Beneath the Surface of Istanbul

A Guidebook Digression

Istanbul Blue Mosque
Blue Mosque, Istanbul . Photo used courtesy of Bob Ramsak, Piran Cafe

Destination: Istanbul, Turkey

Book: Istanbul: A Cultural History (NEW January 2012) by Peter Clark

With this cultural history of Istanbul, the Interlink Books publishing company racks up twenty such guides to cities around the world, from Calcutta to San Francisco.  To see the entire list of Cultural Histories, or to purchase this book or the others in the series, go to the Interlink site. The next book in the series is on Afghanistan rather than a single city. (A few more are listed as Cultural and Literary Companions.)

Istanbul street scene
Istanbul street scene, Photo courtesy of Bob Ramsak at Piran Cafe

Istanbul seems to be a particularly appropriate subject for this coverage, since it has been a crossroads of so many civilizations and has from time to time been under the thumb of many different countries.  Today’s tourist is confronted with a confusing melange of buildings and ruins, not to mention foods and customs that reflect the jumbled history of the area. Istanbul: A Cultural History provides glimpses into the past that help a traveler understand the present.

The book is organized chronologically, so that the first few chapters previous iterations of the city–buildings long buried or carried away in pieces to build new cities. Excellent indices enable the traveler to look up information on a particular place or person as they travel around the city. If you want to absorb the history in more depth, you can scan the bibliography.

I particularly liked the way that the author wove into his narrative reports from travelers of bygone days.  We learn of impressions recorded and places stayed  by the famous Muslim traveler, Ibn Battuta, Jewish visitor Benjamin of Tudela, crusader Geofffrey de Villehardouin, and more recently British T.E. Lawrence and Agatha Christy, Russian Leon Trotsky (the man was EVERYWHERE!) and American Mark Twain.  You can find these and dozens more in the Index of Historical and Literary Names.

Here is an example of early history by Cosmos Indicopleustes , a 6th century merchant who became a monk.  According to a history of the Byzantine, Cosmos was encyclopedic in his interests.

...he wrote about ‘rain, earthquakes, the Flood, the migration of Noah, the silk routes, sources of the Nile, unicorns (although he admits to not having seen one), measurement of the earth, the destruction of old empires and the primacy of the Roman one, the life of Christ and, to his great credit, the equality of men and women.’

Istanbul Galata Tower
Galata Tower, Istanbul. Photo Courtesy of Bob Ramsak, Piran Cafe

As for practical tourism information, if you find yourself at the Galata Tower, for instance, you can look in the Index of Places and Landmarks and find several snippets of information about that landmark at different times in the city’s history.

My only quibble with this book, as with others in this series, is that it is much heavier on history than it is on helpful tourist guide.  It would be helpful if a map showed locations of the major sites and references to the site in the text cross referenced the location on the map. Or, at the end of each chapter, which focuses on a particular time period, there might be a list of outstanding landmarks from that period.

That is probably an unfair criticism, since the book makes no promise to be a tourism guide.  It is called “A Cultural History” and as such is background reading for the tourist. I find a reference to the history of a place adds much to my enjoyment of a visit, but quickly became bogged down in the myriad details of unfamiliar names and events as I tried to read the book as an armchair traveler.  So your enjoyment and the way you approach this book depends very much on your interests and needs.

For instance, I have always been fascinated by the Byzantine period, and therefore felt quite at home in that section of the book. If you are a true history buff, and particularly if you already have an understanding of the history of the Golden Horn, you may be more comfortable reading straight through the book.  I think it would be most valuable to me as a reference book.

The author ties much of the book to his own personal experiences, and except in those passages dense with unfamiliar names, his voice is conversational.  The final chapter emphasizes that Instanbul is no “dusty museum” but a fast-moving, fast-developing modern city.  The variety of goods that Bob Ramsak found in the markets emphasize this point. I particularly liked these shoes, modern tennies with a Mid-Eastern flair, near the traditional displays of spices in the Grand Bazaar. (You can see more shots of the Istanbul markets at Bob’s website, Piran Cafe.

Istanbul Grand Bazaar
Istanbul Grand Bazaar. Photo courtesy of Bob Ramsak, Piran Cafe

I have never been to Istanbul, although it has been high on my list of places I would like to go, so I was fortunate to be able to partner with Bob Ramsak, who graciously encouraged me to use a few of his huge collection of Istanbul photos.  I encourage you to go to Bob’s Flickr page and see more of his shots of Istanbul.

Obviously, what I need is a cut-rate magic lamp.

Istanbul Magic Lamp Outlet
Magic Lamp Outlet, Istanbul. Photo courtesy of Bob Ramsak, Piran Cafe


Don’t miss these previous articles here at A Traveler’s Library about Istanbul: A thriller set in Topkapi; and the best guide book ever–Strolling Through Istanbul. 

Disclaimers: The publishers, Interlink Books, provided me with a review copy of this book. As usual, the opinions are my own.

Credits: The photos here are all by Bob Ramsak/Piran Cafe. The photos can be found at Flickr and are licensed under a Creative Commons license.

You Want a Book?

Since this is the last of the Guidebook Digressions, I’m going to offer the books I’ve been discussing to readers.  Just tell me which book you want, and why you need it. The most compelling reason will get the book. I will be the sole judge and all decisions are final.

As usual with my giveaways, you must have a mailing address in the United States and you must be over 18.  I will mail all the books except the book on Qatar.  If you choose that book, I will ask you to pay the postage. Your choices are: The Amazon, Qatar, London, European Cities, and Istanbul.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

10 thoughts on “Beneath the Surface of Istanbul

  1. The Amazon is on my list of places to visit..someday. I must say Turkey is one of my favorite places. I was only there once for just a few hours but the people were so kind and generous it left a real impression on me

  2. When I visited Istanbul a year or so ago, I hired a guide to show me all the under-the-radar sights. We ended up spending the entire afternoon visiting hidden coffee shops that only the locals frequented.

  3. Just like you Vera, Istanbul is on my top 5 list of places to visit before I “kick the bucket”. So my pick would be Istanbul. I adore the picture of the shoes & the Magic Lamp factory!

  4. I’ve been intrigued by youyr descritions of this group of books, and your decision to wite about them in the first place. I’d like a chance at the one about London. I usually stay north of Hadrian’s wall, but next time I’m in Scotland, could be I’ll go south for a few days. this book could help me imagine and plan such a trip.

    1. Well the decision to write about them was a bit haphazard as many of my content decisions are. I looked at the TBR pile of new books publishers had sent me, and realized that five of them seemed ALMOST but NOT QUITE to be guidebooks, and decided they each had something valuable enough to present to readers. Readers have indicated they like to have similar things grouped together–so–we aim to please.

  5. Istambul sounds like an interesting place to visit. And a book as a reference would definitely be helpful if I get a chance to visit the place.

  6. Hi Vera! I’d like a chance for a copy of Qatar for the following reasons: 1) Like you, I’ve only been to Israel (Istanbul is close in ambiance but is not technically Middle East) in that region of the world and loved the culture and its people. 2) I’m into photography as a hobby and books of this type will only nurture and improve me 3) I would like to believe that in some ways, learning about places in that part of the world will continue to act as a bridge; a bridge of understanding a foreign locale/region that in recent times has been full of misinformation and confusion. Happy Friday!

Comments are closed.