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At the foot of Mount Olympus

The Ottomans in Bursa

The trip from Marmaris to Konya had been long, but the journey from Konya to Bursa wasn't any shorter. We opted for a morning bus, departing at 6.30am and arriving about 3pm. It meant losing a day on the road but it was better than arriving in the middle of the night, exhausted and uncomfortable. The trip would take us right across the Turkish heartland of the Anatolian plateau before descending to the green and fertile coastal plain. The Turks first burst into Anatolia from Central Asia in the late 11th century. In 1071AD, they defeated the army of the Byzantine (East Roman) Emperor, Romanus III at a town called Manzikert, near Turkey's eastern border with Armenia. The shock of that defeat set off a chain reaction in Byzantium as the various contenders for the throne set about attacking each other in a vicious civil war. While the Byzantines were otherwise engaged, the Turks splintered into a myriad of tribes and set off across Anatolia, raiding and pillaging. All sides in the Byzantine civil war employed the Turks indiscriminately as mercenaries, rewarding them handsomely with money and lands. When the civil wars ended a decade later and the dust finally settled, Anatolia had been firmly and irretrievably transformed from a Greek Christian to a Turkish Muslim civilisation. The Seljuk Rum (Romans), with their capital at Konya held the high plateau, while the Byzantines held the coast.
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This state of affairs lasted about 150 years until in 1243AD the Mongols swept across the Middle East and destroyed the Seljuk empire. The collapse of Seljuk power meant that marginal players within the Turkish world were free to act without restraint. On the far western edge of the Turkish world, a petty chieftan called Osman ruled over a couple villages and pastureland. From such humble beginnings no one would have guessed that Osman's descendents would later rule one of the worlds great empires. What differentiated Osman from his neighbours was that his valley bordered Byzantine territory, and with no Seljuk governor to remind him of the treaties between the Turks and the Byzantines, he was free to conduct raids at will. Each successful raid attracted new adventurers to his tribe and soon he had built up a substantial army and was pretty much able to conduct a continuous warfare against his larger Christian neighbour. He was also a pragmatist, offering Byzantine towns, villages and cities attactive terms to surrender, including significantly reduced tax rates. Against this mix of military violence, persuasive self interest and egalitarian charm the Byzantines had no response and within 50 years the Ottoman Turks had pushed the Byzantines out of Asia Minor.
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Bursa nestles on the eastern flanks of Ulu Dag, the Greek Mount Olympus, one time home of the Gods. The Ottomans captured the city from the Byzantines after a 34 year siege! Osman himself died before the city was taken. It fell to his son, Orhan and became the first capital city of the Ottoman empire. Both Osman and Orhan lie buried in two tiny Byzantine chapels just inside the walls of the old city. Its only when you see the position of the old city, high up on the side of a cliff overlooking modern Bursa that you realise why it took 34 years to capture the place.
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Oddly enough, the ghost of Byzantine Prousa still lingers on. Although the city's name is clearly written as BURSA, when I bought the bus ticket in Konya the travel agent looked at me dumbfounded. "Bursa.... Bursa.", I repeated, wondering how I could have pronounced such a simple word so wrong. I pointed to it on the big map on the wall and repeated "Bursa." "Ahhh,", he said, "Brusa!" with a clearly prounced BRR. It reminded me when we were in Wroclaw in Poland; many older people still called the city by its German name, Breslau. Some names persist, regardless of changing politics.
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Modern Bursa is a huge city of some 3 million people and the central bus station is hardly very central. We packed onto a local bus for the 50 minute ride through the commercial, business and retail districts on the outskirts of the city. Although scarcely scenic, Bursa is clearly a commerical powerhouse. We jumped off the bus directly across from the Grand Mosque, built by Bayezit "The Lightning Bolt." His nickname was well deserved. In a reign of 20 odd years he conquered a swathe of Turkish emirates across Anatolia and Christian kingdoms of the Balkans. His rivals were astonished by the speed with which he moved his armies back and forth from Europe to Asia. He won victory after victory and was responsible for transforming the emirate into an empire. Before he came to the throne he made a pledge that if he became the Sultan he would build 12 mosques and, like all politicians caught on the spot by a rash promise he tried to weasel out of the deal on a technicality. He built this one mosque but gave it 12 domes. From the outside the mosque is square and featureless, totally unlike the elegant Ottoman mosques of Istanbul. That style hadn't been invented yet. A central fountain dominates the interior of the mosque.
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In 1402AD he met his match against the Mongol/Turkish warlord, Tamerlane in the Battle of Ankara.
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As usual we had not booked ahead but had decided to try a quaint little Turkish guesthouse described in the Lonely Planet. It was just up the street from the Grand Mosque. As we navigated through the busy afternoon crowds a middle aged man up ahead of us stopped, turned and asked us where we were going. "I know a very good place.", he said. "Come, come!" Shelly and I didn't want to get led up the garden path but we were all walking in the same direction so we couldn't get away. As we walked he told us he was a school teacher and he was heading home. He asked us about our travels. We tried to be as polite but non-committal as possible. Then he announced "this is the place" and pointed to an old fashioned Turkish house on a steep and winding street. I laughed out load - it was the same place we were looking for. "I know these people,", Ahmet said and introduced us to the lady of the house. She was an old lady, traditionally dressed in brightly coloured pantaloons and spoke no English. Ahmet explained in detail who we were and where we were from. The room was small and spartan, with a frosted glass panel in the door that offered no privacy. The bathroom was very very basic. But we took it anyway.
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We quickly changed and headed out, but Ahmet wanted to talk and we couldn't escape his overwhelming hospitality. He taught history and he liked his subject (as of course I did too), but we did have limited time. Ahmet invited us to a cafe where traditional Turkish music was played "not by professional musicians. No, these are just normal people who come after work to play. You will appreciate it." He was most insistent we come to see the Sema, even though we told him we'd seen it at Konya. "Yes, but there it is in a big stadium. You should see it in a traditional tekke (monastery)." A Canadian student then arrived and we were all introduced and the conversation started over again. "You must tell them they must come to the Sema.", he implored her. He then provided a run down of all the important tourist sights in Bursa. "You cannot leave without visiting the Green mosque,", he said. That was high on my list of must sees, but then he added, "But I'm not sure if it might be closed?" Sadly, the astonishly beautifully decorated tomb of Sulieman II was closed for restoration.
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After a long time we managed to extricate ourselves and head out into the streets. The landlady offered many profuse thank you's and god bless you's as we left that I thought I might have been one of her long lost sons.
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One of the first things the Ottomans built in Bursa (apart from mosques), were hans - covered markets that doubled as inns for merchants and travellers. East - west trade resumed and soon Bursa was a booming city once again. Many of Bursas old hans have been restored and are still bustling centres of trade and community.
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Bursa's claim to culinary fame is the Iskender kebad, a dish of roasted slices of meat served on a bed of fluffy turkish bread soaked in a rich buttery sauce. It was a delicious heart attack inducing feast. Two restaurants in the old town claim to serve the original receipe - they are both are run by rival descendents of Iskender (Alexander) Bey.
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After dinner we wandered up towards tomb of Suleman II, known as the Green Mosque because of its brilliant turquoise tiles. It was shut for restoration as I mentioned already, so we headed back to the hostel for an early night.
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The next day we headed up to the citadel for a view over the city. Unfortunately smog obscured much of the view. In the valley to the west is the Muradiye complex. Murad II, the 5th Ottoman sultan built a mosque here as a mausoleum for himself and his family. His son Mehmet II however went on to conquer Constantinople and moved the capital there and Bursa slowly became a backwater. The Muradiye complex went on to become a mausoleum for many of the sultans' wives and concubines. There are few members of the Ottoman family actually buried there, for reasons I'll explain in the section on Istanbul.
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Murad's tomb, like the man himself, is plain and unpretentious. The most impressive tomb belongs to Jem, the youngest son of Mehmet II. On Mehmet's death, his oldest son Beyazit claimed the throne. Jem raised an army against him but was defeated and fled, first to Egypt, then to the Island of Rhodes where he was give asylum by the Knights of St John. From Rhodes he was sent to France, then to Italy. He quickly became a pawn of international politics and was held as a virtual prisoner, used to extort money and favours from the nervous Beyazit. He was eventually poisoned on the orders of the Borgia Pope Alexander III. Jem became the subject of many romantic tales both in the east and west. He was young, handsome and exotic and he had many affairs and illegitimate children to the daughters of the many nobles charged with his care. In Turkey, he was regarded as a great 'might have been'; so much more charming than his grim and dour brother. After his death his body was shipped back to Turkey and buried in a beautifully decorated tomb in old Bursa, far from the new capital, where he could be safely forgotten.
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Posted by paulymx 07:19 Archived in Turkey Tagged bursa

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