Draped ribbon-like along the leafy lower slopes of Uludağ, which towers more than 2000m above it, 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 hemmed in by concrete tower-blocks, remain appealing.
An explosion of the population to almost two million, means that the city overall is no longer exactly elegant as it straggles for some 20km either side of the E90 highway. Silk and textile manufacture, plus the local thermal spas, were for centuries the most important enterprises; they’re now outstripped by automobile manufacture (both Renault and Tofaş have plants here), canneries and bottlers processing the rich harvest of the plain, and the presence of Uludağ University. Vast numbers of settlers from Artvin province have been attracted by job opportunities at the various factories, while the students 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.
Bursa is sometimes touted as a long day out from İstanbul, but it really merits at least one and preferably two nights’ stay. Central Bursa is particularly good for walking around, 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 was founded early in the second century BC by King Prusias I of ancient 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, began spending 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. During and after the Latin interlude in Constantinople (1204–61), the Byzantines reconsolidated their hold on Proussa, but not for long.
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.
In the years following Orhan’s death in 1362 the imperial capital was gradually moved 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 1800s, and the 1919–22 War of Independence, only slightly diminished the city’s splendour.
The Koza Hani
The Koza Hani
The assorted galleries of Bursa’s covered bazaar and lesser hans sell clothes, silk goods, towels, bolts of cloth and furniture, all Bursa province specialities. The nearby bedesten is given over to the sale and warehousing of jewellery and precious metals.
The centrepiece of the bazaar is the Koza Hanı, or “Silk-Cocoon Hall”, flanking Koza Parkı. Built in 1490, when Bursa was the final stop on the Silk Route from China, it’s still filled with silk and brocade merchants (plus a few jewellery stores). On the lower level, in the middle of a cobbled courtyard, a minuscule mescit (small mosque) perches directly over its şadırvan, while a subsidiary court bulges asymmetrically to the east; there are teahouses in both.
Bursa silk and the cocoon auction
Bursa silk and the cocoon auction
Highlight of the bazaar’s year is the cocoon auction of late June and early July, when silk-breeders from around the province gather to hawk their valuable produce. Then, the courtyard floor of the Koza Hanı becomes a lake of white torpedoes the size of a songbird’s egg; the moth, when it hatches, is a beautiful creature with giant onyx eyes and feathery antennae, though this rarely happens as the cocoons are boiled to kill the grub inside and the fibre then spun. You can watch the melee from the upper arcades or, if you’re careful, the merchants don’t mind you walking the floor.
During the 1700s Bursa’s silk trade declined due to French and Italian competition, but has since experienced a tentative revival. However, the quality of contemporary fabric cannot compare to museum pieces from the early Ottoman heyday, and most of the better designs use imported material, which is better quality than the Turkish. If you’re buying silk here, make sure the label says ipek (silk) and not ithal ipek (artificial silk).