Draped like a ribbon along the leafy lower slopes of Uludağ, which towers more than 2000m higher, and overlooking a fertile plain, BURSA does more justice to its setting than any other Turkish city apart from İstanbul. Gathered here are some of the country’s finest early Ottoman monuments, set within neighbourhoods that, despite being increasingly hemmed in by concrete tower blocks, remain appealing.
Straggling for some 20km either side of the E90 highway, and home to a population of over two million, Bursa is no longer exactly elegant. Silk and textile manufacture, plus the local thermal spas, were for centuries its most important enterprises; they’re now outstripped by automobile manufacture (both Renault and Tofaş have plants), plus canneries and bottlers that process the rich harvest of the plain. Vast numbers of settlers from Artvin province have been attracted by factory jobs, while the students of Uludağ University provide a necessary leavening in what might otherwise be a uniformly conservative community. Some of this atmosphere derives from Bursa’s role as first capital of the Ottoman Empire and burial place of the first six sultans, their piety as well as authority emanating from the mosques, social-welfare foundations and tombs built at their command.
Although Bursa is sometimes touted as a long day out from İstanbul, it really merits a one- and preferably two-night stay. The compact city centre, defined by the River Gök Dere and the Hisar plateau, is particularly good for exploring on foot, whether through the hive of the bazaars, the linear parks of the Hisar district or the anachronistic peace of the Muradiye quarter.
Although the area had been settled at least a millennium previously, the first city on the site of modern Bursa was founded early in the second century BC by King Prusias I of Bithynia, who in typical Hellenistic fashion named the town Proussa after himself. Legend claims that Hannibal helped him pick the location of the acropolis, today’s Hisar.
Overshadowed by nearby Nicomedia (modern İzmit) and Nicaea (İznik), the city stagnated until the Romans, attracted by its natural hot springs, spent lavish amounts on public baths and made it capital of their province of Mysia. Justinian introduced silkworm culture, and Byzantine Proussa flourished until Arab raids of the seventh and eighth centuries, and the subsequent tug-of-war for sovereignty between the Selçuks and Greeks, precipitated its decline.
The dawn of the fourteenth century saw a small band of nomadic Turks, led by Osman Gazi, camped outside the walls of Proussa. After more than a decade of siege, the city capitulated in 1326 to Osman’s son, Orhan, and the Ottomans ceased to be a wandering tribe of marauders. Orhan marked the acquisition of a capital and the organization of an infant state by styling himself sultan and giving the city its present name. Bursa then embarked on a second golden age: the silk industry was expanded and the city, outgrowing the confines of the citadel, was graced with monuments.
Following Orhan’s death in 1362, the imperial capital was gradually relocated to Edirne, but Bursa’s place in history, and in the hearts of the Ottomans, was ensured; succeeding sultans continued to add buildings, and to be laid to rest here, for another hundred years. Disastrous fires and earthquakes in the nineteenth century, and the 1919–22 War of Independence, only slightly diminished the city’s splendour.