Planning a trip to Anatolia? Be sure to brush up on its fascinating history and culture with some of these books about Turkey!
Books About Turkey
Turkey – the country at the center of the world. It’s been inhabited since the beginning of time, from the ancient Hittites to the Greeks and Turks and countless peoples in between. It’s a country with an extremely complicated history, with its various empires, religions, and the constant struggle between tradition and modernization, democracy and autocracy. But it’s also a land with incredible food, world-famous landscapes, and welcoming people.
With so much thrown into its cultural melting pot, Turkey can be difficult to understand. This is why if you’re planning a trip to Anatolia (or dreaming about doing so) it’s helpful to do some reading beforehand! I asked some fellow travel bloggers for their recommendations for the best books about Turkey and the result is this list of poetry, memoirs, historical fiction, and fascinating nonfiction. There’s something on this list to appeal to every reader!
Human Landscapes from My Country
Nazim Hikmet was a Turkish poet who was imprisoned during WWII, serving 28 years for sedition after writing a poem about the 15th-century rebellion against the Ottoman Empire. The poem that imprisoned him gave him international attention, and in 1949 a campaign by an international committee of artists, including Picasso and Sartre, secured his release. He was then awarded a World Peace Prize.
After spending 13 years behind bars, Nazim wrote Human Landscapes from My Country, an epic poem of 465 pages. The poem tells the story of how modern Turkey emerged after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. It tells of the ongoing struggle between tradition, faith, and modernity in the 20th century.
The novel has been structured into verses of three, each portraying the narrator’s journey across Turkey on a train with passengers telling their stories. Some passengers are prisoners, others are just passing through. Nazim Hikmet portrays the characters and their stories in vivid detail, showing how they are affected by the events unfolding around them. He also uses poetry to capture the mood and atmosphere of each place he visits, creating a panoramic view of Turkey through literature.
This is an absorbing and powerful book, which tells a story of modern Turkey that is both unique and relevant to readers around the world. It’s one of the best books about Turkey to better understand this fascinating country’s culture.
Recommended by: Louisa Smith of Epic Book Society
Birds Without Wings
I read Louis de Bernières’ Birds Without Wings with no real expectation before my trip to Turkey in 2011. But what a delightfully moving book it was! Even a decade after I’d read it, I remember so many scenes in it.
The book is set in the fictional Greek village of Eskibahçe in South Anatolia. It tells the story of the people in it, with the backdrop of Mustafa Kemal’s rise to power and the steps he took to transform the country. The central theme of the book is romantic love, but it’s also about religious conflicts, family dynamics, nationalistic zeal, and ultimately the Greek exodus of 1923. It has everything.
It helped me to understand Turkish culture and people so much better before my trip. These words have stayed with me over the years: “Man is a bird without wings, and a bird is a man without sorrows.” One of the best books about Turkey to read before your trip.
Recommended by: Smita from Smita Bhattachrya
Last Train to Istanbul
The Last Train to Istanbul by Ayse Kulin is a perfect novel to dive into before a trip to Turkey. It unwraps Turkish values of family, political uncertainties, traditions vs. love, and other common issues that relationships face when people have differing faiths. However, this heart-wrenching story does much more than explore Turkish culture; it flips and turns, causing excitement and stress over the uncertainties of the main character’s story during the Holocaust.
There are two fates in question. One is that of Selva, a beautiful and traditional Muslim woman who comes from an affluent family and is the daughter of a powerful Ottoman Pasha. THe other is Rafael, a handsome and intelligent Jewish man, who wins over Selva but is rejected by her family due to his non-Muslim background and faith.
Despite the predicament, the two carry on with strong-willed love and leave Turkey for France. It is there that their passion and hope are truly tested when Rafael’s safety is no longer a certainty when war comes.
The novel does a great job of showing the difficulty of Turkey staying a neutral state in WWII but doing the right thing for its people and others, as well as the realities of war and the complexities and strength of a Turkish family that knows no boundaries.
This is one of the most insightful books about Turkey to learn about the cultural and familial difficulties in the country.
Recommended by: Yesenia and Sierra from The Sisters Who Voyage
10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World
10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World is a powerful and heartbreaking fictional novel from British-Turkish writer Elif Shafak, the most widely-read female author in Turkey.
The story follows Leila, a brotherl worker in Istanbul, in the 10 minutes and 38 seconds after she has been murderd in a limnial space between life and death. During this brief time, each minute bring a new memory, and the book follows Leila’s recollections of her memories, both important and seemingly insignifigant.
Leila recalls memories of her childhood in Istanbul in the 1950s, her family disowning her, the cherished freidnships she developed, and moments in Turkish history. Although it can be a difficult read, this is ultimately a poignant novel that is a reminder of how special life is.
This is a great book for anyone who is traveling to Turkey to read. Although it is one woman’s story, it offers a wider historical insight into Istanbul and Turkish culture and is written by a Turkish author.
Recommened by: Dale from The Literary Escape
Istanbul: Memories and the City
Istanbul: Memories and the City is an autobiographical memoir by Orhan Pamuk that details the city he grew up in – Istanbul. It is an account of the most historically important period in Istanbul’s history – the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the transition into modern Turkey.
Orhan Pamuk’s descriptive and vivid writing captures the charm of the old city and the beautiful yet chaotic Golden Horn. He writes about what it is like to live in old Istanbul, as well as the struggle that he has transitioning into a new lifestyle amidst the ruins left behind.
The ruins of Istanbul have been replaced by towering mansions by the Bosphorus, which were the preferred places to stay in Istanbul by Turkish officials. The beauty of Istanbul’s character is being stripped away bit by bit by the next modern construction.
This is one of the must-read books about Turkey, and specifically Istanbul. The historical context of some of the places Orhan mentions in the city makes seeing them on your visit much more meaningful!
Recommended by: Sean from LivingOutLau
Portrait of A Turkish Family
Irfan Orga’s Portrait of a Turkish Family is one of the most fascinating and moving memoirs I’ve ever read. It’s considered a Turkish classic, and it’s easy to see why.
Orga was born just before WWI and grew up during Turkey’s transition from empire to republic. His family belonged to the aristocracy, but when war came, they lost everything. They experienced death, extreme poverty, social shame and humiliation. It’s a story of tragedy and endurance, of loving but complicated family relationships. The reader gets to see opulent life in old Istanbul before the fall of the Sultan and then the transition to democratic Turkey under Ataturk. It’s a moving account of Turkish history and life in Istanbul during a turbulent time.
Despite it taking place during a politically unstable time period, the book isn’t about politics – it’s about life. It’s poignant, emotional, and beautifully written. It is literary time travel at its finest. It’s absolutely one of the best books about Turkey to read, even if you aren’t going on a trip there anytime soon!
Recommended by: Maggie (me!) from Pink Caddy Travelogue
Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities
Istanbul is a historical landmark and the capital city of Turkey. It was known as Byzantium and then Constantinople during the Roman Empire. thus “three cities.” Bettany Hughes, in her book Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities, digs deep into the history of the city. This book may not mention things to do in Istanbul, but it educates you about its rich history.
Hughes states that Istanbul is the center of the world and used to be known only as “the city.” It carries a worldwide reputation because of its ancient influence on the world we live in today. Hughes explains how Istanbul has been shaped and transformed from ancient times, through the Byzantine, Ottoman, and Roman eras, and the modern day.
She also talks about the people of Istanbul themselves, how it is not only the empire and sultan that made an impact but also the poor. They have influenced Istanbul by their dreams and aspirations on a day-to-day basis. Their dreams and their lives have swayed and shaped Istanbul the way it is today.
This is one of the best books about Turkey to learn about its rich history.
Recommended by: Ossama from Awesome Traveler
Ataturk: The Biography of the Founder of Modern Turkey
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk is unquestionably the most important figure in modern Turkish culture. Many Turks refer to him as the George Washington of Turkey. He is the man who shepherded the country into an entirely new era of modernization and democratization after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Though president in the 1920s, you’ll still see portraits and flags with his face all over the place in Turkey.
Ataturk is virtually unknown until 1919. Then he squandered the Allies’ plans to partition Turkey after WWI, defeated the last Ottoman sultan, and became the first president of the Turkish republic in 1923.
Understanding Ataturk, his legacy and impact but also his personal story, is key to understanding modern-day Turkish culture and politics. And Andrew Mango’s Ataturk biography is the preeminent book on this giant in Turkish history. This is one of the best books about Turkey to understand the current state of the Republic.
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