Why you should care
It’s a paradise in an unlikely location. Presuming you love books.
Istanbul is a festival of the senses, but it can get overwhelming. The breathtaking sight of the Bosphorus skyline, the smell of the old spice markets, the sounds of the motor boats — it’s enough to make the most seasoned traveler’s head spin. But don’t fret. When your feet are getting sore and your ears are ringing with the muezzin’s call to prayer, retreat to the Sahaf library.
This little-known cultural gem — its name means “antiquarian” — is home to 3,000 books on Turkish art and Istanbul history. But it’s hidden in the unlikeliest of places: an ostentatiously modern hotel called the Point Hotel Barbaros. Located in the bland district of Şişli, the hotel doesn’t really scream high culture — more fancy cocktails and conference calls. And yet, past the cold metallic lobby and up the hidden stairs to the first floor, the Sahaf appears like a vision: a small, warmly lit room with walls covered in beautifully bound tomes and odd Turkish memorabilia. “It’s a weird location,” says Wynand Oliver, a 30-year-old tourist from South Africa, “but it’s feels like a magic bubble of art and history.”
The books are in 20 different languages — from Latin to German — and some are extremely valuable.
There’s also something homey about the Sahaf. Maybe because it’s the private book collection of the hotel’s general manager, Gökhan Özbek, a passionate bibliophile who’s happy to share his leather-bound treasures with any guest, writer or doctoral student coming to do research on Istanbul. The books are in 20 different languages, from Latin to German, and some are extremely valuable — like the letters of Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, a Hungarian ambassador who was welcomed in Constantinople in the time of Kanuni Sultan Suleiman, that were published in 1633.
Besides books, the Sahaf also hosts an impressive collection of old maps and odd ephemera like a signpost for the Orient Express and an old game of skittles (a British type of bowling), which English soldiers played during the First World War. The pins look like Turkish troops. The room has a big table at the center where you can sit for hours without behind frowned upon.
There’s no taking any books home, though. And you can’t buy them either. Just a free look. So serious book aficionados may actually prefer some of Istanbul’s many larger, more famous libraries. “I’d never heard of the Sahaf,” says Kristin Recber, a local archivist and librarian. “For serious research,” she recommends the Atatürk Library or the Library of the İstanbul University.
Still, there are benefits to not being included in Lonely Planet. Namely, no queues and plenty of peace and quiet. There’s also no entry fee. Open from 7 a.m. until 11 p.m., you can visit the Sahaf to explore the city’s turbulent history before diving into the sea of tourists and sensory overload that is the Grand Bazaar.
Granted, the Sahaf might not be the little dusty cave of wonders you were dreaming to find at the end of a narrow bazaar alley. But you know what they say: Never judge a book by its cover.