Return to Turkey: Bursa’s Mosques and Tombs – The Director’s Cut

My original travel journals were split across August Phoenix Hats and a few other websites. February 2021 marked the 12th anniversary of the beginning of my travels. To keep myself sane during the pandemic lockdown, I started reissuing my journals as Director’s Cuts, with the complete text as well as larger and additional photos.  

It’s a 6 hour trip to Bursa by a combination of regional and city buses. The regional bus includes a steward with a snack cart that he rolls down the center aisle; when he gets to my seat, he chooses something for me after I motion that I don’t read Turkish. I connect with the city bus easily enough, but the ride is terrifying because I didn’t know where my stop is. Word quickly spreads through the rest of the passengers of a ‘tourist in distress’ but they cannot find one among them that speaks English. One woman takes pity on me, and after figuring out where I am going, takes me to the front of the bus, and sits with me until I reach my stop at the Boyoguzel Hotel, a modern business hotel just outside of town. I’ll never know if she passed her own stop up to assist me with mine. It is the first of several small gestures I would receive here.

Bursa has a history of some 5,000 years. It was built by Hannibal as a gift to King Prusias, who gave refuge at his court after Hannibal was defeated in his campaign against the Romans. The Citadel is still a significant part of the landscape, and I am taken by the way the modern parts of the city have nestled up to this ancient stone fortification. 

Bursa became the capitol of the Ottoman Empire during the early 14th century under Sultan Orhan Gazi, who is buried here. The city became the cultural center of the scientific world, and was an important part of the trade routes heading West. In recent times it has become a center for textile and automotive production in Turkey.

It’s been a pretty frustrating day, and downtown Bursa is some distance from the hotel, so I spend my first evening walking around the more immediate neighborhood. I find the grave of Suleyman Celebi, the author of the Mevlid, an epic poem describing the birth of Mohammed. Further down the street is a large, elevated cement stage with a proscenium from which hang a pair of oversized Turkish shadow puppets, marking the Karagoz Cemetery.

Legend has it that during the construction of the Orhan Mosque, two blacksmiths named Karagoz and Hacivat impeded work by distracting the other workers with their antics, and were beheaded by order of Sultan Orhan, an action he later regretted. In an attempt to cheer up the distraught sultan, his vizier removed his turban and made a screen, and reenacted the antics of the dead blacksmiths in shadow-play. The vizier, Sheikh Kusteri, is credited as the father of Turkish puppet theater, and Hacivat and Karagoz became staple characters.

Kayıt Altındaki Tek Tasvir Ustası. Photo credit:

I stop for dinner at a kebab place where a very enthusiastic cook, upon realizing our language barrier, takes me into his kitchen so I can point to what I want. Small Gesture #2. A stop at the liquor store for a bottle of Raki and a slow back up the hill completes my evening.

The next morning, I hail a cab to Yesil Madrash, the Green Tomb, and the furthest point away from the hotel. All the other sites I plan to see are neatly lined up in a mostly straight line back up the hill. It is very early yet, so I step into a small bazaar that is housed on three floors of an Ottoman home. It’s a lovely place and I am closely attended to by a child who continues to talk to me long after I indicated I do not speak Turkish. I regret not having purchased anything there.

Unlike Christians, Muslims do not bury their dead in their places of worship.  Mosques (called camii) are always separate from tombs (called madrash). I was so taken with this tomb that I made a short video of its interior.

Upon my return home to Seattle, I chided myself for not taking the side trip to Iznik, less than two hours away, and the home of the factories that produced the tiles for many of the buildings I visited in this country.

Just outside of the Yesil Madrash I find a handful of street merchants. One is peddling small antique trinkets and silver by the ounce. The ring I never found in Istanbul is here — a prettily worked silver bezel surrounding an onyx cabochon. I also buy a silver thimble, covered with granulation. It’s the most perfect thimble ever, and one which now I cannot sew without. Thank You Bursa.

My next stop is the Ulu Camii, but prayers are in progress, so I check out the Kozahan (the Silk Bazaar). Built in 1491, it is stocked to the ceiling with every type of silk scarf, apparel and towel you could possibly imagine. A small import shop at the entrance of another han attracts my attention. I should have bought a lamp here but did not, and the filigree belts which the clerk pulls off the wall en masse for me, also sadly stay behind. Other bazaars sell modern goods for the locals and cheap trinkets for everyone else.

I find a kebab place to eat lunch, and have my first durum which might be my new favorite – a tortilla filled with a tiny bit of meat, pickle and tomato. I mill around until afternoon prayers end at 2:30, and note that in spite of there being a women’s gallery, the only people exiting the mosque are men.

The magnificent Ulu Camii was built in 1399, when, to satisfy a promise to construct 20 mosques, Yildirim Bayazid chose instead to build a single mosque with 20 domes and minarets. The center dome is glass, hovering over a 16-sided fountain. The calligraphies were finished in 1904.

Ulu Camii is the largest mosque in Bursa, and is also the most distinctive mosque I have seen in Turkey thus far, with its’ glass dome and interior ablutions fountain.

Children run around, and a couple of girls are rolling around on the carpet. Women in headscarves, in spite of the secluded women’s gallery in the corner (there’s no elevated gallery here), pray in groups of twos and threes, along with a scattering of men. It was interesting to watch ‘only men’ entering and exiting the mosques at prescribed prayer times, and the women entering with the tourists. Men and women pray in separate groups but simultaneously, with no barriers between them.

I return to the Orhan Camii, where a custodian is vacuuming between prayer services. There’s a beautiful mihrab in the corner, and distinctive wall-to-wall carpeting on the floor. I learn that the members of the mosque pool their money to pay for replacement carpets as they wear out. I quickly take a few photos, pull all of the change out of my pocket and deposit it in the offering box on my way out.

The Orhan Camii had a sedate but beautiful exterior, including the simple grills on the windows, and an ablutions fountain with its beautiful tile work interrupted by a modern soft soap dispenser.

Nearby is the tomb of Orhan Gazi. His turban is perched on his sarcophagus which is overlaid with a heavily embroidered tapestry. The pillar is one of four that support the domed ceiling. The floor iss laid out in circular mosaics, and the walls are whitewashed with limestone. It was very airy and beautiful.  

Bursa is a city of sultan’s tombs. A silver domed building that had been the chapel of a Christian monastery, was converted to become the burial place of Orhan’s son, Osman Gazi, who died during the Siege of Bursa in the 14th century. The carved sarcophagus is inlaid with mother-of-pearl and surrounded by a brass balistrade. His turban rests on top, as is the burial custom for the sultans in this region.  The room is done in blues and whites, with clear glass oil lamps suspended from the walls. It is a very calming place.

I find a public park with an art installation – a directional sign listing distances for neighboring countries – and several shady benches. I buy a coffee and sit down to study my map. A man sits down a little too close to me but does not initiate contact and leaves after about 10 minutes. It was the only time I would ever feel unsafe here.

I also squeezed in a fair number of museums today, which I will detail in my next post.

I wandered back up the hill, ultimately hailing a cab for the last 3 blocks after being unable to take one more step. Dinner tonight is kebab at a sidewalk cafe, overlooking an intersection that requires you to take your life into your hands in order to cross. The traffic here is crazy and worse than Istanbul, which I didn’t think was possible…

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