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.
Bursa’s covered bazaars, assorted galleries and lesser hans sell clothes, silk goods, towels, bolts of cloth as well as clothing, and furniture, all provincial specialities. The nearby bedesten is given over to the sale and warehousing of jewellery and precious metals.
The centrepiece of the bazaar, the Koza Hanı, or “Silk-Cocoon Hall”, flanks 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, as well as 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; both hold teahouses.
Abutting the Koza Hanı to the west, though lacking access from it, the Eski Aynalı Çarşı, formerly the Bey Hamamı of the Orhan Gazi complex (note the domes and skylights), sells more tourist-orientated goods than the surrounding bazaars.
The Demirciler Çarşısı, or ironmongers’ market – just the other side of İnönü Caddesi, best crossed by the pedestrian underpass at Okçular Caddesi – has also kept its traditions intact despite quakes and blazes. Stall upon stall of blacksmiths and braziers attract photographers; some expect a few lira for posing.
The easy-to-find Muradiye Külliyesi is definitely the place to capture Bursa’s early Ottoman spirit – it holds a few low-key trinket-sellers, but there’s little pressure to buy and no coachloads shatter the calm. Begun in 1424 by Murat II, the complex was the last imperial foundation in Bursa. The mosque itself is similar in plan to Orhan Gazi, but more impressive with its profuse tiling low on the walls, calligraphy higher up and two domes.
The ten royal tombs for which Muradiye is famous are mostly the final resting places of Ottoman crown princes who fell victim to stronger, or smarter, relatives hell bent on power by any means. Added piecemeal during the century or so after the mosque was founded in 1424, the tombs are set in lovingly tended and fragrant gardens whose serenity belies the tragic stories of those entombed.
The first tomb you come to holds Şehzade Ahmet and his brother Şehinşah, both murdered in 1513 by their cousin Selim I. The luxury of the two-tone blue İznik tiles within contrasts sharply with the adjacent austerity of Murat II’s tomb, where Roman columns inside and a wooden canopy out front are the only superfluities. As much contemplative mystic as warrior-sultan, Murat was the only Ottoman ruler ever to abdicate voluntarily, though pressures of state forced him to leave his dervish order and return to the throne after just two years. The last sultan to be interred at Bursa, he’s one of the few here who died in his bed; both the coffin and dome were originally open to the sky “so that the rain of heaven might wash my face like any pauper’s”.
Next along is the tomb of Şehzade Mustafa, Süleyman the Magnificent’s unjustly murdered heir; perhaps indicative of his father’s remorse, the tomb is done up in extravagantly floral İznik tiles, with a top border of calligraphy. Nearby, the tomb of Cem Sultan, his brother Mustafa and two of Beyazit II’s sons is decorated with a riot of abstract, botanical and calligraphic paint strokes up to the dome, with turquoise tiles below. Cem, the cultured favourite son of Mehmet the Conqueror, was an interesting might-have-been. Following Mehmet’s death in 1481, he lost a brief dynastic struggle with the successful claimant, brother Beyazit II, and fled abroad. For fourteen years he wandered, seeking sponsorship from Christian benefactors who in all cases became his jailers: first the Knights of St John at Bodrum and Rhodes, later the papacy. At one point it seemed he would command a Crusader army to retake İstanbul, but all such plans came to nothing for the simple reason that Beyazit anticipated his opponents’ moves and each time bribed them handsomely to desist, making Cem a lucrative prisoner indeed. His usefulness as a pawn exhausted, Cem was probably poisoned in Italy by Pope Alexander VI in 1495, leaving reams of poems aching with nostalgia and homesickness.
Bursa silk and the cocoon auction
Bursa silk and the cocoon auction
The annual highlight in Bursa’s bazaar is the cocoon auction of late June and early July, when silk-breeders gather to hawk their valuable produce. 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 is then spun. You can watch the melee from the upper arcades, but, if you’re careful, the merchants don’t mind you walking the floor.
Bursa’s silk trade declined due to French and Italian competition during the eighteenth century, 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, better quality than the Turkish. If you’re buying silk, make sure the label says ipek (silk) and not ithal ipek (artificial silk).