Having been to Istanbul twice in the last 18 months I must admit, the city’s wealth of charm, history, noise, vastness and perpetual motion kept me enthralled for the entire visit. The first trip was to attend a conference a couple of hundred metres away from Taksim Square during the 2013 June protests. Myself and other delegates were unintentionally caught up in the throng and ended up being teargassed by police and running the back streets, identity badges bouncing in the furore. Thousands of young secular Turks challenged brutal police behaviour in an emotional, yet peaceful uprising against the conservative corruption of then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Elderly people banged empty cooking pots with utensils from first storey windows in solidarity with protestors and the adrenaline pumped to the sound of ear splitting chanting.

The second visit was more subdued to the Patriarchate to discuss a potential interview with His All Holiness Patriarch Bartholomew. It didn’t materialise but the next few days lost in the Grand Bazaar and surrounding streets were very memorable. Sitting out on roof top terraces looking over the Golden Horn, or towards the Sea of Marmara, watching the passage of endless ships, felt splendid in the February sunshine. We then took a boat across the Marmara towards Izmir at the behest of the wine bureau to meet up with two leading wine producers and taste their produce. The experience was titivating and rounded off nicely with a trip to the ancient city of Ephesus, home of Socrates.

Why all these memories? Well because retrospectively they felt like a small bit of time travel. I wanted more though. I wanted to experience more of Istanbul, ancient Constantinople. It’s been on my mind and I hope to return this year. 

With these latent desires existing just beneath the surface I couldn’t help finger off the shelf a paperback by an author unknown to me, called Jason Goodwin. I was in the Carnegie Library in Herne Hill Road (where I am often!) and the book for some reason caught my eye. I read front cover idly, ‘The Jannissary Tree’, then the back cover and thought, “I’ll have some of this!”

The central character is the decadent eunuch Yashim, humble servant of the Sultan, who is the first call of anyone in the city seeking discreet solutions to problems that often involve affairs of state, life and death, extremely fine Ottoman cuisine and plenty of Polish vodka. 

It is hard not to like Yashim, his integrity is faultless, his will weakened by beautiful, either aristocratic or partially nymphomaniac ladies, described in such a way that makes them the envy of Ottoman society (if not slightly dangerous). The edginess from my visit is echoed in Goodwin’s stories as the people, ever risible, present an ongoing threat to the authorities in both the first two stories. 

The Snake Stone by Jason Goodwin

Goodwin’s real charm is to share his infinite and passionate knowledge of a city he knows so much about, right down to inhabitants taste and mannerisms. He does this effortlessly without leaving the reader lingering on the page. The city is brought to life in many forms from the layers of culture to hidden gems such as the ancient colonnaded cistern beneath the old city that is a gem to behold. I had visited it myself but had no real idea of its complexity until reading the sequel to Goodwin’s first book titled, ‘The Snake Stone’. 

The books are fast paced, Yashim’s apartment is an envy, his recipe’s inspirational (I think there maybe a book on the way just to present these fine dishes to a wanton fan base!), the colour in every page undeniable and the adventure insatiable. 

If you are not a Yashim fan yet, step up to the plate… you soon will be! I am about to start number 3!

 

*Please note that the carnegie Library’s copy is no longer available as the copy I borrowed was lost during a mugging incident in Zurich at the beginning of December 2014. I will replace the copy but haven’t had time.

Reviewed by Nick Breeze (Twitter: @NickGBreeze) 

Buy the books:

The Janissary Tree (Yashim the Ottoman Detective)

The Snake Stone (Yashim the Ottoman Detective)