Ahh, Istanbul! The city of a hundred names, seven hills, two continents, cats, minarets, dreams and magic. Books set in Istanbul are always a delight for me to read. Whether it is in the era of the Ottomans or the Byzantines, I love reading about this one of a kind, wonderful city. Because of its rich history and inspiring geography, Istanbul is an incredible melting pot where Eastern and Western influences meet. From culture to food, music to literature, one can see the influences of both East and West.
While creating this list of books set in Istanbul, I tried to choose various authors, both Turkish and not. There are books for every reader on books set in Istanbul list, so you’ll find mysteries, literary and historical fiction, romance and many more. There are only fiction books on books set in Istanbul list simply because I love learning about a city through novels. I had a hard time eliminating many good books with beautiful plotlines. I hope you’ll find a book to your liking.
And I thought it would be nice to listen to the song Bosphorus by Brazzaville while browsing the books set in Istanbul. Enjoy!
20 Fascinating Books Set in Istanbul
Istanbul Passage – Joseph Kanon
For the lovers of spy novels among books set in Istanbul. A neutral capital straddling Europe and Asia, Istanbul survived WW2 as a magnet for refugees and spies, trafficking in secrets and lies rather than soldiers. Expatriate American businessman Leon Bauer was drawn into this shadow world, doing undercover odd jobs and courier runs in support of the Allied war effort.
Now as the espionage community begins to pack up and an apprehensive city prepares for the grim realities of postwar life, Leon is given one last routine assignment. But when the job goes fatally wrong – an exchange of gunfire, a body left in the street, and a potential war criminal in his hands – Leon is plunged into a nightmarish tangle of intrigue, shifting loyalties and moral uncertainty.
Rich with atmosphere and period detail, Istanbul Passage is the story of a man swept up in the dawn of the Cold War, of an unexpected love affair, and of a city as deceptive as the calm surface waters of the Bosphorus that divides it. An intriguing one among books set in Istanbul.
The Sultan’s Seal – Jenny White
For lovers of mystery series among books set in Istanbul. Rich in sensuous detail, this first novel brilliantly captures the political and social upheavals of the waning Ottoman Empire. The naked body of a young Englishwoman washes up in Istanbul wearing a pendant inscribed with the seal of the deposed sultan. The death resembles the murder by strangulation of another English governess, a crime that was never solved. Kamil Pasha, a magistrate in the new secular courts, sets out to find the killer, but his dispassionate belief in science and modernity is shaken by betrayal and widening danger.
In a lush, mystical voice, a young Muslim woman, Jaanan, recounts her own relationships with one of the dead women and her suspected killer. Were these political murders involving the palace or crimes of personal passion? An absorbing tale that transports the reader to nineteenth-century Turkey, this novel is also a lyrical meditation on the contradictory desires of the human soul. A fun series among books set in Istanbul.
A Mind at Peace – Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar
Heralded as the Turkish Ulysses, A Mind at Peace is a lyrical tribute to the beautiful city of Istanbul, set on the eve of WWII. Tanpinar memorably captures the anxieties of a cosmopolitan Istanbul family during the early years of the Turkish Republic, founded on the ashes of the Ottoman Empire in 1923. Both a historical novel and a love story, it addresses issues of language, music, tradition, politics and modernity and has received Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk’s highest compliment as ‘the greatest novel ever written about Istanbul‘. A must-read among books set in Istanbul.
Baudolino – Umberto Eco
For the lovers of Eco among books set in Istanbul. It is April 1204, and Constantinople, the splendid capital of the Byzantine Empire, is being sacked and burned by the knights of the Fourth Crusade. Amid the carnage and confusion, one Baudolino saves a historian and high court official from certain death at the hands of the crusading warriors and proceeds to tell his own fantastical story.
Born a simple peasant in northern Italy, Baudolino has two major gifts-a talent for learning languages and a skill in telling lies. When still a boy he meets a foreign commander in the woods, charming him with his quick wit and lively mind. The commander-who proves to be Emperor Frederick Barbarossa-adopts Baudolino and sends him to the university in Paris, where he makes a number of fearless, adventurous friends.
Spurred on by myths and their own reveries, this merry band sets out in search of Prester John, a legendary priest-king said to rule over a vast kingdom in the East-a phantasmagorical land of strange creatures with eyes on their shoulders and mouths on their stomachs, of eunuchs, unicorns, and lovely maidens.
With dazzling digressions, outrageous tricks, extraordinary feeling, and vicarious reflections on our postmodern age, this is Eco the storyteller at his brilliant best. One of the most interesting books set in Istanbul.
The Sultan of Byzantium – Selcuk Altun
For the lovers of historical fiction among books set in Istanbul. Fighting the Ottoman invaders in Constantinople in 1453, Emperor Constantine XI was killed, his body never found.
Legend has it that he escaped in a Genoese ship, cheating certain death at the hands of the Turks and earning himself the title of Immortal Emperor.
Five centuries after his disappearance, three mysterious men contact a young professor living in Istanbul. Members of a secret sect, they have guarded the Immortal Emperor s will for generations. They tell him that he is the next Byzantine emperor and that in order to take possession of his fortune he must carry out his ancestor s last wishes.
The professor embarks on a dangerous journey, taking him to the heart of a mystery of epic historical significance.
The Sultan of Byzantium is a symbiosis of story and history and a homage to Byzantine civilisation. An excellent story among books set in Istanbul.
Istanbul Noir – Mustafa Ziyalan
For the ones looking to discover new authors among books set in Istanbul. Surrounded by two seas, split by the Bosphorus Strait, and pierced by the Golden Horn, Istanbul stretches between Europe and Asia. A city at once ancient and modern, it is the quintessential postcard-perfect metropolis. But don’t let the alluring vistas fool you–beneath its veneer of a beautiful meeting place of cultures, religions, and ethnicities lies a heart of darkness seething with suppressed desire, boiling with frustration, and burning with a fervor for vengeance. If there is a city with its own unique brew of noir, Istanbul is it.
From the pitch-black and the ephemeral to the realistic and the surreal, from the open-hearted and the fanatic to the malicious and sadistic, from the butcher out for meat to the lamb who wants to live, these stories rip away the enchanting façade to reveal the shadowy side of Istanbul’s soul.
Comprised of entirely new stories by some of Turkey’s most exciting authors–some still up-and-coming, others well-established and critically acclaimed in their homeland–as well as by a couple of “outsiders” temporarily held hostage in the city’s vice, Istanbul Noir introduces a whole new breed of talent. As you succumb to the wiles of the city’s storytellers, however, be warned–their narrators are notoriously unreliable, and their readers even more so. For the lovers of stories among books set in Istanbul.
Losers’ Tale – Hikmet Temel Akarsu
For the ones looking for something different among books set in Istanbul. Losers’ Tale,” the first of the “Istanbul Quartet” series, is widely considered to be novelist Hikmet Temel Akarsu’s magnum opus. It met with great critical acclaim in 1998, the year it was published. It lived up to be one of the most important books of the counterculture in the following years. Today, it is a cult handiwork describing the economical depression of the 1990s and the grunge movement in Turkey.
In this novel, Akarsu depicts a very extraordinary, conspicuous and even startling picture of Istanbul’s less known spots and domains. This first book of the “Istanbul Quartet” series, written in a style the author nicknamed as “Rock ‘n’ Roman” (Turkish for “Rock ‘n’ Novel”), focuses mainly on Kadikoy and its surrounding district. It talks about people who frequent underground locations, meet at a bar called “Decadence,” and while suffering from an inevitable dejection, choose to be rebels along the lines of the “Losers’ Club” which they identify themselves with. An interesting choice among books set in Istanbul.
The Pasha of Cuisine – Saygin Ersin
For readers of Ken Follett’s Kingsbridge series and Richard C. Morais’s The Hundred-Foot Journey, a sweeping tale of love and the magic of food set during the Ottoman Empire.
For the lovers of food and mystery among books set in Istanbul. A Pasha of Cuisine is a rare talent in Ottoman lore. Only two, maybe three are born with such a gift every few centuries. A natural master of gastronomy, he is the sovereign genius who reigns over aromas and flavors and can use them to influence the hearts and minds, even the health, of those who taste his creations. In this fabulous novel, one such chef devises a plot bring down the Ottoman Empire—should he need to—in order to rescue the love of his life from the sultan’s harem.
Himself a survivor of the bloodiest massacre ever recorded within the Imperial Palace after the passing of the last sultan, he is spirited away through the palace kitchens, where his potential was recognized. Across the empire, he is apprenticed one by one to the best chefs in all culinary disciplines and trained in related arts, such as the magic of spices, medicine, and the influence of the stars.
It is during his journeys that he finds happiness with the beautiful, fiery dancing girl Kamer, and the two make plans to marry. Before they can elope, Kamer is sold into the Imperial Harem, and the young chef must find his way back into the Imperial Kitchens and transform his gift into an unbeatable weapon. A fun novel among books set in Istanbul.
The Museum of Innocence – Orhan Pamuk
For the ones looking to visit Istanbul among books set in Istanbul. The Museum of Innocence – set in Istanbul between 1975 and today – tells the story of Kemal, the son of one of Istanbul’s richest families, and of his obsessive love for a poor and distant relation, the beautiful Fusun, who is a shop-girl in a small boutique. In his romantic pursuit of Füsun over the next eight years, Kemal compulsively amasses a collection of objects that chronicles his lovelorn progress-a museum that is both a map of a society and of his heart.
The novel depicts a panoramic view of life in Istanbul as it chronicles this long, obsessive love affair; and Pamuk beautifully captures the identity crisis experienced by Istanbul’s upper classes that find themselves caught between traditional and westernised ways of being. Orhan Pamuk’s first novel since winning the Nobel Prize is a stirring love story and exploration of the nature of romance.
Pamuk built The Museum of Innocence in the house in which his hero’s fictional family lived, to display Kemal’s strange collection of objects associated with Fusun and their relationship. The house opened to the public in 2012 in the Beyoglu district of Istanbul. An award-winning author among books set in Istanbul.
River of The Dead – Barbara Nadel
For the mystery lovers among books set in Istanbul. Convicted murderer and drug baron Yusuf Kaya has escaped from Istanbul prison. He appears to have had inside help…
Inspector Cetin Ikmen is called to investigate Kaya’s contacts in the city, while Inspector Suleyman heads to Kaya’s home town of Mardin, a dangerous city in the southeast of Turkey. Back in Istanbul, as Ikmen delves deeper into Kaya’s past, the body count continues to rise. Meanwhile, Suleyman discovers that Kaya has another wife in Mardin, an American woman heavily guarded by members of the Kaya clan. It’s not long before the two Inspectors are caught up in a terrifying web of arms and drug running, terrorism, blackmail and murder… An excellent series among books set in Istanbul.
The Light of Day – Eric Ambler
For the lovers of thrillers among books set in Istanbul. Arthur Simpson – ‘British to the core’, but without a passport to prove it – lives in Athens, scraping by as a driver, journalist and petty thief. When Simpson spots Harper at the airport he recognises him as a tourist new to the city and in need of a private driver. But an ill-judged attempt to relieve Harper of his traveller’s cheques reveals him to be a highly sophisticated criminal, and entangles Simpson in a complex double blackmail. Simpson becomes an unwilling member of an armed gang in Istanbul, tasked with driving a suspicious car across the border.
Soon he is an even less willing agent for the Turkish secret police, who suspect Harper of planning a coup – but his plans are far more audacious than that, and Simpson is in very deep water indeed. The Light of Day won the Edgar Award for best novel in 1964, and was the basis for the classic film Topkapi. Like much of Ambler’s finest work, the novel focuses on an innocent man caught in a web of intrigue and deceit, and Simpson is one of the most memorable heroes in any classic thriller.An award-winning book among books set in Istanbul.
Birds Without Wings – Louis de Bernieres
For the lovers of historical fiction among books set in Istanbul. Set against the backdrop of the collapsing Ottoman Empire, Birds Without Wings traces the fortunes of one small community in south-west Anatolia – a town in which Christian and Muslim lives and traditions have co-existed peacefully for centuries.
When war is declared and the outside world intrudes, the twin scourges of religion and nationalism lead to forced marches and massacres, and the peaceful fabric of life is destroyed. Birds Without Wings is a novel about the personal and political costs of war, and about love: between men and women; between friends; between those who are driven to be enemies; and between Philothei, a Christian girl of legendary beauty, and Ibrahim the Goatherd, who has courted her since infancy. Epic in sweep, intoxicating in its sensual detail, it is an enchanting masterpiece. A popular one among books set in Istanbul.
Like a Sword Wound – Ahmet Altan
Intrigue, betrayal, love, war, progress, and tradition provide a colourful backdrop against which the lives of an Ottoman army officer, the Sultan’s personal doctor, a scion of the royal house, and a beguiling Turkish aristocrat play out. All the while, the society to which they belong is transforming, and the Sublime Empire disintegrates. Here is a Turkish saga reminiscent of War and Peace, that traces not only the social currents of the time but also the erotic and emotional lives of its characters. A popular historical fiction among books set in Istanbul.
For the readers interested in art and history among books set in Istanbul. In 1506, Michelangelo – a young but already renowned sculptor – is invited by the sultan of Constantinople to design a bridge over the Golden Horn. The sultan has offered, alongside an enormous payment, the promise of immortality, since Leonardo da Vinci’s design was rejected: ‘You will surpass him in glory if you accept, for you will succeed where he has failed, and you will give the world a monument without equal.’ Michelangelo, after some hesitation, flees Rome and an irritated Pope Julius II – whose commission he leaves unfinished – and arrives in Constantinople for this truly epic project.
Once there, he explores the beauty and wonder of the Ottoman Empire, sketching and describing his impressions along the way, and becomes immersed in cloak-and-dagger palace intrigues as he struggles to create what could be his greatest architectural masterwork. Tell them of Battles, Kings and Elephants – constructed from real historical fragments – is a thrilling page-turner about why stories are told, why bridges are built, and how seemingly unmatched pieces, seen from the opposite sides of civilization, can mirror one another. An excellent story among books set in Istanbul.
Gardens of Water – Alan Drew
In 1999, Sinan is caught up in everyday problems. Despite hardships, he must be a role model for his nine-year-old son Ismail, who is preparing for his coming-of-age ceremony. Meanwhile his teenage daughter Irem grows more resentful of having to help her mother run the house, cover her glorious hair beneath a headscarf, and refrain from watching Western television.
But the delicate stability of this family is about to be tested in the wake of an earthquake that will strip Sinan of his home and livelihood. Reliant upon missionaries running the camp they now call home and morally indebted to an American whom he distrusts (and whose son Dylan exerts a frightening pull on Irem), Sinan becomes entangled in a series of increasingly dangerous decisions. Pushed towards a final betrayal, Sinan may yet find that everything he holds dear is destroyed, like the streets of Istanbul that lie in rubble beneath his feet. An interesting one among books set in Istanbul.
Master of Shadows – Neil Oliver
In fifteenth-century Constantinople, Prince Constantine saves the life of a broken-hearted girl. But the price of his valour is high.
John Grant is a young man on the edge of the world. His unique abilities carry him from his home in Scotland to the heart of the Byzantine Empire in search of a girl and the chance to fulfil a death-bed promise.
Lena has remained hidden from the men who have been searching for her for many years. When she’s hunted down, at last she knows what she must do.
With an army amassing beyond the city’s ancient walls, the fates of these three will intertwine. As the Siege of Constantinople reaches its climax, each must make a choice between head and heart, duty and destiny. For the lovers of historical fiction among books set in Istanbul.
The Aviary Gate – Katie Hickman
In Oxford’s Bodleian Library, Elizabeth Staveley has found a fragment of ancient paper that may hold the key to a story hidden for four centuries: a British sea captain’s daughter held captive in the sultan’s harem.
Constantinople, 1599. In the sultan’s palace, the chief eunuch has been poisoned by a beautiful ship made of spun sugar, and a rebellion is rising within the palace’s most private quarters. A British merchant, Paul Pindar, brings a precious gift to the sultan and discovers that the woman he once loved, Celia, may be alive, hidden among the ranks of slaves in the sultan’s harem. Can this really be his shipwrecked Celia? And if it is, can they be reunited? For the ones interested in Harem among books set in Istanbul.
A Recipe for Daphne – Nektaria Anastasiadou
Fanis, a charming widower with an eye for the ladies, is at the center of a dwindling yet stubbornly proud community of Rum, Greek Orthodox Christians, who have lived in Istanbul for centuries.
Daphne, the American-born niece of an old friend, arrives in the city in search of her roots. She is met with a hearty welcome and, as a beautiful yet aloof outsider, she turns many heads.
Kosmas, a master pastry chef on the lookout for a good Rum wife, falls instantly in love with Daphne. Fanis is smitten too, but finds himself disturbed by memories of the 1955 pogrom and the fiancée he lost.
Can Kosmas win Daphne’s affections? Or will a family secret, one deeply rooted in the painful history of the city itself, threaten their chances?
This story of love, hopeful new beginnings, and ancient traditions introduces a sparkling new literary voice sure to transport and entertain. A fairly new novel among books set in Istanbul.
Walking on the Ceiling – Aysegül Savas
After her mother’s death, Nunu moves from Istanbul to a small apartment in Paris. One day outside of a bookstore, she meets M., an older British writer whose novels about Istanbul Nunu has always admired. They find themselves walking the streets of Paris and talking late into the night. What follows is an unusual friendship of eccentric correspondence and long walks around the city.
M. is working on a new novel set in Turkey and Nunu tells him about her family, hoping to impress and inspire him. She recounts the idyllic landscapes of her past, mythical family meals, and her elaborate childhood games. As she does so, she also begins to confront her mother’s silence and anger, her father’s death, and the growing unrest in Istanbul. Their intimacy deepens, so does Nunu’s fear of revealing too much to M. and of giving too much of herself and her Istanbul away. Most of all, she fears that she will have to face her own guilt about her mother and the narratives she’s told to protect herself from her memories.
A wise and unguarded glimpse into a young woman’s coming into her own, Walking on the Ceiling is about memory, the pleasure of invention, and those places, real and imagined, we can’t escape. For the contemporary fiction readers among books set in Istanbul.
Cloud Cuckoo Land – Anthony Doerr
Cloud Cuckoo Land follows three storylines: Anna and Omeir, on opposite sides of the formidable city wall during the 1453 siege of Constantinople; teenage idealist Seymour and gentle octogenarian Zeno, in an attack on a public library in present-day Idaho; and Konstance, on an interstellar ship bound for a distant exoplanet, decades from now.
A single copy of an ancient text – the story of Aethon, who longs to be turned into a bird so that he can fly to the paradise of Cloud Cuckoo Land – provides solace, mystery and the most profound human connection to these five unforgettable characters.
Like Marie-Laure and Werner in All the Light We Cannot See, Anna, Omeir, Zeno, Seymour and Konstance are dreamers and outsiders, struggling to survive and finding resourcefulness and hope in the midst of peril. An interesting one among books set in Istanbul.
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Are there any books set in Istanbul you’d like to add to this list? Would you please share in the comments section below?