A World Apart Bursa's Historic Heart

From Cyberlaw: Difficult Issues Winter 2010
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The historic heart of the city of Bursa is like a time capsule where the past coexists with the present. Alleys link historic mosques, commercial exchanges, or hands, and a covered bazaar and narrow streets enclosed by great stone walls echo memories. Yet, they conceal the story of an old city reluctantly carried on the current of time towards the future. Tracking down this story, partly by knowledge and partly by instinct, I followed clues hidden in this area of the city. The old downtown area where shops still sell Bursar's traditional tiles, silks, knives, and Karagoz and Hacivat shadow puppets lie close to the square known as Heykel Meydan and right behind Ulu Mosque. Visitors and locals come here to shop and for the pure pleasure of strolling through the streets, soaking in the atmosphere. Bursa was the capital of the Ottoman Empire from 1326 until 1365 and remained one of the most important centers of empirical international trade. This part of the city best reflects this thriving trade.

But lovers of art, architecture, and literature are also drawn here and can be found deep in conversation in small rooms in the Hans or seated in one of the peaceful courtyards shaded by chestnut trees. 'What moments, O what moments / Dust moments, summit moments / From Prusa to Bursa / Hidden times: Hans.' So writes Turkish poet, writer, and translator Ramis Dara who has been living in Bursa for many years now. He will tell you that it was sitting in the tranquil courtyards of the hans that his love of the city deepened. How can he forget the places where he experienced passions, separations, and new loves, where he photographed blossom bedecked branches of Spanish lilac and pocketed horse chestnuts that had fallen on the table when the writer Hulki Aktunc told him they brought good luck? Can he forget the delicious sharp flavor of Ali Efendi's sour grape juice? Or the tiny shop with its window filled with notices of literary events owned by Bedriye Hanim, a poetess and subscriber to every amateur literature magazine published in Turkey?

Bursa Literature Festival is held nearby in Tayyare Cultural Centre, and after the discussions and talks, Ramis Dara invites his friends for glasses of strong tea in the courtyard. All these have bound him in deep affection to Koza Han and its environs.

Koza Han is still a thriving shopping center, as it has been for centuries. It was built in 1491 by the architect Abdul-ulâ bin Pulad Sah for Sultan Bayezid II as an endowment providing income for the mosque and medreses the sultan had founded in Istanbul. The han has 95 rooms, most of them occupied by shops selling silk goods, which is appropriate since Koza Han, or Chrysalis Exchange, was the center of the city's silk trade in past centuries. Merchants came to Bursa from all over the world, particularly from Florence, whose merchants spearheaded the rapidly expanding trade with the East and whose artists shaped the Renaissance. From the late 15th century onwards, the Florentine merchants stepped up their activities, as proven by the account books they kept in Bursa. Koza Han is renowned for its miniature pavilion mosque raised upon pillars above the fountain in the courtyard. This dramatic octagonal structure with its leaded dome, which appears in almost every building photograph, is still open to worship today.

Entering the building from the north, you are struck first by the excellent stone portal with its carved decoration in relief. Another of Bursa's hans and the oldest in the city is Emirhan, built by Sultan Orhan (1324-1362), where the ground floor is occupied mainly by goldsmiths. Although it seems to be part of the Ulu Mosque complex, this exchange belongs to the complex of Orhan Mosque 200 meters away. Down the hill from Ulu Mosque is another exchange built for silk merchants, Ipek Han, which also provided accommodation. The courtyard is shaded by four planes and a linden tree. Finally, Fidan Han, the Sapling Exchange, was founded by Grand Vizier Mahmut Pasa to trade young trees, and appropriately boasts the most greenery and is the best preserved of the old exchanges.

Times have changed, and Bursa's fortune is no longer made by silk and fruit trees. The silk merchants of yesteryear - Haci Sabri, Dervisyan, Koyuncuyan, and Morukyan - are names that mean nothing to younger generations. Perhaps the only memorial to the once celebrated Bursa cutlers is a poem by Niyazi Akincioglu: 'The first time I read your name / Was on the dagger of that scoundrel Rasim / When I was a child. / On the hilt made from antler horn / I first heard of Bursa. / Remzi, Cutler, it wrote.' Like the old crafts, the Karagoz shadow play, whose characters originated in Bursa according to legend, is trying to compete in a world whirling at Internet speed.

This area of historic markets and exchanges, where time weaves cobwebs in dusty corners, cares nothing for the new plaza just a short distance away, where the sunlight dances on the glistening glass pyramid.

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