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Saturday June 21, 2008

Historical Bursa

Not far from Istanbul lies the pretty town of Bursa — the birthplace of the mighty Ottoman Empire. Wander the cobbled streets and ancient bazaars, and slowly but surely history will reach out and touch you.

Look at a map of Europe and trail your finger eastwards, and then south, through Greece and into Turkey, until you reach the very edge of the continent in Istanbul, that historical giant of a city that straddles both Europe and Asia.

To many visitors, Istanbul IS Turkey. But there is actually a city — just across the Sea of Marmara to the south — whose history and natural beauty is far more accessible than Istanbul’s.

Shopkeepers in the silk market take their morning tea.

Astonishing as it may seem, there are still areas on the shores of the Marmara Sea (on whose shores Istanbul holds court) that are not over-run by tourists. One such place is the beautiful green city of Bursa, just two hours by ferry south of Istanbul. After Istanbul, it is the most historically rich city in Turkey — (psst, but without the swarms of tourists you get in Istanbul).

Tucked away on the lower slopes of the Uludag mountains, Bursa established itself as an important centre as far back as pre-Roman times, attracting emperors and rulers to its rich, fertile soil and healing thermal waters.

Founded by the ancient Greeks, the city was ceaselessly fought over and conquered in turn by the Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, before finally falling to Orhan Gazi in 1326, when it became the first capital (before Istanbul) of the vast Ottoman Empire.

The arrival of the Ottomans nearly 700 years ago ensured the city’s prosperity as a cultural and economic centre that now represents one of the richest legacies of early Ottoman art and architecture.

As the first capital of the Ottoman Empire, Bursa became the beneficiary of the finest mosques, theological schools (medreses), humanitarian centres (imarets) and social services (hans, hamams and public fountains).

The ancient Romans left mosaics throughout the Old Quarter.

But today, this corner of Asia Minor is now a peaceful swatch of the world where more discerning tourists are coming away with great experiences. Visitors interested in history will no doubt appreciate the hugely important role this little city has played in the geopolitics of the region, and the many remaining fine examples of beautiful Islamic architecture which celebrated that importance.

Today, Bursa is Turkey’s fifth largest city. And while the outside of the city has grown, like many of Malaysia’s own cities, into an industrial wasteland, the historical Old Quarter in the heart of the city is an unrivalled display of early Ottoman architecture, including some of the loveliest buildings in Turkey.

There are some amazing examples of grand Ottoman mosques scattered throughout this city, many well-worth a visit, particularly the imposing Ulucami, or Grand Mosque. A finely carved mimber (the Imam’s pulpit) and impressive calligraphic panels decorate the mosque. The shadirvan (ablutionary fountain) lies uncharacteristically within the mosque itself under the ceiling of 20 domes.

There’s a funny story about this mosque. In 1396, King Beyazit I was the ruler of Bursa. He was both pious and stingy. When he led his army off to war, he promised that, if victorious, he would build 20 mosques. But when he returned as victor, he decided to save money by building one grand mosque with 20 domes instead!

Getting pummeled in a Turkish Bath.

To his credit, he spared no expense when he decorated his mosque. There are handmade blue and white tiles, walnut panelling, marble floors and gilded calligraphy everywhere you look.

The Market Quarter

But ask most visitors, both foreign and local, what the biggest attraction in the Old City is, and they will tell you it is the ancient Market Quarter.

Centuries before Malacca was on anyone’s map, Bursa was a bustling trade port dominating the entire eastern Mediterranean. The Carsi (pronounced “charshi”), founded by Orhan Gazi in the 14th Century, was the heart of the old city and is still the commercial centre of Bursa.

While everyone knows that the much talked about Silk Road started in China, few people know that it ended in Bursa!

Bursa’s famous and oh-so-delicious Iskender Kebab. — ERIK FEARN

Amid the narrow, bustling streets is the grand two-story Koza Han Silk Market — as bustling today as it was nearly 600 years ago. It is built around a quiet courtyard, shaded by trees and cooled by fountains. And running along all four sides of the courtyard is a two-story building that features small, outward facing rooms that are used as shops, exactly the way they were in the 1400s — selling only one thing — silk! Nowadays, however, the silk is locally produced, using techniques passed on by Chinese traders.

When you’ve done your shopping, retire to the central courtyard café and take in the fresh air and imagine the stories the Koza Han could tell . . .

It is a place where history can still reach out and touch the present.

Food

As with all cultures, food plays a central defining role. Bursa is no exception. Although the region around Bursa is famous for its top quality peaches, olives and yoghurt (a Turkish word, by the way), the real treat is the simple but satisfying local creation — the Iskender Kebab.

It’s basically carved tender strips of barbecued lamb meat on a bed of flat pide bread with fresh yoghurt on the side and covered in tomato sauce and artery-clogging melted butter. Meat and yoghurt together sounds odd, right? Believe me, every bite is a mouthful of heaven . . .

And there’s no better place to sample this famous dish than at the original Iskender Restaurant right downtown where the dish was supposedly invented 150 years ago. Burp.

Accommodation

The elegant suburb of Cekirge, west of the city centre, is probably the best place to stay. This area has been known since Roman times for its warm springs, rich in minerals.

Many modern hotels have thermal bath facilities, or, better yet, go to a traditional Turkish bath. The oldest one in Bursa still in operation is the “New’ Spring” (Yeni Kaplica), which was built in 1552 by the grand vizier of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent.

But please keep in mind that this Turkish bath is for men only. A good massage and scrub-down for an hour or so will put you back YTL30 (just under RM100). But it’s well worth it. The professional scrubbers — big, hefty men who show no mercy — will get you so clean, you’ll never have to bathe again.

Getting there

The best and prettiest way to get to Bursa is to take any of the regular and cheap car ferries running from downtown Istanbul across the Marmara Sea to the nearby port city of Mudanya. The journey takes less than two hours and is a bargain at about YTL15 (RM40) per person.

There are a few options on how to get from Malaysia to Istanbul, your jumping-off point. Turkish Airlines (www.thy.com), which flies out of Singapore, often has good deals.

WHEN TO VISIT

The summers can be scorching and the winters can be dreary (unless you’re into skiing). Spring and autumn are best. Besides, you’ll be able to get good low-season hotel and flight deals.

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