The land of Turkey has been home to numerous cultures and empires over the course of the past few thousand years. While they all have left their distinct marks, none has been so important to the character of modern Turkey as the Ottoman Empire. While Istanbul is undoubtedly the most important city of the Ottomans, a city of realized destiny and prophecy, Bursa is where the Ottoman Empire was really born, transforming from a small kingdom into an empire with its own distinct art and culture.
After our last trip where we attempted to see far too many sights spread over a wide area and had almost no time at all to spend with people, we figured Bursa, with all the historic and cultural depth of an imperial city, would be a great place to take it slow and really dig deep.
Once we had settled on a hotel, we wandered straight into the historic market district for a bite to eat. Four days in a city means a limited number of meals in which to get a taste of all the local dishes so we got right to work, beginning with tahinli pide, a fluffy flatbread smothered with a thick layer of sesame paste paired with the obligatory tea in a tulip-shaped cup.
When Bursa grew into an imperial power a great deal of the Silk Road trade was rerouted through Bursa rather than Constantinople, and a massive complex of markets, shops, and hans were built to accommodate this sudden boom in trade (note: a han is a building, usually centered on a courtyard used to store and protect the goods brought in by merchants). While the caravans have given way to trucks, vendors still hawk shining silks, bright fabrics, and jewelry as they would have 600 years ago.
Bursa’s market district is quite huge. Though not as large or famous as Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, it has managed to maintain a great deal of authenticity. Rather than endless trinket shops and tourists, there are noisy fish vendors, and locals buying sheets and towels for home.
Among the many vaulted rooms of Bursa’s Koza Han, named for the silk-worm cocoons that were brought here from China, is a shop built into a small nook. The tiny space is the busiest of the few dozen shops that line the tree-shaded courtyard and there’s a steady flow of people dashing in and out again. As with all historic hans, there is a tiny tea shop in Koza Han from which tea flows to the surrounding shops and stores, fueling the shopkeepers, artists, and salesmen.
Inside there is room for two people, if you squeeze, they fill cups, brew coffee, and maintain a steady stream of fresh tea. The room is full of steam, glass cups for tea, and miniature mugs for coffee. The light glows warm, reflecting off of a copper five-pot tea-stove.
On a shelf a radio crackles as orders come in from nearby shopkeepers. A tin tray is loaded with cups and a runner grabs it though a small window and rushes down the brick corridors.
Per capita, Turks drink more tea than any other country, more than the next three top consumers, Ireland, The United Kingdom, and Iran combined.
Beyond the markets, Bursa is also famous for the ornate tombs of the Ottoman Sultans. Even when the Ottoman capital moved from Bursa to Edirne, royals were still buried in Bursa, often building grand and beautiful complexes on the city’s many tree-covered hills.
The most iconic of these is the Green Mosque and Tomb complex, built for Sultan Mehmet I. The tomb and mosque are decorated with some of the most beautiful tilework in the city. Interiors, windows, and crown portals are all adorned with tiles of bold colour, geometric patterns, and elegant calligraphy.
Back in the market district we visited the Grand Mosque of Bursa, with its twenty domes and calligraphy covered walls. Sultan Beyazit the first had vowed to build twenty mosques if he was granted victory in the Battle of Nicopolis. After the Sultan defeated the crusaders, he decided to instead build a single great mosque of twenty domes. While later mosques were built under a single great dome, this style of mosque divides the space almost making it feel like it’s made up of individual rooms, so that, even when it’s busy, there is a sense of quiet and privacy. When we visited, there were clusters of young men seated around bearded teachers, others quietly praying alone, children running among the columns, and others taking pictures of the beautiful calligraphy, and yet the space still felt contemplative.
Now that we were finally beyond the summer heat, we decided it was time to visit a Turkish Bath, of which Bursa has many to choose from. After many months without visiting a Turkish Bath due to covid restrictions I was looking forward to shedding a half pound of dead skin. It is impossible to know how much dead skin is on your body until you try a Turkish bath and see just how much the aggressive scrubbers remove from you. While it is an admittedly bizarre experience, it’s well worth it in my opinion. If you’ve never been to a Turkish Bath, find out just what goes on in our Guide to the Turkish Bath.
Sitting in the outer common room of the bath, covered from head to toe in a turban and robes of towels, I asked the tellak (the staff at a Turkish Bath) which Iskender Kebap restaurant in the city was the best hoping to get a local’s opinion.
The only issue is that, these men being tellak, are from the province of Tokat, and in Tokat fashion, they answered saying that they don’t like Iskender, they only eat Cağ Kebap.
They asked us if we had tried it and what we thought of it, and, as insulting one’s regional dish is a cardinal sin, we said we’d tried it and it tasted great. While this wasn’t a lie, the fact is that cağ kebap was a terrible experience. The meat was mostly fat, incredibly tough, and very expensive. We tried the dish when we were in Kars a year before and said at the time it made us feel like children again, attempting to chew through one piece of tough roast beef for hours on end until our jaws hurt.
Iskender Kebap is infinitely better than Cağ Kebap. We didn’t say that to their faces of course.
No trip to Bursa is complete without trying a plate of Iskender Kebap at one of the city’s historic restaurants. While most of Turkey’s iconic dishes are rooted in a place. Künefe comes from Hatay, Baklava from Gaziantep, Çiğ Köfte from Adıyaman, and Adana Kebap from. . . Adana, in general, most of Turkey’s most popular dishes come from the south east of the country. Iskender is a great exception.
Iskender is a dish of shaved döner meat on a bed of cubed flat bread. The meat is doused with tomato sauce, paired with a large spoonful of yoghurt, and garnished with a roasted pepper or two. To finish it off, a waiter comes to your table with a great boiling pan of butter that is splashed over the works and soaked up by the bread. The dish was invented by Iskender Efendi in 1867 and the tradition carried on by his sons, which is why there’s a few different restaurants claiming to be the original. Like politics it’s best not to get involved in this debate.
The meat is locally sourced lamb, idealy raised on the slopes of Mount Uludağ itself, roasted vertically, cooked over (or beside in this case) little chambers filled with glowing oak charcoal. The meat is pure, with only onion juice as an additive.
All the cooks that work at the shop that I visited have worked here for a decade or more. Everyday from morning till into the night, seven days a week, stoking fires, roasting meat, roasting peppers, chopping bread and preparing sauce. There is only one item served at these iconic Iskender restaurants, and the only decision you need to make is how large a portion you want.
After catching a beautiful sunrise from the city wall, we went to visit the mausoleum of Sultan Osman Gazi, founder of the Ottoman Empire. As the story goes, one day Osman Gazi was looking out at the city of Bursa, which was at that time still Byzantine Prusa, and declared that he wanted to be buried beneath the silver dome of the Byzantine Church that rose above the city walls. When the city finally fell in 1326, the Church of St Elijah with its silver dome was converted into a tomb for the empire’s founding sultan.
As we got close to the tomb complex we were surprised by the sound of shouting and stamping. Rounding the corner, we saw a trio of bearded men wearing costumes of black leather and fur, armed with swords and daggers, marching with theatrical swagger. Walking a little behind them were a pair of men in long white robes and turbans, all making their way towards the tomb.
The men dressed as medieval soldiers were local police in period costume in a changing of the guard ceremony. The others in white were religious teachers who come to make recitations over the tomb of the Sultan and his family from morning till night everyday. I have visited hundreds of tombs and mausoleums, and while some sort of veneration or prayer to the entombed holy man is fairly common, the tomb of Osman Gazi was absolutely unique.
Back in the market district we found an interesting closet-sized shop. When shut for the night there’s nothing to see beyond a little blue door. During the day however, the tightly packed contents, brooms of all sizes, pour out onto display stands filling the space in front.
I came by a couple times hoping to finally meet the shop keeper and get a glimpse into the world that surrounds such a seemingly mundane object. I’ve found it really interesting how the most common objects can often have really interesting backstories.
Finally catching the owner, and with only a little time before I needed to catch a bus out of the city, we talked about the brooms themselves, where the materials come from, and the future of the trade in a modernizing world.
He learned the trade of broom making from his father who had been a broom maker in the Balkans, emigrating to Bursa like thousands of other ethnic Turks at the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. While business is still good, he said the shop would likely close when he eventually retires. He was confident that people in the villages would continue to make the brooms by hand as long as people continue to sweep, but unfortunately, he has no one that wants to take on the business after him. While many traditional trades are dying off in Turkey because of low pay, my host laid the blame elsewhere. “There is no status as a broom maker,” he told me “it’s a villager’s job, young people would rather have job in the city.”
The broom-makers confidence in the market for corn brooms isn’t just based on people’s need to sweep though. He feels that it is only a matter of time before more people recognize the advantage of locally grown natural materials and abandon imported plastic brooms. Even if his shop shuts down there will always be people needing brooms and people willing to make them.
Cutting my visit with the broom maker short I rushed to catch a bus to Iznik, a nearby town sitting in the midst of the ruins of an ancient city, full of craftsman and artists carrying on 500 years of tradition.