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The first Ottoman capital.

More than a century before the Ottoman Turks conquered Istanbul in 1453, they captured Bursa, then a small town 200 kilometres south across the Marmara Sea, and declared it capital of what would develop into one of the world's largest empires. Bursa is still one of the most Ottoman-influenced cities in Turkey and, with some of the countries holiest sites, one of the most revered. Chris Hellier reports.

Bursa stands at the foot of the towering Ulu Dagh range, a claimant to the Mount Olympus of antiquity, which once supplied blocks of ice to the sultan's household. Anyone approaching the city from the drab Anatolian plateau is immediately struck by the immensity of "God's Mountain", at 2,327 metres the highest peak in western Anatolia, and the lushness of the surrounding vegetation. Conquerors from the east must have been relieved at reaching such a welcoming sight.

In Bursa itself there is little of the Byzantine-Ottoman melange found in Istanbul, nor the overriding modernity of Izmir or Ankara. Yet the city once known as Prusa contains some of the oldest Ottoman buildings to be found anywhere and the tomb of Sultan Osman, founder of the Ottoman dynasty.

Despite its strong Ottoman character, Bursa first grew in importance during the sixth century when the Byzantine emperor Justinian I built a series of baths to exploit the local springs. The town has been famous as a thermal resort ever since, attracting the well-heeled from Istanbul and elsewhere.

Most of Bursa's baths, as in Justinian's time, are located in Cekirge, on the western outskirts of town. Among them are the 14th century Eski Kaplica, or Old Baths, reconstructed on Byzantine foundations by Sultan Murat I. They have recently been given a fresh lease of life and incorporated into a new five-star hotel.

Cekirge also contains some of Bursa's oldest Ottoman buildings, constructed before Ottoman architecture developed a distinct style of its own. Indeed, the strange mosque of Murat I, built in 1363, has little that is easily recognisable as Turkish and has often been attributed to an Italian architect taken prisoner by Sultan Murat. Opposite the mosque stands the tomb of Murat himself, who was killed in Kosovo in 1389 while fighting the Serbs.

Bursa's finest architecture was built in the half century following Murat's death. In the centre of town stands the huge Ulu Cami, or Great Mosque, noted for its ablutions fountain inside. But, here again, the young Ottoman dynasty, unsure of future artistic direction, chose to base the city's largest mosque, with its immense portals, on earlier Seljuk designs.

It was not until 1424 with the completion of the famous Yesil Cami, the Green Mosque, that the Ottomans showed any real evidence of architectural originality. One of the most beautiful of Ottoman mosques, the Yesil Cami was a turning-point in Turkish style. Svelte minarets rise up from the main building carved from blocks of white marble, while within greenish-blue tiles decorate the walls. Although not completed during his reign, the Green Mosque was commissioned by Sultan Mehmet I who is buried, along with his children, in the octagonal Green Tomb nearby. The exterior of the tomb was refaced with turquoise tiles last century, although those within are original.

The Green Tomb is Bursa's most photographed site. But of equal historic interest is the extensive Muradiye Cemetery in the grounds of the Murat II Mosque, complete in 1427, just three years after the Yesil Cami. The cemetery is the first of several Ottoman mausoleums where large royal tombs, resembling small pavilions, were grouped together. The most ornate is that of Sultan Murat II himself.

Other tombs include that of Sultan Cem, the rebel Ottoman prince and rival of Beyazit II, his older brother, who ascended the throne on the death of their father, Mehmet II, in 1481. Cem, however, had other ideas and, supported by the Turkish aristocracy, plotted against Beyazit in an effort to seize the throne. After summoning his supporters at Bursa, he declared himself sultan of Anatolia and proposed the division of the empire, with Beyazit ruling the European provinces from Istanbul.

Beyazit inevitably rejected Cem's proposals and, with the advantage of numerical supremacy, defeated his brother's troops, forcing Cem to flee first to Syria and then to Rhodes. He finally died in 1495 in Naples, poisoned, it is rumoured by Beyazit's agents. His body was subsequently returned to Bursa and buried in an ornate tomb decorated with elaborate tiles and painted cupola which has recently been restored.

As well as early Ottoman baths, mosques and tombs, Bursa is also noted for its old bazaars. The extensive covered bazaar, while not as well-known or as large as the one in Istanbul, stands on older foundations. Much of its oriental atmosphere has been lost in Turkey's rush to modernise, although separate streets still specialise in copper and brassware or carpets and kilims, aimed largely at a local clientele.

Nearby is the Bat Pazari, or Goose Market, which, with its working blacksmiths, ironmongers' shops, and peddlers of miracle cures, is livelier than its neighbour. But of all the markets it is perhaps the Koza Han, built in 1490, as the centre of Bursa's silk brokers, which over the centuries has contributed most to Bursa's commercial character.

In Bursa's city centre modernisation mixes with early Ottoman history more sympathetically than it does in many Turkish towns. And Bursa's city fathers wish to keep it that way. The historically important area centred on the Green Mosque and adjacent tomb has recently been remodelled. Traffic has been diverted away from the area, while the former narrow streets have been pedestrianised and landscaped. The undoubted success of the scheme was recognised internationally when it was presented with a Europa Nostra award for environmental conservation.
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Title Annotation:Mosaic; Bursa, Turkey
Author:Hellier, Chris
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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