Get in the mood for your trip to Turkey with these books and movies.
As you explore this list, you’ll find that these works bite: even the most light-hearted of these titles has a deep soul and carries with it a certain amount of political commentary, weighty history, and heartbreaking beauty specific to Turkey.
This 2017 documentary begins about cats, a staple of Istanbul street life for thousands of years. The film ends up as a beautiful walkabout of Istanbul’s sights and streets, touching enough to convert even the most stubborn dog-lover. The visual portrayal of the city is lovely, as is the time getting to know the citizens and shopkeepers whose lives cross with these four-legged creatures.
Adapted from Chekhov’s short story, “The Wife,” this 2014 movie takes place in Cappadocia, Central Turkey, where the protagonist Aydin—a writer, landlord, and former actor—accidentally gets too close one of his tenants (and the intricacies of his financial and legal difficulties). The movie is a glance into the complicated economic and class boundaries of contemporary Turkey, set in a fascinating landscape of ancient mountains and high plateaus.
"The Two Faces of January"
Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst star in this racy crime thriller from 2014, adapted from the 1964 novel by Patricia Highsmith (author of The Talented Mr. Ripley). The film revolves around a 1960s couple, their sketchy pursuits, and fatal mistakes while touring Greece (and eventually landing in Istanbul). Beautiful scenes later on in the movie showcase Istanbul and the Grand Bazaar.
"Once Upon a Time in Anatolia"
This dark, soulful film from 2011 tours the Anatolian countryside in Turkey’s Western Asian peninsula, as a group of men from a small town search for a dead body. Most of the movie involves this search, making for a film of lovely, long desert scenes and lengthy conversations between the men.
Directed by Peter Weir and starring Mel Gibson, this 1981 flick centers around an Australian army sent during World War I to Gallipoli, in the southern part of East Thrace. The film depicts a somewhat fictionalized version of the battle of Nek that took place there, when Australians were badly defeated by the Ottoman Empire. If you can get past some of its historical inaccuracies, it’s a gut-wrenching, anti-war film.
This story became the stuff that travel nightmares are made of: A young American man gets thrown into a Turkish prison for life, with no signs of aid from the United States. The 1978 film is such a classic that it’s almost cliche now, and hard to remember that it’s based on the true story of Billy Hayes, who was caught smuggling hashish out of Turkey but improbably escaped a Turkish prison to return home.
"My Name Is Red" by Orhan Pamuk
Narrators in this 1998 postmodern novel represent a wide, alternating range of characters, most of them miniature painters, a noble group of artists in the 16th-century Ottoman Empire who created finely detailed manuscript illustrations. A book that is at once many things culminates as a beautiful novel about love, art, and mystery. Pamuk’s other books, Istanbul: Memories and the City and Museum of Innocence also focus on the Istanbul he calls home.
"The Bastard of Istanbul" by Elif Şafak
This full, if somewhat messy 2006 novel greatly displeased the Turkish government. It jumps time spans, geographic locations, and the lives of its interconnected characters. Aside from its political and historical delving, especially into the Armenian Massacre of 1915, the descriptions of Istanbul and Turkey as a homeland are some of the book’s best features.
"Five Sisters: A Modern Novel of Kurdish Women" by Kit Anderson
This 2012 book follows the lives of women, all from the same mountain village, and all of Kurdish descent, as their stories diverge. The novel is based on true stories Anderson gathered while living among the Kurdish (a traditional ethnic group that makes up about 20 percent of Turkish population) in Eastern Turkey for eight years.
"The Other Side of the Mountain" by Erendiz Atasü
The feminist activist author creates a rich, multigenerational tale of different characters and perspectives throughout Turkey (and jumping around several time periods), making the 2000 novel a complex (if not sometimes confusing) portrayal of Turkey and of Turkish women dating back to the Ottoman Empire.
"Dear Shameless Death" by Latife Tekin
Political activist and best-selling author Latife Tekin pens a vivid portrayal of growing up as a woman in Turkey, based on her own experiences. The novel, while rooted in realistic, contemporary Turkey, maintains an element of magical realism in its portrayal of the small towns and big cities of the country, and the juxtaposition between contrasting ways of life.a