From the first chapter, this travel guide to Turkish history by writer and poet, Richard Tillinghast had me hooked. He is the second author; I have read who uses one of my favourite styles to portray the history of Turkey by combining interviews and research with a personal story.
I also give respect where it is due because Richard is not a newbie visitor to Istanbul or Turkey. He first visited the country in the 1960s when tourism was a relatively unknown concept except for hippie backpackers, making their way through the Middle East on the famous Hippie Trail that died out when travelling became available to the masses.
His tales of trading currency on the black-market exchange scene, smoking hash on the roof of a pudding shop, living through a small earthquake and sleeping on the floor of the Orient Express train, are all entwined with historical snippets about former Byzantine rulers, Ottoman sultans, mosques, and neighbourhoods of Jews and Armenians.
This book is really about his 50-year journey to learn the language, unravel the religion and delve into the customs and traditions of Turkey so he could do his job as a travel writer properly. The finished product gives the reader has one of the best insights into Istanbul that has ever been written, both from personal and historical points of view.
A Travel Guide to Turkish History
Despite the author’s title that this is an armchair guide, it would also be a good guidebook when touring the main historical attractions of Istanbul. For example, he walks us through his visit to the Hagia Sophia, a former church, mosque and now the most famous museum of Turkey.
I have never read such an intensely detailed explanation of the architecture and Christian mosaics in any other travel guide to Turkish history. On my next visit to Istanbul, I will return to the Hagia Sophia with this book, simply to follow the trail that Richard lays out, as he walks into the museum and strolls around the upper gallery.
His introduction to trends instigated by the Ottoman Empire such as tribal carpets, Islamic art, mosque architecture and calligraphy serve as the perfect lead to his armchair tour of the Topkapi Palace, first home for sultans after they invaded destitute Constantinople.
Writing about the kitchens of the palace, he tells us…” What a lot of cooking went on there! Someone has uncovered the yearly inventory of ingredients from 1640 and has ascertained the cooks went through 1,130 tons of meat, 92 tons of spinach, 14 tons of yogurt, 265 tons of rice and so forth.”
He breaks the social silence about the Ottoman sultans’ habit of forcing young boys from non-Islamic countries into the slave trade so they may become eunuchs of the harem. Nicknamed “bed-keepers,” they were a harmless threat around the concubines of the Sultan because of their forced castration at a young age.
Writing about other landmarks such as the Archaeological museum and the Sultanahmet neighbourhood, the author then delves into probably the most pivotal time in Istanbul’s history that was the abolishment of the Ottoman Empire and the transition into the Turkish Republic.
He does this by telling the story of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and the battle of Gallipoli but in a surprising twist, also dedicates a chapter to the Asian side of Istanbul, an area rarely featured in most travel guides. As well as the section about foreigners and expats who lived in Constantinople during the 18th century, I loved the chapter on Whirling Dervishes, followers who believe in a sect of Islam called Sufism, yet their importance in the history of Turkey has these days been diminished to museums and Sufa ceremonies laid on for masses of tourists.
Finishing with a chapter dedicated to Turkish cuisine and a timeline of rulers of Byzantium, Constantinople and the presidents of the Turkish Republic, this travel guide to Turkish history is a brilliant read whether you plan to travel to Istanbul or read it from your armchair.
The book has excellent reviews on Amazon and can be purchased in hardback and Kindle form. Read the reviews and find out the prices here.