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Fires and earthquakes have taken their toll of the Covered Bazaar, but it remains choc-a-bloc with Bursa towels, loofahs, kese (massage gloves), clogs, bowls and soaps. You can still buy silk at the most famous caravansaray, Koza Han, and sip tea or lemonade (gazoz) under the plane trees. Combine it with a visit to the Ulu Cami and lunch ether at Çiçek (İnegöl köfte) or Iskender (İskender kebab).
Bursa owes its wealth to commerce, being at the western extremity of caravan routes stretching all the way to Central Asia and China. In the other direction, it was the outlet for goods whose destination was Europe, and had particularly strong links with Italy. As a manufacturing centre it was famous for its silks and velvets, supplying not only the Ottoman court, but also vestments and altar cloths for ecclesiastical patrons which are now in treasures as far afield as Russia and Mount Athos.
Initially, Bursa’s prosperity derived from the sale and export of raw silk, and it did not come into its own as a producer of silken cloth until the late 15th century, by which time over 1,000 looms were recorded. The cultivation of the silkworm came even later, and the first mulberry plantations for the leaves to feed them in the late 16th century. The earlier dependency on raw silk from Iran was a cause for concern, pitting the Ottomans against the safavids in the effort to secure this commodity.
On a swift visit this spring, it was Tulip time when we left Istanbul. Leaving the army of scarlet tulips behind, we drove over the bridge to Asia and swung south to the ferry terminal at Eskihisar to cross the Sea of Marmara. On the road again and over the mountains, we passed a roadside stand selling model storks, then took a detour left to Iznik, through flowering orchards of apples and cherries, and vines pruned a metre high…
Along the skirts of the Bithynian Mount Olympus lies what remains of the first capital of the early Ottoman state. Once home to the most flourishing silk industry of the Middle East and fabled for its 300 minarets, it was a city dedicated in equal parts to commerce and religion. From the 14th until the early 20th century, its inhabitants never numbered more than 50,000. Today, it is a sprawling metropolis of over 1,500,000 which is home to Turkey’s automotive industry and still a major centre of textile production, although the famed Bursa towels have long sinced outpaced its silks. As for its minarets, which really only numbered 300 in the writings of travellers, they are still there, though one sometimes has trouble spotting them amid the apartment blocks and stores that mar what was once a vista of dozens of graceful spires rising above the maze of two-storey lath-and-plaster dwellings.
Equally famed was its natural hot springs, known in Turkish as kaplıca, which abound in the western suburb of Çekirge, and which by the end of the 18th century had been discovered by a handful of adventurous Europeans, who build a number of small spa hotels, immediately attracting parties of hardy visitors. The meant that Bursa soon became a popular weekend retreat for Europeans living in Istanbul, who sailed for eight to twelve hours to the port town of Mudanya on the Sea of Marmara and were then transported by horse-drawn wagons over the forested hills and through 15 kilometres of mulberry and fruit orchards to Bursa and its baths.
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