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What to read before Athens and Istanbul
January 17, 2012 8:08 AM   Subscribe

What books, apart from travel guides, should I read before traveling to Athens and Istanbul?

What are the best books about Athens and Istanbul? Ideally, I would like something in the same vein as Rome: a Cultural, Visual, and Personal History by Robert Hughes. Something with a broad chronological scope, history and art history-centric, but fairly light and easily accessible, with a personal touch. I'm definitely thinking non-fiction, but I would love some fun fiction recommendations too. Thanks.
posted by CheeseLouise to Travel & Transportation (8 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
For a beautifully written, poignant study of a perennially evolving city, try Orhan Pamuk's Istanbul: Memories of a City.
posted by rahulrg at 8:11 AM on January 17, 2012

For fun, Ian McDonald's The Dervish House does a wonderful job of imagining what Istanbul might be like in 2027. There's a lot of the history and culture of the city in the story, as well as some compelling characters.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 8:40 AM on January 17, 2012

I just finished The Oracle of Stamboul, which is fictional and set in Istanbul in the late 1800s. It's not very broad in the historical sense, but the visual descriptions of the Golden Horn and the Bosporus are quite good. The first draft was written while the author was in Turkey.
posted by soelo at 8:45 AM on January 17, 2012

Istanbul: The Collected Traveler
An Inspired Companion Guide
Edited by Barrie Kerper

Has articles about local monumemtns, local history and personalities, recommendations for more related reading, spotlights on restaurants and hotels, interviews and stuff from food writers etc. I think this is the kind of thing you're looking for.

Tales from the Ex-Pat Harem is a writing collection focused on women's experiences that is much lighter reading than the other book I just recommended
posted by saraindc at 9:07 AM on January 17, 2012

Thanks for everything so far.

Saraindc, there's an Athens: The Collected Traveler also, so thanks for putting me on to them.
posted by CheeseLouise at 9:30 AM on January 17, 2012

It's about the history of the Ottoman Empire rather than Istanbul itself, but it's a fascinating story (and a short book): Ottoman Empire and Islamic Tradition.
posted by Clambone at 10:15 AM on January 17, 2012

I quite liked Eurydice Street, a memoir of moving to Athens by Sofia Zinovieff. It's a mix of personal observation, cultural anthropology, and history.

There's another amazing memoir by Irfan Orga called Portrait of a Turkish Family. This one is a bit trickier to find, but is great for its insight into the end of the Ottoman era. I may be misremembering as I read it awhile ago, but one scene that really stuck with me was when his parents had to find him at a children's hospital at the end of the first World War- a task made infinitely more difficult by the fact that very few people had last names!

Finally, even though you prefer non-fiction, I always recommend The Janissary Tree, which is an excellent historical fiction/murder mystery and gives you a great sense of the atmosphere of Istanbul. The central figure is Yashim, a eunach at the court of the Sultan who investigates strange goings-on in the army barracks and western embassies. You'll see the hippodrome and the city walls in a whole new light!
posted by Concordia at 12:48 PM on January 17, 2012

Geert Mak's The Bridge is a pretty history of the Galata Bridge over the Golden Horn, combined with his interviews of the desperately poor salespeople and fishermen who get their life's living from it today. It's from 5 years ago, but still quite accurate and brings a real taste of the city both today and 100 years ago.

Strolling Through Istanbul by John Freeley (father of Orhan Pamuk's translator, Maureen Freeley) is a classic guide to the historic sights and ancient development of the city. His Istanbul, the Imperial City is more historically focused and also quite good.
posted by Theiform at 3:56 AM on January 18, 2012

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