By Charles FitzRoy (Thames & Hudson, £12.95)
This improbable travel companion was, for me, the highlight of this year’s Christmas.
Mr FitzRoy proposes, with no needless earnest, to be your guide in the Istanbul of 1750, as if you were extending your Grand Tour eastwards. (I did wonder whether any European of 1750 would refer to the place as ‘Istanbul', but no matter.) He introduces us to the very mixed locals, with their highly coloured footwear, cafes and habitats, takes you round Topkapı Palace and the Harem, shows you the main sights and slips you into the city’s great celebrations - all in an engaging style that maintains the fiction of being an eighteenth-century vademecum while never lapsing into pastiche.
The book is very informative, though free of any buttonholing harassment. While I’ve probably forgotten much more about Ottoman Constantinople than I realise, I’m sure I never knew that the Balat district was named after a palace (‘palation’). The municipality of Beşiktaş (where in recent years a hidden tea garden of effortless charm, perfect for whiling away a late afternoon, has been supplanted by a featureless restaurant and takeaway) is so called for a stone on which the infant Jesus had been washed: again, my memory is innocent of this notion, though, as I discover, it's but one of the theories. Not had I any idea that the imam would climb the pulpit steps in Ayasofya with a naked scimitar, in token of the principal church of Christendom being taken by storm in 1543.
There’s very much more than this to enjoy here, and I’d devoured it all before making Christmas dinner. Thames & Hudson’s historical guide book idea is seductive: I look forward to examining their Ancient Egypt on Five Deben a Day or The Wild West on Five Bits a Day. And unsurprisingly from this publisher, the book is beautifully set and illustrated (both visually and with snippets from authors of the time). I found it an utter pleasure.
But The Sultan’s Istanbul on Five Kurush a Day may ultimately give me more than a few problems. Sophie Rathenau is expected in Constantinople in the mid-1770s, and how I’ll accomplish that without cribbing shamelessly from Mr FitzRoy I hardly know. There had been an academy in Vienna for Sprachknaben from 1754 - it trained boys in oriental languages because dragomans, the local translators, were unreliable and corrupt, another fact you’ll learn from The Sultan’s Istanbul - but Sophie, as her readers know, has already taken her first faltering steps in Turkish, and will doubtless have achieved some fluency by that time.