I returned to Istanbul in September 2011 for a short trip that resulted in an impromptu visit to the ancient Ottoman capitol of Bursa.
Bursa has a history of some 5,000 years. It was built by Hannibal as a gift to King Prusias, who gave refuge at his court after Hannibal was defeated in his campaign against the Romans. The Citadel is still a significant part of the landscape, and I am taken by the way the modern parts of the city have nestled up to this ancient stone fortification.
Bursa became the capitol of the Ottoman Empire under Sultan Orhan Gazi, who is buried here. The city became the cultural center of the scientific world, and was an important part of the trade routes heading West. In recent times it has become a center for textile and automotive production in Turkey.
I arrive after a 6 hour bus ride from Istanbul and settle in to my hotel just outside of town. Downtown Bursa is too far to reach by foot, but it's a lovely day, so I take a walk along this picturesque green belt that looks out over the populated valley. I spend a few moments at the grave of Suleyman Celebi, author of the Mevlid, an epic poem describing the birth of Mohammed.
Further down the street is a large, elevated cement stage with a proscenium from which hang a pair of oversized Turkish shadow puppets, marking the Karagoz Cemetary. Legend has it that during the construction of the Orhan Mosque, two blacksmiths named Karagoz and Hacivat impeded work by distracting the other workers with their antics, and were beheaded by order of Sultan Orhan, an action he later regretted. In an attempt to cheer up the distraught sultan, his vizier removed his turban and made a screen, and reenacted the antics of the dead blacksmiths in shadow-play. The vizier, Sheikh Kusteri, is credited as the father of Turkish puppet theater, and Hacivat and Karagoz became staple characters.
I stop for dinner at a kebab place where a very enthusiastic cook takes me into his kitchen so I can point to what I want. A stop at the liquor store for a bottle of Raki, and a slow back up the hill, completes my day.
The next day I hail a cab to Yesil Camii, the Green Tomb, which turns out to be the furthest point away from the hotel, and with all the other sites lined up in a mostly straight line back up the hill. It is very early yet, so I step into a small bazaar that is housed on 3 floors of an Ottoman home. It's a lovely place and I am closely attended to by a child who continues to talk to me long after I indicated I do not speak Turkish. I regret not having purchased anything there.
Yesil Tomb is the burial place of Sultan Mehmet I, and his sons and daughters. Commissioned in 1421 it is commonly known as the Green Tomb because of the turquoise-green tiles that cover its exterior. Its interior is a riot of blue tilework inscribed with interlocking rumi and cufic inscriptions. Upon my return home I chided myself for not making the time to visit Iznik, less than two hours away, and the home of the factories that produced the tiles for many of the buildings I visited in this country.
For a 360 degree video of the interior of this tomb, please click here.
Further down the road, the Turkish Islamic Museum of Arts fills several tiny rooms surrounding an open air courtyard. There is an extensive array of artifacts, each room seems to be themed with either the type of item (coins) or the items' usage (prayer items). Assuming that a catalog does not wait for me at the end, I start photographing items, which attracts the attention of a security guard. I am writing notes, and in spite of the language barrier, I figure out that he is asking me not to lean on the glass.
There are cases full of ceramics in the outdoor courtyard, and I motion to my camera to make sure photography is allowed. “Yes,” he nods. I continue to photograph everything which continues to rouse their curiosity. I take a last look to make sure I haven't missed anything, and wave 'goodbye.' As I am standing just outside the entrance, my nearly useless map in hand, trying to figure out where next to go, the youngest guard runs up to me and presents me with an English language Bursa City Guide. “A gift,” he beams. I thank him profusely and sit down with it for the next 20 minutes. Small gestures make such a big difference...
Just outside of the Yesil Madrash, I find a handful of street merchants. One is peddling small antique trinkets and silver by the ounce. The ring I had scoured Istanbul for, is siting here ...a prettily worked silver bezel surrounding an onyx cabochon, and a silver thimble, covered with granulation, which must be the most perfect thimble ever … (and which now I cannot sew without).
The Cultural Museum, previously a dervish lodge and then a library, now houses a collection of costumes and textiles. I wander around, completely alone, no guards or attendants in sight. Sunlight streams through the windows and reflects off the cases, which makes photography difficult. I also wondered about UV damage, especially to the metallic thread embroideries.
Photos of both the Museum of Arts and the Cultural Museum are available here.
Prayers are in progress at the Ulu Camii, so I check out the Kozahan (the Silk Bazaar). Built in 1491, it is stocked to the ceiling with every type of silk scarf, apparel and towel you could possibly imagine. A small import shop at the entrance of another han attracts my attention. I should have bought a lamp here but did not, and the filigree belts which the clerk pulls off the wall en masse for me, also sadly stay behind. Other bazaars sell modern goods for the locals and cheap trinkets for everyone else.
I find a kebab place to eat lunch, and have my first durum which I like a lot, a tortilla filled with a tiny bit of meat, pickle and tomato. I mill around until 2:30 and the end of afternoon prayer. It was interesting to note that in spite of there being a women's gallery, the only people exiting the mosque are men.
The magnificent Ulu Camii was built in 1399, when -- to satisfy a promise to construct 20 mosques -- Yildirim Bayazid chose instead to build a single mosque with 20 domes and minarets. The walls are covered with calligraphy and the center dome is glass, hovering over a 16-sided fountain, a feature I have not seen in any other mosque.
Children run around, and a couple of girls are rolling around on the carpet. Women in headscarves enter with the tourists, and in spite of the secluded women's gallery in the corner, most women were praying in groups of twos and threes, along with a scattering of men, praying separately but simultaneously on the main floor. It is not a thing I ever witnessed in Istanbul.
More photos of the the Ulu and other mosques I visited in Turkey can be viewed here.
I return to the Orhan Camii, where a custodian is vacuuming between prayer services. I quickly take a few photos, pull all of the change out of my pocket and put it in the offering box. Behind the mosque is a public park with a directional sign listing distances for neighboring countries (an installation art piece) and several shady benches. I take a coffee break and study my map. A man sits down a little too close to me but does not initiate contact and leaves after about 10 minutes. It was the only time I would ever feel unsafe in Turkey.
My next stop is the Tomb of Osman Gazi, in a silver domed building that had been the chapel of a Christian monastery before being converted into the masjid for Osman and his sons. Nearby is the tomb of his son, Orhan Gazi, in an airy, whitewashed masjid with an interior dome supported on four columns.
I tour the17th Century Ottoman House Museum, believed to be the birthplace of Sultan Mehmed. I manage to arrive at the Uluumay Ottoman Costume and Jewelry Museum just minutes before it was scheduled to close. The curator gives me a personal tour of room after room of costumes, textiles, jewelry and other artifacts that he has been collecting for the past 50 years. It is housed in an old Ottoman school, only large enough to exhibit a quarter of his collection. Completely accessorized mannequins of folk costumes from all over Central Asia and the Balkans, are displayed on turntables in glassed off sections of the room. Photography is not allowed and of course these things have not been cataloged. But the presentation is exquisite and had I had more time I would have asked to sit and sketch things.
I head back up the hill to the hotel and find dinner at a kebab place about a block away. Seated at a sidewalk table, I watch the relentless stream of traffic just feet in front of me, and watch in awe as a man in a wheelchair bullies his way across the intersection. Taxis pull straight into oncoming traffic and block the flow until they can push their way through. Motorcycles hop off and onto the sidewalks. Right of way seems to go to whoever is fearless enough to take it. In Istanbul there are crosswalks and walk signals, but those are a rarity here. Women with children and strollers take the same risks and are awarded the same care as anyone else. By the end of the day, I find myself running in front of cars and buses, not being assured that I would make it across the street... I spend the rest of a very pleasant evening wandering around the residential areas, admiring the architecture, which I have collected in an album here.
The following morning I hail a cab to the ferry dock. The high-speed ferry is the most efficient but also the most boring route between here and Istanbul, with nothing to see but the flat, expansive Marmara Sea. I purchase a plate of the egg and phyllo dish that is a prevalent breakfast dish here, and coffee with milk, like a latte, and spend the remainder of the trip writing.
Today is my last day in Istanbul. I had hoped to see the Orient Express but it left a few hours earlier. Baha takes me to a lamp maker so I can buy an Istanbul-made lamp like those that cover the ceilings of the Kybele and Hotel Han. I spend the rest of my day shopping for hatmaking materials along a “Textiles Row” of shops near the Grand Bazaar, and come home with bags of laces, woven trims and metallic thread appliques.
I take one more walk through Gulhane Park and Sultanahmet Square before returning to the Han Hotel. Baha talks to me for about an hour and serves me a small bowl of chorba, a final gesture of hospitality. A taxi arrives three hours later.
“Insallah you will visit Istanbul again some day," he says, as he slides the door shut and I am whisked back to Ataturk Airport for my flight home.