The setting is Istanbul, Turkey, in the 1990s. There are discussions, especially in Jelal's newspaper columns of other historical periods in Turkey. There are also remembrances of the 1960s in the course of Galip's thoughts, when he recalls Ruya's political activities.  But the general timeframe is one week in the 1990s.

On a deeper level of the novel, beyond Galip's search for his wife and her half-brother Jelal, readers will find a story about Istanbul. Istanbul was once called Byzantium in the sixth century B.C. and later Constantinople. Some of the points of interest mentioned in Pamuk's novel include the location of Istanbul on the Bosporus Strait, a body of water that divides Turkey. The part of Turkey that is closer to Europe is called Rumelia. The other part that is closer to Asia is called Antolia. The Bosporus connects the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara. There are two bridges that cross the Bosporus. One is the Bosporus Bridge. The other is the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge. Istanbul has a natural harbor that is called the Golden Horn.

Istanbul has served as the capital city of the Roman Empire in the fourth century, of the Byzantine Empire from the fourth century until the thirteenth century, of the Latin Empire in the thirteenth century, and of the Ottoman Empire from the fifteenth to the twentieth century. Islam is the dominant religion and has influenced the architecture of this ancient city.  In 1923, the Republic of Turkey was founded. Today, a secular parliamentary representative democratic republic rules Turkey. 

To better grasp the deeper levels of The Black Book, a generalized understanding of Istanbul's history, literature, and culture is recommended. In addition, readers might want to investigate an overview of Sufism and the Persian poet Rumi.