Time in the khans of Bursa

The khans of Bursa, only six of which survive today, seem to stand still in time, in silent testimony to a bygone era.

T he market stretches endlessly in every direction with its labyrinth of shops. History stands still here, frozen in time. As you wander through the maze, you are proffered a cup of strong Turkish coffee. When you look closely, you remark with amazement that this cup, worked with turquoise, once brilliant white but discolored now to pure amber, is older than you are. As you sip the heady brew with its scent reminiscent of the Egyptian desert, time and the ages become hopelessly blurred. The tinkle of bells rising from camel caravans, the multilingual shouts of merchants come from distant climes and, hanging in the air, the misty scent of the cinnamon, clove, saffron, ginger and ambergris they bear from faraway India, all mingling with the mysterious fragrance of silk cocoons, Persian and Afghan carpets, and Turcoman kilims.
The khans of Bursa stand as if frozen in time, silent witnesses of a bygone era.

In Ottoman times a khan was a large commercial building where merchants not only sold their wares but also found accommodation for themselves and their animals. There are in Bursa six historic khans, each one unique in size, function and architectural style, all of them standing in stubborn resistance to time’s depredations. According to the sources, these khans once numbered more than twenty. But the growth of the city, expansion of the road network, poor maintenance and the inevitable ravages of time -- all the usual culprits -- have reduced their number to six today. Several of them are currently under restoration by the Osmangazi Municipality. Having experienced the Roman and Byzantine civilizations, Bursa became the Ottoman capital in 1335, soon developing into a major center of culture and trade. Still under the influence of Rome and Byzantium in the beginning, it became a quintessential Ottoman city following the conquest of Istanbul when the refined and elegant ‘Bursa style’ was born. And the first examples of that style, which gave rise not only to a material wealth based on trade, mainly in silk, but also a cultural richness distilled in history, are palpable here in Bursa’s ancient mosques and khans.

The best known of the khans, and also the first to be built, is the Emir Khan, which preserves its vitality today as if to defy time’s devastation. This architectural monument, commissioned in the 14th century by Orhan Bey, consists of a series of rooms porticoed on the front and lined up around a courtyard. A prototype for the khans built in the city over the centuries with its two-storey plan, it was constructed in keeping with the inner-city trade of the time. Jewelry making, porcelain production, silk weaving and the production of other textiles went on in the khan’s shops, which exhibit a rich variety even today. The south gate of the Emir Khan is a virtual portal opening onto the courtyard of the Great Mosque, and when you pass through it this time the Koza (Silk Cocoon) Khan looms immediately in front of you. As the name implies, this khan was in the past, and remains today, the center of silk production. Silks in all the colors of the rainbow and adorned with all the flowers known to man grace the khan’s walls and shop counters. This khan was built in 1491 on the broad expanse between the Great Mosque and the Orhan Mosque by Sultan Bayezid II to raise money for the mosques and religious colleges of Istanbul. The only difference between it and the Emir Khan before it is its octagonal courtyard and small, octagonal mosque.

When you enter the khan, which at first glance seems to exude the tranquil air of other Ottoman architectural monuments, you quickly discern that a pleasant flurry, undetectable from the outside, reigns here. In the silk merchants’ shops, women gesture with their hands before sizing up the quality of the silk with their faces. For silk, the world’s most valuable fabric, is chosen not only by its feel to the hand but its feel on the face as well. One of the most senior of the khan’s merchants, Nehari Bey laments its steadily diminishing vitality. As you proceed to the gate that opens onto the Uzun Çarşı marketplace from the Koza Khan’s second storey, a tiny shop serving tea and coffee catches your eye directly opposite, its window crowded with cups of every color. The owner, Nazım Bey, says that most of the customers come here just to see these lovely cups up close and drink coffee from them. 

Geyve Khan is visible in the area just north of Koza Khan. Continuing on our way, through a small gate we enter Fidan Khan, also known as Mahmut Pasha Khan. There isn’t much commercial activity here. Two more khans emerge into view over the top of the market that extends all the way down to the Great Mosque. The first is the İpek, or Silk, Khan. Once the largest of the Bursa khans, unfortunately only its western portion still stands today. The shops here sell wearing apparel. Immediately adjacent to the Silk Khan is the Pirinç Khan, recently repaired and restored to its original appearance. It too was built by Bayezid II. 
The area running from west of the Great Mosque as far as Inönü Avenue is known as the Khan District. The markets here seem to interlock and overlap each other. Bursa’s famous covered bazaar, the country markets selling hundreds of different kinds of fresh farm produce, the fruit  and nut vendors, the herbalists with their thousand and one remedies for every ill, the cobblers selling handmade shoes as if to mock the manufacturing industry, and many other small shopkeepers still do business here.
Bursa has thrived since time immemorial and its vitality has attracted the interest of many a traveler and writer. The famous French writer André Gide, for example, stopped in Bursa on a journey to the East that he made in 1914 and actually shopped at one of the city’s khans. He recorded his impressions in the diary that he always carried with him: “The first day I purchased a little old china bowl that could be thought to have come from further East. The second day I bought three suits. And on the next Turkish shoes. Everything I bought seemed to require me to buy yet another new thing!” Despite the passage of so much time, Gide’s words preserve their validity even today. For it is virtually impossible not to buy things as one wanders through the Bursa khans, which seem to be frozen in an unknown time.