Turkey: Recommended Books and Movies

By Rick Steves, Lale Surmen Aran, and Tankut Aran

To learn more about Turkey past and present, check out a few of these books and films.

Books: Nonfiction

To learn about the rise and fall of Constantinople, read A Short History of Byzantium (Norwich, 1998) or Sailing from Byzantium (Wells, 2007). Suleiman the Magnificent (Clot, 2004) introduces the most celebrated of Ottoman sultans, while Osman’s Dream: The History of the Ottoman Empire (Finkel, 2006) traces the empire from medieval times to modernity.

For an overview of modern Turkish history and current affairs, try Crescent & Star (Kinzer, 2002), or The Turks Today (Mango, 2006). Atatürk: The Biography of the Founder of Modern Turkey (also by Mango, 2002) is the most comprehensive biography of Atatürk since Lord Kinross’s 1967 Atatürk: A Biography of Mustafa Kemal.

Orhan Pamuk won the 2006 Nobel Prize in literature; one of his nonfiction works is the melancholy memoir Istanbul: Memories and the City (2003). Memoirs of an Exile (Nesin, 2001) is the sad and funny story of the Turkish satirist’s forced banishment to Bursa.

In Turkish Reflections (1992), Mary Lee Settle recounts two visits to Turkey, 15 years apart. Istanbul: The Imperial City (Freely, 1998) is both a brief history and a travel guide. Turkish Odyssey (Serif Yenen, 1999) is a handbook to Turkish society and culture. Tales from the Expat Harem (Ashman and Gökmen, 2006) compiles 29 personal stories from foreign women living in Turkey. Eat Smart in Turkey (2004), by Joan Peterson, describes the fascinating history and culture of Turkish cuisine, and includes delicious recipes.

Karen Armstrong’s Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet (2001) and Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time (2006) explore the foundations of the Islamic faith. The Pleasantries of the Incredible Mullah Nasrudin (Shah, 1993) collects stories told by Sufi mystics, and The Drop That Became a Sea (Emre, 1999) is a compilation of Sufi poetry.

Books: Fiction

Nobel prizewinner Orhan Pamuk has written many novels about Turkey past and present, including My Name is Red (1998), Snow (2002), and The Black Book (1990). One for Sorrow is the first of six mysteries set in a vividly Byzantine Constantinople (Reed and Mayer, 2000). Birds Without Wings (2005), by Louis de Bernières of Corelli’s Mandolin fame, sets a village tragedy amid the fall of the Ottoman Empire, while Irfan Orga’s Portrait of a Turkish Family (2007) looks at a moneyed family over the same time period. For portraits of contemporary Turkey, with all its religious, ethnic, and political contradictions, try Elif Shafak’s The Bastard of Istanbul (2007) or O. Z. Livaneli’s Bliss (2007).

Memed, My Hawk (Kemal, 1955) is a dramatic tale of a bandit hero, seeking justice in the Turkish countryside. Poet and author Nazim Hikmet wrote Human Landscapes from My Country — a novel in verse — while being held in a Turkish prison in the 1940s.


Peter Ustinov won an Oscar for his supporting role in Topkapi (1964), a crime caper worth seeing for its grand tour of 1960s Istanbul. Sean Connery sneaks around Istanbul as James Bond in From Russia with Love (1963), with a great scene filmed inside the Underground Cistern. Gallipoli (1981) tells the story of the famous battle from the perspective of two Australian soldiers (including a very young Mel Gibson). In the Golden Globe-nominated drama Yol (1982), five political prisoners are given a week’s leave. In Hamam (1997) — also titled Steam: The Turkish Bath — an Italian inherits a traditional public bath in Istanbul. A photographer and his unemployed cousin try to connect in snow-covered Istanbul in Distant (2004), which won awards at the Cannes and Toronto International Film Festivals. Among documentaries, Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul (2005) stands out for its fascinating musical portrait of modern Istanbul.

Lale Surmen Aran and Tankut Aran are the authors of the Rick Steves' Istanbul guidebook.