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Nestled against the slopes of Uludag (Mt. Olympus) in Western Anatolia, Bursa emerged as an important town in Classical Antiquity. Of major significance for the city's future was the inauguration of the silk industry in Byzantium under Emperor Justinian; Bursa eventually would become a center of silk production and trade. Justinian's wife, the scandalous Empress Theodora frequented the Bursa hot springs, which still draw both a local and tourist clientele. Today the city juxtaposes modern apartments and traffic overpasses with mosques and trading emporia built in a much earlier era.

Bursa's greatest era of political importance was connected with the emergence of the Ottoman Empire, although Turkish settlement in the region had begun in the eleventh century, when for a time it was conquered by the Seljuks. Starting as a minor prince on the borders of the already decaying Byzantine Empire, Osman Gazi (1281-1326), the eponymous founder of the Ottoman dynasty, besieged Bursa. It fell to his son Orhan (1326-1361), under whom the Ottomans then first gained a foothold in Europe. We are fortunate to have an eyewitness account by a visitor to Bursa in 1331, only a few years after the Ottoman takeover. The famous Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta wrote of it as

a great and important city with fine bazaars and wide streets, surrounded on all sides by gardens and running springs. In its outskirts there is a river of exceedingly hot water which flows into a large pond; beside this have been built two bath houses, one for men and the other for women. Sick persons seek a cure in this hot pool and come to it from the most distant parts of the country. There is a hospice there for visitors, in which they are given lodging and food for the period of their stay, that is three days, and which was built by one of the kings of the Turkmens.

Ibn Battuta stayed with members of the local corporation of Muslim artisans who entertained him with "a great feast" and a "truly sublime night" of singing and dancing. Regarding Orhan, whom he met, Ibn Battuta wrote:

The sultan is the greatest of the kings of the Turkmens and the richest in wealth, lands and military forces. Of fortresses he possesses nearly a hundred, and for most of his time he is continually engaged in making the round of them, stayng in each fortress for some days to put it into good order and examine its condition. It is said that he has never stayed for a whole month in any one town. He also fights with the infidels [i.e., Christians--DW] continually and keeps them under siege. (Gibb tr., pp. 451-452.)

For the better part of a century (until 1402), the Ottoman capital remained in Bursa; its position as the family seat explains why so many of the Ottoman royal tombs are located there. All of the fourteenth-century Ottoman rulers are buried at Bursa starting with Osman himself, whose grave is shown here. Although many of the buildings in the city date from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, fire and a major earthquake in 1855 destroyed the earliest mausolea, including Osman's. His grave and that of his successor are both located now in adjoining nineteenth-century buildings at the edge of a high cliff overlooking the city. The third of the Ottoman Sultans, Murad I, is best known for defeating the Serbs in 1389 at the Battle of Kosovo, where he died on the battlefield. The Serbs still celebrate that day of their defeat as a defining moment in their national history. The pictures here show the monument to the battle in Kosovo (Yugoslavia) on the location where it took place and just down the road from it "Murad's tomb," venerated by Muslims of Kosovo as Murad I's resting place even though in fact he is not buried there. His body was brought back to Bursa, where was interred not far from the old baths at the hot springs.

As the Ottoman capital, Bursa enjoyed the largess of the royal treasury; some of its buildings occupy a significant place in the history of the evolution of Ottoman architecture. One of the most important patrons of the arts was Bayezid I Yildirim (Thunderbolt) (1389-1402), who sponsored in 1390-1395 the building of the twindomed mosque (shown here from a distance), near which he would later be buried. The monumental Ulu Camii, the main mosque of the city, also dates from his reign. It is one of the buildings in Bursa which draws upon the previus Seljuk architectural traditions of Anatolia; with its twenty domes it initiated a new trend in Ottoman mosque construction. (Our only view of it here is a closeup, with the closely fitted stone of the fašade serving as the backdrop to a public fountain on the main thoroughfare.) Within two years of the building's completion, Bayezid over-reached and made the mistake of attacking Tamerlane, apparently in an effort to gain control of the lucrative silk route all the way to Tabriz in northern Iran. Tamerlane crushed the Ottoman army at Ankara in 1402 and, according to legend, carted Bayezid off in an iron cage, an event depicted here in a miniature from a sixteenth-century Russian manuscript. In Renaissance Europe Bayezid's fate came to epitomize the evil consequences of overweening pride. Among others, the famous English playwright Marlowe chose as a subject Bayezid and Tamerlane. Bayezid's daughter married a famous scholar Emir Sultan and to honor him after his death sponsored the building of a mosque and tomb (shown here from a distance).

Following the battle of Ankara, the Ottomans temporarily re-located their capital in Europe at Edirne (Adrianople), but Bursa clearly continued to flourish once Mehmed I restored stability. Perhaps the most elegant of the Ottoman buildings, the Green Mosque, took ten years to build (1414-1424). One of its noteworthy features is the entrance portal, which clearly draws upon Seljuk models (an example shown here is the portal of the Sahibiye Medrese, built in 1267 in Kayseri, Central Anatolia). Mehmet I was buried in the nearby Green Tomb, which, like the mosque, features in its interior superb examples of Ottoman tile work.

The last major tomb complex built in Bursa, the Muradiyye, houses the remains of Sultan Murad II (d. 1451) and his family. After the ornateness of Mehmet I's tomb, Murad's is striking for its simplicity, topped by a layer of earth rather than tilework with Koranic inscriptions.

The grave of Murad's grandson, Cem Sultan is similarly quite plain, although the interior of the building itself (built originally for his older brother and seen only faintly in the background here) is quite ornate. Another of Murad's grandsons, Shehzade Ahmed, is buried nearby. Ironically, the success of Murad II and his son Mehmed II ("The Conqueror") in first surrounding and then capturing Constantinople in 1453 guaranteed that by the late fifteenth century only members of the family of distinctly lesser stature would any longer be buried in Bursa.

Even in its era of political insignificance though, Bursa continued to be extremely important in the Ottoman silk trade. Mehmed II's son, Bayezid II built there in 1491 the Koza Khan, the emporium and inn which was the focus of the silk trade (it is the structure with the tree-filled court in the upper part of this distant view of the market area). In its courtyard is a lovely octagonal mosque, over a fountain and pool. This courtyard is still the scene of the lively market in silk cocoons (vividly filmed in the Silk Road video series [film 29] reviewed elsewhere on our pages). The second floor gallery of the Koza Khan is lined with retail shops catering to the tourist trade which is still attracted to this historic city at the west end of the Silk Road.

For more on Bursa as a center of the silk trade, click here.

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© 2001 Daniel C. Waugh.
Silk Road Seattle is a project of the Walter Chapin Simpson Center for the Humanities at the University of Washington.