Texts of time: Istanbul's living libraries

Texts of time: Istanbul's living libraries

Joshua Bruce Allen
December 27, 2016

One of the earliest inventions of civilization is the written word itself, as well as buildings designed to house the most important documents. The value of learning was so great for ancient civilizations that the Library of Alexandria was known as a wonder of the world; after this library’s destruction, the center of Greek and Roman thought moved to the Imperial Library of Constantinople, now Istanbul. For personal research, as a quiet space to work on academic, business, or creative work, or to appreciate the wealth of the city’s heritage while surrounded by superb architecture, these libraries are definitely an underused resource in Istanbul – and they’re all open to the public.

Atatürk Kitaplığı

Starting closest to central Taksim Square, all library buffs should visit Atatürk Kitaplığı. As an institution, the library has been open since 1939, although it only moved to its current location in Gümüşsuyu in 1981. The building, which rises above a green hill dotted with trees, was financed by Koç Holding. It’s worth a visit for the architecture alone: the concrete and glass structure has six tent-like roofs around a central hub, like a modernist version of the tents used by the Turks’ nomadic ancestors in Central Asia. The top floor of the library is windowed on all sides, offering fantastic views of the Bosphorus and the city’s Asian shore, while the bottom floor has desks for viewing large documents such as newspapers, maps, and calendars. There aren’t many English books here, but the library’s collection includes some of the first Ottoman newspapers, 12,320 postcards, and 10,000 maps.

IRCICA Library, Yıldız Palace Museum

Yıldız Palace Museum in Beşiktaş, as well as featuring a wealth of kiosks built in the late-Ottoman reign of Sultan Abdulhamid II, also hosts the IRCICA Library, an institution devoted mostly to Islamic religion and arts. Containing 81,000 books, rare editions, and theses, 7,000 works of calligraphy, 65,000 historic photographs, and 1,660 maps, the IRCICA Library was created by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) from international collections in 145 languages; from common tongues such as Turkish, Arabic, Persian, English, French, and German, the library also presents lesser-known languages including Swahili and Zulu. Although the collection centers around Islamic subjects, outside this focus it also contains material on history, geography, science, art, architecture, literature, and philosophy. 

Beyazıt State Library

Standing opposite the 16th-century Bayezid Mosque in Fatih, the Beyazıt Devlet Kütüphanesi (Beyazıt State Library) was the first public library along European lines to be opened in Turkey. After some restoration of what was then an Islamic social center, the library began offering its services in 1884 with the support of Sultan Abdülhamit II. Interestingly, the head librarian from 1896-1939 was so fond of cats that he allowed many to stay in the building, leading people to call it kedili kütüphane (the library with cats). Beyazıt State Library is now more famous for its books, but we can still imagine fluffy felines curled up on the bookshelves. Tabanlıoğlu Architects gave the building a stunning restoration in 2016, an effort that won the 2016 World Architecture Festival's "Old and New" prize - read The Guide Istanbul's interview with the architects.

Süleymaniye Library

Not far from the Bayezıt State Library is the Süleymaniye Kütüphanesi (Süleymaniye Library), whose core collection is the 16th-century library of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent. Its present form was not established until 1927, but this is one of the most important manuscript libraries in the world. Among its works are the hand-written documents of 11th-century scholar Avicenna (Ibn-Sina), whose writings on philosophy, medicine, and science were valued for centuries after his death. These writings are one of Turkey’s three items on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register. Aside from this wondrous collection, the library’s calm, green courtyard is also an excellent space for contemplation. Note: Süleymaniye Library is closed for restoration as of December 2016.

Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar Literature Museum Library

Named after Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar, one of modern Turkey's most notable writers and essayists, the Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar Literature Museum Library is located in the Ottoman-era Procession Kiosk on the grounds of Gülhane Park. Tanpınar is most famous for his work The Time Regulation Institute (Saatleri Ayarlama Enstitüsü), which has been widely translated, while his novel A Mind at Peace (Huzur) has been called the Turkish Ulysses. The library's collection includes around 8,000 books, 1,000 of which deal with Istanbul. As well as a café displaying the works of famous writers, the library has rooms where literary talks, discussions, and temporary exhibitions are held.

SALT Galata

Officially an art gallery, SALT Galata is also a lot more – housed in the old building of the Ottoman Bank, its basement space still contains the currency and gold vaults, which are open to visitors. More impressive is the library, spread across two floors and with multiple spaces for reading and computer use. In terms of architecture, ease of access, and variety of books (in various languages, including English, Turkish, and French), this is one of the best libraries in Istanbul. And when we need a break, SALT Galata has an excellent café.

And within walking distance of SALT is İstanbul Araştırmaları Enstitüsü (Istanbul Research Institute), a three-floor library focusing on works from the Byzantine, Ottoman, and Republican periods of Istanbul’s history. Books and other items cannot be loaned from the library, but everything in the collection can be viewed on site. The tall, winding staircases here lend an academic air to the building, which is a great space for research, work, or private inspiration. When that creative power needs some outside help, we can wander through the "Old Istanbul" and "Atatürk and the Republic" photography exhibitions.

Vitali Hakko Creative Industries Library

On the Asian side in the basement of the award-winning Vakko Fashion Center in Nakkaştepe is the Vitali Hakko Creative Industries Library. Home to over 15,000 publications, this modern library includes an invaluable array of special editions, autographed copies, and limited copies. From classic photos of celebrities to visual histories of Barbie and Gucci, the motifs of Islamic art, guerilla advertising, and the commercial charms of pop art, this library displays a kaleidoscope of human creativity.

Sign up to our weekly newsletter for free Istanbul updates straight to your inbox, or follow us on Instagram for our best Istanbul snapshots.