Bursa: why is the old Ottoman capital worth a visit?
In comparison with Istanbul, the city of Bursa might seem like a quiet, provincial town. The good news is that Bursa is in fact calm and welcoming – a perfect place to escape the crowds and frenzy of the megacity. But on top of this, there are Ottoman monuments that rival the mosques of Istanbul, first-class food, and natural beauty only a short drive away. These are more than enough good reasons to jump on a ferry and take the two-hour journey to Bursa.

By Joshua Bruce Allen

The earliest known settlement at Bursa dates back to around 5,200 BC, but most of the remaining buildings are from the Ottoman period. After the Ottomans took the city in 1326, they established Bursa as the imperial capital, which then moved to Edirne and finally Istanbul. The city is doubly important because it holds the tomb of Osman Gazi, who gave his name to the Ottoman dynasty and later the Ottoman Empire. The capture of Bursa was an important step towards the conquest of Constantinople in 1453.

Tombs of the first Ottomans

The Ottomans created a system of mosques, hans, hammams, and külliye complexes that still survives today. In fact, the Ottoman heritage of Bursa is such a valuable example that eight areas of the city are protected by UNESCO’s World Heritage List. One of these UNESCO sites is the area around the tombs of Osman Gazi and his son Orhan Gazi. Since Osman organized the capture of Bursa and gave his name to the dynasty, perhaps it’s best to start a tour here.

Situated close to the city’s castle walls, these tombs are surrounded by marble walkways, old plane trees, and beds of tulips in the spring. When Osman Gazi’s forces were besieging the city, the aging commander spotted a dome shining under the sun. He made his son Orhan promise that he would be buried under that dome. Although he didn’t know this at the time, the dome belonged to a Byzantine chapel. When you visit the tomb today, you can still see parts of the colorful mosaic floor from the original chapel. An earthquake and a fire forced Sultan Abdülaziz to rebuild the structure in 1863. As well as Osman Gazi, the tomb also holds his son Alaeddin Bey, who was also Grand Vizier. Alaeddin was responsible for creating the Janissary corps, which remained part of the Ottoman army for around 500 years. At the end of the square outside the tombs is the six-story Tophane Clock Tower, which was completed in 1905.

If you walk down the hill past the castle walls and turn right after the tomb of Okçu Baba, you will come to the upper entrance of Balibey Han. This 15th-century building was the first three-story han in the Ottoman Empire, and it contains 64 rooms with a central courtyard. At that time the han was designed as a trade center for visiting merchants. Today local artisans make and sell their wares in the han, and there is a café and restaurant on the top floor. Traditional arts such as calligraphy, nakış, çini, and oil painting can be found here.

Irgandı Bridge

Silk traders by the grand mosque

Leaving Balibey Han from the lower entrance and turning right onto Atatürk Caddesi, you will soon see Bursa’s largest mosque. This is Ulu Cami, finished in 1400 on the orders of Osman Gazi’s great-grandson Sultan Bayezid I. Despite its 20 domes and 12 columns, Ulu Cami feels much more serene and humble than the grand mosques of Istanbul. An especially calming feature is the şadırvan fountain in the center of the mosque, lit by a skylight dome above. On the high walls are 192 examples of Ottoman calligraphy by masters of the era. The mihrab is covered in gold leaf and calligraphy, with two stained glass windows giving a spiritual light. On the left-hand side of the mihrab is a 16th-century Kaaba covering which was brought back from Egypt by Yavuz Sultan Selim.

From Ulu Cami it is a two-minute walk to Bursa’s main çarşı, or shopping arcade. This is actually an entire neighborhood of covered bazaars, stretching in a long street from Bakırcılar Çarşısı to Uzun Çarşı. At the junction of Uzun Çarşı Caddesi and Borsa Sokak you will find Koza Han. The han is recognizable from its huge stone gate with blue geometric designs framing the top. Koza means “cocoon,” and this is an important clue to the han’s history. Bursa was one of the last stops on the Silk Road trading route from China. But the real story began when two missionaries arrived from China 1,500 years ago with silkworm larvae that they had hidden in their clothes. Bursa soon became a center of silk production, and Koza Han was the point where the silk makers gathered to sell their product. Koza Han is still full of traders selling a huge variety of dyed, printed, and embroidered scarves and shawls. There is also a peaceful tea garden in the han’s courtyard.

Hammam near the Green Mosque

Birthplace of İskender kebap

Other than its silk, there is another product that Bursa has gifted to the whole world. This is the İskender kebap. At first sight, İskender might seem like a simple dish, but the real thing can only be found in Bursa. Firstly, the meat used to make İskender must be taken from sheep fed on thyme from Uludağ, the snow-capped mountain next to Bursa. This meat is then grilled on a vertical spit – inventor İskender Efendi was the first to use this döner technique. The cooked meat is laid on a bed of pide bread and topped with hot butter and tomato sauce, with yogurt on the side. Luckily, the oldest İskender restaurant in Bursa is close by: Kebapçı İskender. The İskender family has been running this restaurant since 1896, and people throughout Turkey know the quality of their İskender.

Continuing down Atatürk Caddesi, stop on the left side of the bridge and look at the picturesque Irgandı Bridge. The wooden yellow rooms on the bridge have been artisans’ workshops since the 15th century. Walking down the narrow street between the workshops, you feel transported back in time.

Kebapçi İskender

The color of Islam

Just past the bridge is a left-hand turn onto 1. Yeşil Caddesi. Meaning “first green street,” this road leads to everything green in Bursa: the Green Mosque, the Green Tomb, and the Green Madrasah. You come first to the Green Madrasah on the right, which is now the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts. Further down the road are a row of brightly painted Ottoman houses and the majestic minarets of the Green Mosque. First turn right and walk up the steps towards the stunning entrance of the Yeşil Türbe, which is the tomb of the fifth Ottoman sultan, Mehmed I. The combination of blue-green Kütahya tiles with gold calligraphy is both tranquil and imperial.

Hacı Ivaz Paşa, architect of the Green Tomb, was also the designer of the famous Green Mosque. The artistic continuity between the Green Tomb and Green Mosque is obvious at first glance, although the mosque is much grander. Over the main entrance is an arch of stone mocarabe, leading into a hall of deep green tiles with medallions of geometric blue and gold. Like Ulu Cami, this mosque also features a şadırvan under the central dome. Two wings stretch out on either side, while behind are two large rooms with the same rich colored tiles. The painted geometric squinches in the side rooms are a breathtaking synthesis of color and shape. As the focus of the mosque, the intricately patterned mihrab of blue and gold invokes awe in the worshipper.

Entrance to Yeşil Türbe

How to get there

  • By ferry: The ferry crossing the Marmara is the faster option of the two. The company Bursa Deniz Otobüsleri (BUDO) provides a direct service from its pier in Eminönü; İstanbul Deniz Otobüsleri (İDO) offers ferries departure from Yenikapı and Kadıöy. The journey takes around 2 hours, during which you can see the Princes Islands close to Istanbul. Ferry services can be cancelled if there is bad weather, so check the weather forecast before booking tickets.
  • By bus: The bus route takes longer than the ferry, depending on the traffic around Istanbul. There are various coach companies that have services between Bursa and Istanbul, such as Metro, Nilüfer, and Uludağ. 

Where to stay

The Divan Bursa, situated a short walk from the city’s main attractions, offers everything you expect from a modern hotel. Guests have free use of an exercise salon and spa. Breakfast served in the Divan restaurant is luxurious, with a large variety of hot and cold dishes to start the day. Dr. Rüştü Burlu Caddesi No:11, Osmangazi; T: (0224) 233 00 07

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