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John Freely's Istanbul

review - By John Freely. Scala, 2005. 216pp. £15.95

This attractive paperback is deceptive, writes Andrew Mead. At first it appears to be a guidebook, but although many buildings are mentioned, there's not a single plan, nor is there even a map of Istanbul itself; which makes the chapter headings ('The First Hill', 'The Fifth and Sixth Hills', etc) a bit meaningless if you don't have perfect recall of the place, or your own map to hand. It does have an index, however.

But John Freely has a most intimate, thorough knowledge of Istanbul and its history, having spent long periods of his life there, inquisitively. Among his prolific writings on the city is the Blue Guide (A & C Black) - a volume in which, unusually for that series, the author's personality emerges as well as a mass of facts.

Now in his late 70s, Freely writes this present book as someone acutely and wistfully aware of the changes in Istanbul since he first settled there in 1960: the 'layers of old local colour stripped away', 'the picturesque wooden houses? demolished for concrete apartment blocks', the huge abandoned Binbirderek Cistern turned into a shopping mall. The book fluctuates continually between what persists and what has been lost - as Freely says, it is 'a series of impressions, drifting back and forth between present and past'. With plenty of colour photographs, and the sense of Freely's deep involvement with his subject (there are some telling anecdotes), it's a welcome addition to the literature on Istanbul - if not the most practical one.

Pictured right is the Theodosius Cistern, Roman in origin and not yet a shopping centre.

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