Bursa: Old is gold

In an ancient Ottoman capital, an indefatigable octogenarian turns back the pages to the past


The tea garden and shops of Koza Han. iStockphoto.
The tea garden and shops of Koza Han. iStockphoto.

We first met Ozen Ishakbeyoglu, a sprightly, retired English teacher, on a breezy Istanbul evening. We were invited to the home of her son-in-law, a jolly antiquarian bookseller. On a plant-filled terrace overlooking the Bosphorus strait, we dined on cold meze and drank raki, while scratchy records played old Turkish favourites in the background. We had moved to Istanbul from New York City in 2014, and found common ground with Ozen, who had lived in the US in the 1950s and was keen to reminisce about it.

Soon we were making plans to travel together to the ancient city of Bursa, now a busy metropolis of more than two million people. “Bursa is marvellous,” Ozen said, “I will take you, if you don’t mind an 80-year-old guide.”

Three weeks later, we met her at Beşiktaş to board a large sea bus for the 2-hour journey to Bursa across the Sea of Marmara. The sky was ominous and a powerful wind was gusting, but it didn’t bother Ozen. She is 5ft, 4 inches, with short reddish-brown hair, bright eyes, and a no-nonsense but decidedly cheerful manner. “I’ve brought breakfast,” she announced, producing bags of assorted pastries from a well-known Istanbul bakery.

Ozen Ishakbeyoglu.
Ozen Ishakbeyoglu.

Soon after we set off, there was an announcement: “Because of weather conditions, we anticipate a difficult journey. If you require medical assistance, please see a crew member.” By now the sea was heaving, the ferry was rocking perilously, and within minutes we were overcome by nausea. Ozen was still unperturbed, filling a small notebook with neat notes from her Bursa travel guide. When it came to rough sea journeys, she had seen worse: When she travelled from Istanbul to the US in 1956, her parents had arranged for her to cross the Atlantic on a cargo ship; a plane ticket was too expensive.

A light rain was falling when we arrived in the port town of Mudanya, from where a 40-minute bus ride took us to Bursa. The city was the first capital of the Ottoman empire, conquered in 1326, more than a century before Istanbul. It was renowned for its silks, which traders carried to Central Asia, China and Europe. Ringed by hills and the Uludağ mountain, Bursa was famously verdant—it had 47,000 gardens in the 17th century—and was known for its natural hot springs. Silk is still sold, but the automotive industry anchors Bursa’s economy today. Most of the gardens have vanished, and traffic knots are the bane of the city centre. But many neighbourhoods are tranquil, a welcome change from the interminable roar of Istanbul.

Our first stop was the Muradiye Complex, with its dozen domed mausoleums of the relatives of sultan Murad II (1404-51), many of whom died in fratricidal slaughter. Especially striking were the Iznik tiles in the resting place of Mustafa, a son of the sultan. They form a ravishing mosaic of red, green and turquoise tulips against a stunning white background. We savoured the serenity of the spot—with its mosque built in 1426, scores of fruit trees and mellow tea house.

An Iznik ceramic vase
An Iznik ceramic vase

A short car ride took us next to the old military citadel, located on a cliff in the city centre. Osman Gazi, a founder of the Ottoman empire, is interred here in a mausoleum that was once a Byzantine monastery. His stone coffin is emblazoned with mother-of-pearl inlay. The surrounding park, full of outdoor cafés, has a sweeping view of Bursa’s skyline—a view disfigured only by a knot of tall apartment buildings, which the affable guide Ozen had hired called “the shame of Bursa”.

Enamoured of the view, and the sunshine that dispersed the clouds, we were content to linger awhile at a café under the fig trees. But Ozen wanted to move on. “I’m not wearing you out, am I?” she inquired, ushering us on to Ulu Camii, the most revered of Bursa’s 380 mosques. Completed in 1399, it has 20 domes and two minarets. There’s a marble fountain in the centre, around which screeching children chase one another, and a minber (pulpit) made of walnut that depicts the solar system. Sunlight filters in through stained-glass windows of a green and white hue. The beige walls are alive with nearly 200 magnificent inscriptions, done by the finest Ottoman calligraphers.

We were now in the bustling heart of this old city. From the Ulu Camii, it was a short stroll to the Silk Bazaar (Koza Han). Built in 1491, it is housed in a hexagonal, two-storey building with an open-air courtyard with benches and more tea houses. It’s a favourite haunt of residents and tourists alike; they browse in its dozens of shops that sell silk scarves, shawls, brocade and jewellery. Allowing us a few brief stops, Ozen led us briskly through the sweeping arcades. As we were leaving, the sky darkened and sheets of drenching rain came down. We rushed to take cover, while Ozen strode out without an umbrella, looking for our guide and driver. Our first day in Bursa concluded with a scalding bath at one of the city’s many hamams. Tourists were scarce here, and everywhere in Bursa, a result of Turkey’s present difficulties.

Ozen had found a rambling old hotel up in the hills that faced the Sea of Marmara. Our modest room looked out on high hills whose greenery was disappearing under houses and dwellings. The bustling city seemed far away; we drifted into a state of relaxation. The next morning, we feasted on olives, cheese, bread and eggs in the hotel’s sunlit courtyard as ravenous, intrepid cats encircled us, and birds plucked nuts from the trees above. As we lingered over cups of black tea, served Turkish style in small, delicate glasses, Ozen produced a folder of fragile black and white photographs from her years in the US. A composed young woman, dressed in black skirt, white blouse and black pumps, gazed at us from one old print.

The photos fostered intimacy, and she told us that six months ago she had lost her husband of 30 years. She recalled their decades of happiness together, and their frequent travels in Europe and Turkey. “People ask me why I don’t stay home more,” she said, “but I want to travel like we used to, while I still can.”

The interiors of the Green Mosque. Photo: iStockphoto
The interiors of the Green Mosque. Photo: iStockphoto

With those words, she became restless again and turned to the day’s busy itinerary. Our first stop that morning was a favourite spot of hers—the Green Mosque. Built in 1421, it is a masterpiece renowned for its intricately carved door and the signature dark green and turquoise hexagonal tiles on its interior walls. Ozen stayed in the Green Mosque for a long time, as we surveyed the nearby ceramic and textile shops.

We then drove 20 minutes across the city, past scores of auto-part-shops and warehouses, to Cumalikizik. Located at the foot of the Uludağ mountain, it is an Ottoman village with winding cobblestone streets and narrow alleys. To arrive here is to step back a century in time. Many locals have converted the ground floors of their wooden homes into modest restaurants, tea houses, and shops. But they still work the land: One can see tractors parked in the open spaces behind the shops. Up a curving street, we stepped into a two-room, finely curated museum which displayed village wares from the 18th and 19th centuries. There were intricately designed knives, a copper coffee-roasting machine, a primitive ice-cream maker, and an old metal bear trap. The museum’s sole employee told us that bears and wild pigs could still be seen in the nearby hills.

Our last stop, higher up in the hills, was the Saitabat waterfall, which is surrounded by vendors selling cups of sweet, thick Turkish coffee, and cafés whose terraces overlook the waterfall. The air was magnificently fresh and clean. Driving back down, we stopped at one of the many family-run honey farms that line the hillside. In a cosy shop heated by an old wood-burning stove, we bought a large jar of honey for 75 Turkish liras (around Rs1,300).

On the highway back to Bursa, we sat in heavy traffic. Ozen was in high spirits. She declared her love for us, and sang old Broadway show tunes that she remembered from her Manhattan days. “Sing with me,” she exhorted us. Even over dinner and the ferry ride back, she was indefatigable, producing chocolates made by her daughter as a surprise treat. “I feel like I’ve known you for a long time,” she said, when we returned to Istanbul. We felt the same way.

The next day we returned to our routine, while Ozen got set for her next adventure: a 10-city bus tour of the Balkans a week later.

Scott Sherman, a contributing writer of The Nation, is the author of Patience And Fortitude: Power, Real Estate And The Fight To Save A Public Library. Bharati Sadasivam works for an international organization. They live in Istanbul.

Plan a soak

Bursa is renowned for its ‘hamams’. In his stirring chapter on Bursa in ‘Istanbul: The Collected Traveler’ (Vintage Departures), Heath W. Lowry, a Princeton University historian who has been visiting the city for four decades, recommended the ‘hamam’ at the Gonluferah Hotel (120Turkish liras/Rs2,076, info@gonluferah.com). Ozen chose a more affordable option for us: the Boyuguzel Termal Hotel, which has two private thermal baths. An hour in the ‘hamam’ for two people was 75 Turkish liras/Rs1,300 (Boyuguzel.com).

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