A Traveller’s History of Turkey, by Richard Stoneman

Article published on September 4, 2011.

This book is the Turkish tourist’s ultimate secret weapon. If you’re taking a touring holiday of Turkey, with a group, you must have this book. Its jam packed with facts and figures, dates and dynasties, snippets of stories, lists of rulers and battles, everything you need to play tour-group one-upmanship.

Everyone else will have the guide books, the photo-guide to Ephesus, the map of St Paul’s  journeys in Cyprus and the middle east and the astonishingly long list of Istanbul’s mosques, but you will have an invaluable two hundred and fifty pages of history from the bronze age to Turkey’s hosting of the UEFA cup final in 2009. When the group’s travel-bore (you know the one, she’s called Susan, the ex-teacher living in East Grinstead who’s seen everything but understood nothing) gathers an audience and expounds on Rameses and the battle of Qadesh you’ll be able to mention Muwatalli the second and the consequential loss of Mitanni. When you know someone on the bus is listening in you’ll be able to talk about the James the sixth and first being born in the year that Selim the Sot inherited the Ottoman empire from Selim the first, who wasn’t the first Selim at all but who had inherited that fledgling empire from Suleyman the Magnificent.

Now the index isn’t that good, and its not a history of the places in Turkey but a history of the region itself, so you do need to read it through first and make a few annotations and your own index of key things about places on your trip, so don’t think you can just put the thing in your bag and go. Skip-read by all means, but remember that you’ll never be able to find the reference you want if you’ve not indexed it as you go.

And a word of caution. This is history the way schools used to teach it. In this year that ruler of this tribe from that region invaded this other tribe’s territory and captured that city and enslaved/liberated/slaughtered/expelled its inhabitants and imposed a fine/built a temple/razed the city/took it over and lived there. You’ll barely recognize most of the place names and the maps don’t help find them, even when a helpful modern name is supplied as well. There’s no depth here. Its dull stuff and not at all memorable, a sort of a list filled out with linking words and the occasional quotation or anecdote. The travel-bore could catch you out if you’re not ready to turn the discussion to other topics quickly, perhaps using their own ploy – you know the sort of thing, ‘Ah, but did you notice the copper-green mosaic tiles in the Holy Wisdom?’ and so on.

Its a great little taster of the sheer volume of history that’s flowed in, through and around this region, from the world’s first known city down to the present day. Leaves you wanting to know much, much more.

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