To anyone who has taken a cursory look at an English-language bookstore in Istanbul, the name John Freely will be familiar. Known affectionately as “the memory of Istanbul”, Freely was one of those cross-cultural wonders who flourish in Istanbul’s fertile atmosphere.
Born in the 1920s to two Irish immigrants in New York, Freely dropped out of school at age 17 to serve with the US Navy in the final years of World War II. However, he was a curious and motivated young man, educating himself with travel and history books from the public library. After the war, he entered Iona College thanks to the GI Bill and then earned a PhD in physics at New York University and continued his postgraduate studies at Oxford University.
A formative moment in Freely’s later love for Istanbul came from an old book in his grandmother’s attic in Ireland. Freely’s great-grandfather had brought this book back from Istanbul where he had been stationed during the Crimean War. The engravings of minarets perched on the seven hills of Istanbul bewitched the young man’s imagination, planting a seed that would bear great fruit.
When the opportunity came to teach at Istanbul’s Boğaziçi University—the first American university founded outside of the United States—Freely jumped on it. This was the start of Freely’s Istanbul explorations, which he carried out with tireless consistency, walking every street of Beyoğlu and Fatih, researching the history of every house, mosque, fountain, tomb, and church. Freely’s 1972 classic Strolling Through Istanbul: A Guide to the City reflects his own walks through the old city, encouraging travelers to get outside, off the typical tourist trails, and discover the storied nooks and crannies around every corner.
Freely also had a knack for picking idiosyncratic and little-known characters from Istanbul’s history and turning their lives into history books that could have been novels. One of these, Jem Sultan: The Adventures of a Captive Turkish Prince in Renaissance Europe, recounts the life of pretender to the Ottoman sultanate Cem Sultan, who stood against Sultan Bayezid II and ended up in the curious position of being protected by the pope in Rome. Another is The Lost Messiah: In Search of the Mystical Rabbi Sabbatai Sevi, tracing the biography of the seventeenth-century rabbi who claimed to be the messiah and then converted to Islam along with some of his disciples who formed the ethnically Jewish but religiously Muslim community known as Dönme.
Spending so many days pounding Istanbul’s streets for hidden stories, Freely gained a wealth of knowledge on the past and present city that few foreigners, or locals for that matter, could possess. One of Freely’s lesser-known but quite charming books is Stamboul Sketches: Encounters in Old Istanbul, which collects bits and pieces that were too eccentric to fit into his previous books. Subjects include the city’s street cats and their relationship with human residents, wandering dervishes and forgotten Sufi lodges, the folk singers known as aşık, the strange names given to seasonal winds in the traditional Turkish calendar, the items on sale in the city markets, the shape of headstones in cemeteries, and the calculation of Ramadan according to the lunar calendar.