Luminous Istanbul: City of Dreams
By Michal Strutin
September 27, 2022

Hagia Sophia, Salvator Barki/Getty Images

Whenever friends returned from a trip to Istanbul—whether spending a week or a month—they always said, “We wish we had stayed twice as long.” At first, I put it off to their bad planning. But their eyes seemed to light up when they talked about the city. Even my well-traveled mother, whose group trips went everywhere, had more than the usual pleasantries to say about Istanbul.


Me? I had Samarkand on the brain, because the images were so startlingly gorgeous. Samarkand dates back to 800 BCE, it’s in Uzbekistan, and one of the main cities on the storied Silk Road. Is it safe? Yes, say websites…especially compared to neighbors such as Afghanistan. Hmmm. My daydreamy travel plans to Samarkand remain just that.

Meanwhile, I’ve been working on a Late Renaissance mystery trilogy. Book 1 is set in Venice. Now that’s a place I’d like to time-travel to. Maybe the sanitation wasn’t so great. But, unlike the tourist center it’s become, Venice in 1570 was the commercial and printing center of Europe, bustling with innovative architecture, art, technology, and goods from all over the world: woolens from the British Isles, spices from the Far East, silk from China, sacks of coffee beans from Ethiopia. The “global economy” was not invented in the twentieth century. But that Venice—the commercial powerhouse—is long gone.

Interior of Süleymaniye Mosque, masterpiece of architect Mimar Sinan, 16th century

Because shipping was the main means of commercial transport in the 16th century, my sleuths, who are based in mystical Safed, Israel, travel by ship—big-bellied carracks–all over the eastern Mediterranean. One of their main stops is Istanbul. If Book 1 of my trilogy is set in Venice, why not set Book 2 in Istanbul, at the height of the Ottoman Empire?

Topkapi Palace

The Ottoman Empire arose in 1299 and lasted until 1922—more than 600 years—when the Young Turks took over “The Sick Man of Europe.” At its peak, the empire stretched from Vienna south to Yemen, from the border of Persia west to Algeria. It stands astride the Bosphorus Straight, which connects the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara and on to the Aegean Sea. One side of this Turkish city looks across the Bosphorus to Asia; the other side looks over those same waters to Europe. A city of two continents.

Istanbul reached its zenith in the 16th century, during the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent. Its population was greater than any city in Europe and its skyline was dramatic: Hagia Sophia and buildings designed by one of the most famous architects of his time, Mimar Sinen (see photos). A city of poets, politicians, scientists, and physicians among its 70,000-plus residents. Topkapi Palace and its harem. That’s where Roxelana was ensconced. She was the Ukrainian slave that Suleiman plucked to become his main courtesan, and she shrewdly convinced him to marry her. Then she engendered the era of the Sultanate of (wily) Women, making the harem a roil of patronymic politics.

Sufi whirling dervishes at Galata Museum

Book 2: Istanbul. I’m already 50 pages in. One of my favorite books, Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red, is set in 16th century Istanbul: a thrilling mystery at the “intersection of art, religion, love, sex, and power.” I love using this Nobel Prize-winner’s books as research material. I am about to start Pamuk’s comprehensive nonfiction book Istanbul.

Sehzade Mosque, interior

My mystery is set in the Galata and Balat districts, where foreigners lived; among the palatial homes of the wealthy along the Bosphorus; with whirling dervishes of Sufi mysticism; and—most especially—in the harem of Topkapi Palace. Nefarious plots at court, doctors who defy the Hippocratic oath, the terror of the silken cord. Adventure!

And yet…how can I do readers and such a magnificent city justice without visiting? I love including small, evocative details of sight, sound, and smell—from scruffy to sublime. I want readers to sense that they are there. How can I do that without having been there myself? Because of Putin’s War, Russians have fled to Istanbul by the tens of thousands. That will not deter me. I’ve already started my plans for a spring visit.

Michal Strutin

Written by Michal Strutin

Judging Noa: a Fight for Women’s Rights in the Turmoil of the Exodus is Michal Strutin’s debut novel. She is now working on a mystery series set in the Late Renaissance. Michal’s award-winning nonfiction focuses on natural and cultural history and travel. Her eight nonfiction books include Places of Grace: the Natural Landscapes of the American Midwest with photographer Gary Irving; Discovering Natural Israel, a high-spirited discovery of flora, fauna, and people; Florida State Parks: a Complete Recreation Guide; and History Hikes of the Smokies.

View Michal’s PLW Profile

Share This Post


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *