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Foreign correspondent and voyager. Worked and lived in Iran, Russia and Turkey. At home in Istanbul but always moving.
‘July Rain’, waiting for the shower to pass

Quite often the appreciation of foreign literature, cinema or art is exemplified by a near obsessive focus on a handful of big names to the exclusion of all else. For long, my awareness of cinema in the Soviet Union, which left a a huge and varied legacy with an influence that went well beyond its borders, was limited to the most restrictive canon of films that were shown in art house movie theatres in the UK or evoked in university Russian courses. This began with the silent era. The unforgettable and revolutionary work of Dziga Vertov such as

For many, their favourite place in Moscow could be a world famous heritage landmark — Red Square, the Bolshoi Theatre or St Basil’s Cathedral. The city is dotted with extraordinary places from hundreds of years of history whose first impact is never forgotten. But as I returned to Moscow earlier this year after too long an absence, a visit in a weirdly warm winter squeezed in before the pandemic, I realised the place which means most to me is something different. A place which thousands of commuters rush through every day with barely a second thought.

A metro station.


Saxon fortified church in Prejmer, Romania

Transylvania. The associations are clear but often misguided. This mountainous, thickly-forested and culturally-rich area in the heart of today’s Romania is inextricably linked to a novel written by a man who never set foot in the area and also a mediaeval ruler regarded more as a fairy-tale villain than historical figure. The 1897 novel by the Irish author Bram Stoker, the much-filmed and retold tale of a vampire count living in Transylvania who sinks his teeth into flesh to drink the blood of the innocent, is what occurs to most when Transylvania is mentioned. But while he cleverly conjured…

It is 4:45 am in the morning and the abusive scream of the alarm clock wrenches me out of my sleep. I dreamily contemplate the snooze function but think the better of it and instead fall into a tried-and-trusted routine. Throw on sports kit, assemble a small rucksack, lace up trainers and gobble a small bowl of cereal. Outside, the seagulls are mewing away loudly in defiance of the early hour. The loudspeakers on the minaret rattle as the muezzin readies his voice for the first call to prayer of the day. Still sleepy, I stumble up the hill to…

During five years living in Turkey, I crossed the country in search of new experiences and insights along this extraordinary nation that stretches from the Balkans to Mesopotamia. Everywhere, whether watching ships pass through the Dardanelles or the sun set in Mardin in the southeast, Turkey has the ability to thrill, surprise and exalt. But also, I found, to my surprise, I could witness aspects of half a decade of extraordinary change and historical continuity that has bewitched travellers for centuries by stepping no further than my back room at home, with its breathtaking view.

General view from window in early spring, showing where the Bosphorus meets the Golden Horn

I had fallen in love…

Istanbul’s Kariye Museum, the former Church of St Saviour in Chora, is after the Hagia Sophia, the greatest surviving example of Byzantine heritage in the city once known as Constantinople that was taken over by the Ottomans in 1453. Amid the glittering portrayals of Christ and the saints that have made this building revered around the world, one face that for me has always stood out. The face of a pious, devoted and beautiful woman, hands clasped out in devotion and wearing some kind of wimple.

Possible likeness of Maria Palaiologina, Kariye Museum, Istanbul.

This could be the face (and only existing likeness) of Maria Palaiologina, better known…

Seagull flies past Istanbul historic skyline

A hoopoe perches on a rock while exploring an ancient site. An early morning run is interrupted by a chance encounter with an owl. And while travelling by ferry across continents, seagulls and cormorants compete for attention with world heritage monuments.

In five years living in and travelling around Turkey, I found places I visited would be marked by a memorable encounter with one specific bird that remained stencilled the memory as much as the historical site that had been the purpose of the visit. And birds occupy a very special place in Turkey. Its landmass stretches west to east…

On the afternoon of July 15, 2016, the world heritage committee of the UN’s cultural arm UNESCO made a remarkable decision. It approved the remains of the former mediaeval Armenian capital of Ani in Kars province of northeastern Turkey as one of its World Heritage Sites. It was a rare moment when Armenia and Turkey, foes to this day, could see eye-to-eye and there was rejoicing that the site would now be given greater protection.

View of Ani, Church of St Gregory of the Abughamrents, in autumn.

But not for the first time in its over millenium-old history, Ani’s timing was cursed. That night, plotters tried to oust the Turkish president from…

Two flights of stairs, seemingly unrelated.

The first twists up from Istanbul’s Bankalar Caddesi (Banks Street) in the most beautifully serpentine fashion, helping hurried tourists and locals up the steep incline towards the Galata Tower.

Camondo Steps, heading to Galata Tower, Istanbul

The second takes visitors up from a beautiful entrance hall to the upper floors in a beautiful fin-de-siècle Parisian mansion, located in possibly the most gorgeous part of the French capital, just behind the luxuriant Parc Monceau.

There had been warnings days ahead. ‘It is Coming! Weather Warning!’ screamed the headlines. Newspaper websites gave up to the minute warnings of exactly what time the impending apocalypse would break. People cancelled trips, rescheduled travel.

The reason for this sudden outbreak of fear?


True, it snows in many places in the world. And it snows a lot in Turkey with some settlements in the mountainous southeast blanketed for over half a year. But in few major urban centres in the world is snow capable of wreaking such havoc as Istanbul.

Battling the snow on Galata Bridge

This is not Russia or Canada, and snow…

Stuart Williams

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