Home of numerous industries including the first automobile assembly plant in Turkey, Bursa displays much of the chaotic dynamism that seems to characterize Turkey. Although markedly more staid than Edirne, it is in the throes of a construction boom at least partly fueled by political patronage and ill-conceived historical “restoration” projects. There is no semblance of rationalized city planning, as ancient buildings, including an old citadel wall, clash directly with bustling streets and pyramid-shaped malls. Large block apartment complexes dominate the skyline, which was formerly a zone for mosques with their piercing minarets. Now, however, the city has no discernible center or landmarks. None of this takes too much away from the stunning vistas you can find just off the old citadel walls.
On a historical note, Bursa was the first Ottoman capital as well as the Western terminus of the old silk road. Functioning silk markets continue to thrive in a covered complex that has served the same purpose for silk merchants since the fifteenth century.
On the street level, the most powerful sensations are visual and olfactory. Air quality is poor, its smell a mixture of diesel haze and tobacco smoke. Wetter days, including large snowfalls like one we had yesterday, bring their own peculiar flavor to the mix. Slush accumulates quickly and retreats slowly despite the efforts of crews to remove some of the slipperier sheets of ice from the streets. As in Edirne, trash collection could not keep up with littering, and stray cats lined the streets and many of the parks and mosque complexes––though not, of course, the interiors.
Geographically, the city sprawls up, down, and across Mount Uludağ, which was known to the Romans as the Mysian Mount Olympus. It being January, the slopes of the mountain are streaked white with snow, and dwellings reach near the midsection of the mountain before giving way to trees and bare rock. Mornings are misty and cold, but the weather has been relatively forgiving save for one snowstorm.
For a city of nigh two million people, there is a palpable absence of night life. That did not stop us from finding a small bar right off the main strip where we indulged in Efes, the local beer, and rakı, Turkey’s national spirit. Where Efes is a pedestrian pilsner, rakı tastes something like liquid black licorice. As such, though I quite enjoyed it, it might have a limited appeal to outsiders. Drinking it is a fairly ritualistic process. When ordered in a restaurant or bar, you receive a glass of the spirit as well as water. Rakı, clear like vodka in the bottle, turns almost disquietingly opaque when mixed with water. Slowly drinking the diluted solution while engaging in conversation is the recommended method, and I found it tasty and smooth for such a strong liquor. Others were less impressed; your experience will certainly vary.
Mosques in Bursa:
We visited a few mosques in Bursa, but none compared to the Ulu Cami, or Old Mosque. It was a vast open structure with a running fountain in the centre and, as expected, decorated with elegant calligraphy depicting verses from the Qur’an.
The Silk Market and other Local Shopping:
Our trip allowed for a few hours of free time in the middle of the day, which many of us used to shop for silk, cashmere, and felt products. Many of the shopkeepers plied us potential customers with tea and compliments, and though I did not indulge, it may have worked. In addition to shopping, passers-by could sit down and drink tea while looking out over the courtyard in the centre of the complex. The silk market itself was criss-crossed by paths that led to other closely-packed sections of the commercial district, where one could buy fine clothing, kitsch items, and any number of food items. Particularly famous in Bursa is the İskendar kebap, which is a fabulous concoction of tomato sauce basted lamb, sheep butter, yogurt, and other delightful bits slathered on pita bread. One would have to be particularly foolish to miss out on one.
Though I won’t go into much detail as to the process of a Turkish bath, I can say that it is like full-service bathing, complete, if you choose to pay for it, with a full massage and sauna access. Though the experience was somewhat bewildering thanks to awkward physical interactions and a language barrier, most of our group––particularly the men––expressed a desire to go through it again. Because we did not have any women guides, the four women in our group had more difficulty getting comfortable and enjoying the experience, and also were not indulged with hot tea and relaxation in the cooling room. I can attest that the experience for the men was indeed superior, which is most unfortunate. It felt physically purifying as well as culturally jarring, which made for a fascinating afternoon, if nothing else. Public bathing is mostly anathema in the United States and Canada, which is a shame because it precludes much of the conversation that goes on there. This is not to say that I am eager to tear out my shower fixtures when I arrive home.
Bursa is a fast-expanding city with a thriving industrial base and a fairly hectic pace of life on the main streets. Though it has a “conservative” reputation, there is no escaping the fact that the metropolis is rapidly expanding and undergoing profound changes in its basic spatial and cultural makeup. This is not to say that old cultural forms are dying out; indeed, the call to prayer and some functioning mosques are sufficient reminder that they are not; rather, they are transforming in line with people’s need to reproduce themselves. That is, they have to work, eat, get around, etc. When those basic conditions change, the way people approach religion and community life are bound to shift as well. Though I have an outsider’s perspective only, and only participated in conversations within the group, I think there are a few observations worth noting in conclusion.
- Religion observation varies considerably. Mosques are usually far from full and often mostly empty even during the five daily calls to prayer. I am told that there are fringes of both very pious and nonreligious people that define a spectrum of piety ranging from indifference to guilty non-observance and everything in between. Nevertheless, Islam is inescapable.
- Disabled access is almost nonexistent at many sites. I did not observe many people on the street using crutches and none using wheelchairs. This may be for the best for them, since the hills and many winding staircases in Bursa are treacherous. Especially when it is snowing and sleeting.
- Buses are everywhere, and bus stations in Turkey are like miniature airports sporting huge complexes of restaurants. Turkey travels by bus.
Tomorrow, I will cover our visit to the city of Iznik as we begin to reflect on the Christian history of Turkey and its troubled relationship to the Turkey of the present.
Since we are drawing close to the end of our time in Bursa, I also thought it best to offer some reflections on the time spent here.