople was depicted by oceans of 19th century western travellers, but among all, De Amicis’ remarkable account is probably the one of the best ever written. Not only does it enlighten readers how the city looked like during the late 19th century but also shows us the Westerns’ reaction to it. Orhan Pamuk, the first Turkish Nobel laureate, also praised the Amicis’ Constantinople travelogue by saying that it is his most favourite account of 19th century Istanbul.



THE ATLAS OF MISTY CONTINENTSAnar’s first novel, a historical fantasy-fiction supported by historical facts, “The Atlas of Misty Continents” is definitely one of the best come out of Turkey. The book takes you on a journey through 17th century Istanbul which is depicted in a mysterious way. As you turn the pages of the book one by one, you are more included in the fairytale-like atmosphere of the Istanbul of 1681. The story begins with sailor Arap İhsan’s entrance to Konstantiniye, and then the reader is introduced to more and more interesting characters that shape the story. Together with them, the reader drinks at the meyhanes in Galata, yells on the streets, visit the courtyards of Sultan’s palaces and shops in the Armenian and Greek neighbourhoods. Delightful to read, this is easily bound to be one of your favourite books about Istanbul.



ISTANBUL PASSAGE by JOSEPH KANONThere is no better place for a spy novel than Istanbul, as the city spent the World War II times as a magnet for spies from almost every country. Joseph Kanon, who is famous for his spy novels, knew this very well and set his novel in Istanbul, one of the most fascinating cities on the planet. His book has a story that revolves around an American undercover agent, Leon Bauer, who is a businessman living in Istanbul. He has long been working for the American embassy, and now asked for one last mission which is picking up a mysterious Romanian refugee and delivering him through to the West. While Joseph Kanon is telling the story, he also moves his protagonist back and forth all over the city, which enjoys his readers by exploring 1940s Istanbul, when the Bosphorus Bridge even didn’t exist and people were crossing the strait by boat.



FORBIDDEN LOVE by HALIT ZIYA USAKLIGIL‘Forbidden Love’ (Aşk-ı Memnu) is the first Turkish novel and considered as the most successful work of Halid Ziya Uşaklıgil who was an influential writer that infused a Western style into Turkish novels. Written at the end of the 19th century, this realist-naturalist novel was first serialised in 1899 and 1990 in Serveti- Fünun magazine, and even though more than 110 years have passed, one would read this novel with great pleasure. The book is very important for reflecting the status of women and morality of Istanbul’s high society during the final years of the Ottoman Empire. The story of the novel is very simple; Bihter, a beautiful lady who has always dreamed of high living, marries with rich widower Adnan Bey, but things become hectic when she begins a love affair with Adnan Bey’s nephew, Behlül, who decided to marry her cousin, Nihal, after having a forbidden love affair with Bihter. The chain of events ends with Bihter’s suicide eventually.



A USELESS MAN by SAIT FAIK ABASIYANIKConsidered as the “Turkey’s Chekhov”, his name was given to most prestigious short story award, the Sait Faik Price, and there’s a museum dedicated to the father of Turkish short story on Burgazada, the third largest of the Princes’ Islands in the Marmara Sea. Frankly speaking, Sait Faik Abasıyanık is one of the most important names in the Turkish literature, and his ‘A Useless Man: Selected Stories’, translated by Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe, consists of his 14 selected stories which centre around village and urban life in Istanbul in the first half of the 20th century. Istanbul is a character itself in each story which is written successfully that can be read in the span of a short time.



A CARRIAGE AFFAIR by RECAIZADE MAHMUT EKREM Recaizade Mahmud Ekrem is one of the most important Ottoman writers of the 19th century. His most famous novel “The Carriage Affair”, written in 1896, is now regarded as the first contemporary work of Turkish Literature. This realist satire portrays the late 19th century Ottoman intellectuals who desire to imitate the Western life but nevertheless their efforts usually result with tragicomic confusion as the identity of the modern Turk is fragmented by the Westernisation reforms within the empire. Set in Istanbul around 1870, the book follows adventures of a super westernised dandy, Bihruz Bey, a son of Ottoman Pasha, a “European-style snob”, whose habits, daily routines and the love affairs are recounted to the readers as a criticism of period.



The Sultan’s Seal by Jenny WhiteJenny White, novelist and social anthropologist, pens the Kamil Pasha series, which consists of three books called “The Sultan’s Seal”, “The Abyssinian Proof” and “The Winter Thief”, published in 2006, 2008 and 2010. They are historical murder mysteries centre around the main fictional character, Kamil Pasha, a local magistrate, who makes investigations into crimes in the heart of the Ottoman Empire.  In the first novel “The Sultan’s Seal”, Kamil Pasha investigates the murder of an English woman found naked and murdered. In the second novel “The Abyssinian Proof”, Kamil Pasha seeks to solve the mystery of the disappearance antiquities and sacred objects from mosques and churches, and in the last novel “The Winter Thief”, the discovery of a shipment of illegal arms and robbery at the Imperial Ottoman Bank leads Kamil Pasha to prevent a massacre of a commune and villages in the Eastern Turkish mountains.



THE CLOWN and HIS DAUGHTERHalide Edip Adıvar was a writer, scholar, and feminist who fought for Turkish independence in Ataturk’s army as well as the rights of women and their emancipation during her life. She originally published her novel “The Clown and His Daughter” in English in 1935, and the following year she translated it into Turkish and published as “Sinekli Bakkal” which is a name of the poor neighbourhood in Aksaray in Istanbul during the Sultan Abdulhamid era. Halide Edip was given a literary prize for her book “The Clown and His Daughter” in 1942 when the book won international fame and went through 25 editions. Required reading in many high schools in Turkey, the novel tells the story of Tevfik, the owner of the grocer and a shadow theatre fan, who was forced to marry with Emine, the daughter of the Sinekli Bakkal neighbourhood’s Imam. Their relationship lasts a short time, Emine returns back to her father’s house, and meanwhile Tevfik is sent to exile.



A MIND AT PEACEOrhan Pamuk claims that “A Mind at Peace” is “the best Istanbul novel ever written”. Originally published in 1949 in the daily newspaper Cumhuriyet, “A Mind at Peace” is a love story that set in Istanbul on the eve of World War II, and regarded as the symbol of Turkey’s conflict between the Westernisation and Ottoman Islam. The novel is set up in four parts, and each titled as a character in the novel: Ihsan, Nuran, Suad, Mümtaz. The protagonist is Mümtaz who lost his parents during the Turkish War of Independence and he goes to live in Istanbul with his cousin Ihsan who teaches at the French Lycee. He falls in love with Nuran, they decide to get married, but at that moment Mümtaz’s friend, Suad, who is an admirer of Nuran, appears and destroys the relationship between Nuran and Mümtaz.



CHOLERA STREET by METIN KACANMetin Kaçan, whose much of writings deals with life in poor quarters of Istanbul, is one of the most well-known writers of contemporary Turkish literature. In 1990, he published his first book, “Ağır Roman” (Cholera Street), which immediately became a best-seller in Turkey, and with the same name it was turned into a 1997 Turkish movie directed by Mustafa Altıoklar. In his book the author narrates the love affair between a young car mechanic and a prostitute as well as livings of mix of inhabitants from different ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds in a rundown neighbourhood of Istanbul called Dolapdere. By the way, “Cholera Street” was written in a language that is very local and full of slang, which makes the book difficult to read for ordinary reader.



A MEMENTO FOR ISTANBULTurkish novelist Ahmet Ümit, the writer of best-selling books “A Rhapsody of Beyoğlu” and “A Memento for Istanbul”, is most known for his success on depicting the darkest sides of Turkish society and history. His novel, “A Memento for Istanbul”, a national bestseller, published in 2010, and translated into English a year later, and it was critically acclaimed as well as commercially successful. The book narrative drives of a crime police procedural, but however what makes it amazing is definitely the historical information of Istanbul. With the placing of the murder victims at the various cultural sites of Istanbul, the author takes readers on a two-thousand-year journey from Byzantium to present, and also gives so much detail of Istanbul’s iconic architectures.



THE JANISARRY TREE by JASON GOODWINThe first book of the Investigator Yashim series, the Janissary Tree is a historical mystery novel set in Istanbul in the mid-19th century. In detail, the novel takes place in 1836, ten years after the so-called Auspicious Event, the forced disbandment of the Janissary corps by Sultan Mahmud II, and the core of the novel is the disappearance of four young officers in the Sultan Mahmud’s new westernised Army. The main character, Yashim the Eunuch, is called to the Sultan’s palace by the general of the New Guards and assigned to find who is behind the mystery. Meanwhile, the Sultan’s newest concubine is murdered just before her first night with the Sultan and the Sultan’s mother loses her prised jewellery. Yashim now has to investigate three different cases which are related to each other. An excellent story by Jason Goodwin, the Janissary Tree won an Edgar Award for Best Novel 2007 and has been translated into over 40 languages.



AZIYADE by PIERRE LOTIJulian Viaud, a French naval officer writing under the alias of Pierre Loti, was well known author who was known for his exotic novels. His first novel “Aziyade” is semi-autobiographical book based on a diary that was kept by Pierre Loti during his stay in Greece and Istanbul in the fall and winter of 1876. He was very young man when he first came to Constantinople. He fell immediately the influence of the melancholic charms of Istanbul, but not only that, he also fell in love with 18-year-old Aziyade, a Circassian harem girl. The book narrates the story of Pierre Loti’s Constantinople adventure; the story of Loti’s love affair with Aziyade, his friendship with a Spanish man Samuel, as well as his love affair with Turkish culture. With good descriptions and details, “Aziyade” promises to take its readers journey through the 19th century Istanbul. The only known English translation is by Marjorie Laurie which can be found in many editions.



THE BIRDS HAVE ALSO GONEDefinitely not one of his best works, Yaşar Kemal’s “The Birds Have Also Gone” (Kuşlar da Gitti) is a short novel, only about 150 pages, from one of Turkey’s leading writers and internationally recognised author who has been a candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature with his masterpiece “Memed, My Hawk”. In this novel, Yaşar Kemal focuses on an ancient Turkish belief that anyone who set free a bird is secured a place in paradise. From this idea, three boys attempt to make a business of sale of birds, as expected, it fails as Istanbul people no longer want to buy the birds and set them free.  In this wonderful little novel Yaşar Kemal wants to show to readers that how life in Istanbul is changing, and criticises the end of humanism in modern society masterfully.


ISTANBUL: MEMORIES OF A CITYThose who already read Pamuk’s first novel, “The Black Book”, would remember the author’s apartment in the Nişantaşı quarter where he grew up. This book takes us to the same place to portray the first twenty-two years of the Nobel Prize-winning author’s life. He also gives the reader an insider’s view of Istanbul by taking them deep into the Istanbul’s back streets which tourists usually don’t see. Same like his most of writings, Orhan Pamuk again describes the city as a conflict between East and West, and again he wants to guide the reader through his spiritual world which helps the readers to learn the construction process of Orhan Pamuk as a writer.



THE BASTARD OF ISTANBULAccused of insulting “Turkishness” in The Bastard of Istanbul, Turkey’s leading female novelist almost ended up in jail for three years. Originally written in English, and then translated by Aslı Biçen into her Turkish, “The Bastard of Istanbul” was published under the title “Baba ve Piç” in 2006 in Turkey, where it became a bestseller in a short time. The novel was also adapted into a theatre play in Italy by Angelo Savelli titled “La Bastarda Di Istanbul”, and was staged by Teatro di Rifredi in Florence. In this well-known novel, the author Elif Şafak brings political and critical touch to the story that centres on a Turkish girl, Asya Kazancı, and Armenian boy, Armanoush Tchakhmakhchian, who travels to Istanbul to search for her Armenian roots. Set in California and Istanbul, the novel deals with the events of 1915 and the Turkish-Armenian Controversy



SONGS MY MOTHER NEVER TAUGHT METhe first of his three novels, “Songs My Mother Never Taught Me” has a story that alternately told by Arda, a 27-year old heir of a wealthy family, who feels freedom with the death of his mother, and Bedirhan, a poor orphan, who has decided end his ten-year career as professional assassin. As expected, their paths eventually cross, however, before that happens, Selçuk Altun takes us on a journey through the forgotten landmarks, monuments, gravestones, and neighbourhoods of old Istanbul.  “A remarkable thriller that takes us through the streets of Istanbul” – as it was described by the publisher, Selçuk Altan’s first book is fun and it gives a tangible sense of modern Istanbul.



LAST TRAIN TO ISTANBULNo need to praise the book as it is an international bestseller. The story begins in Ankara in 1941. Selva, a Muslim daughter of one of last Ottoman pashas, meets with Rafael, a handsome Jewish man, and they fell in love with each other. They get married against their family’s wishes and then move to France. Only a few years later, when the Nazis invade France, the couple faces serious threats to their lives, and with the help of brave Turkish diplomats, who risked their lives to help Jews, they try to escape from France to Turkey by a special train. Based on true events with fictional characters, “Last Train to Istanbul” is a phenomenal World War II novel set in Turkey and France, and it sheds light on a piece of history that about Turkey’s position during the World War II; they tried to stay neutral but were on the horns of a dilemma due to demands of the Allies and the Axis.



ISTANBUL NOIR by MUSTAFA ZIYALANAnother in the series of noir anthologies published by Akashic Books, the creator of the original noir anthologies in the world, the “Istanbul Noir” is comprised of 16 different new stories by some of Turkey’s most popular authors such as Barış Müstecaplıoğlu, Müge İplikçi, Behçet Çelik, Algan Sezgintüredi, Hikmet Hükümenoğlu, Lydia Lunch, Yasemin Aydınoğlu, Sadık Yemni, Feryal Tilmaç, İnan Çetin, Jessica Lutz and Mustafa Ziyalan. The authors do an excellent job introducing readers to Istanbul’s darker side and give some unexpected insights; those who would love to learn the neighbourhoods, traditions, issues of religion, culture and history of the city as well as its people wouldn’t be disappointed reading this book.



LOSERS’ TALE by HIKMET TEMEL AKARSU The first of Akarsu’s “Istanbul Quartet” series, “Losers’ Tale” made tremendous impact in 1998, the year it was published, and became one of the classic novels of the literary underground in the following years.  The story mainly set in the Kadıköy district and its surroundings, and talks about people who frequent underground locations and choose to be rebels along the lines of the “Losers’ Club”. It is a captivating novel about loneliness, alienation and counterculture. Moreover, it throws light upon the society influenced by the economic crisis in Turkey in the 1990s.

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