As I wander through the long winding bazaar in Bursa, Turkey’s centuries-old city center, taking in the sights, sounds, and smells of the buzzing marketplace, I notice in the corner of my eye a dimly lit corridor. The small sign above the entrance reads, “Çukur Han, 1379 – Bursa.” I step into the narrow passageway leading past a few vendors selling handmade soaps and Turkish delight. Nearing the end of the corridor, the darkness gives way to the warm noonday sun as I walk into a large courtyard surrounded by a rectangular, two-story, stone and brick building. Arches in the walls reveal small rooms and hidden chambers furnished with couches covered in traditional, brightly colored fabrics. The sound of classical music and the smell of baked goods from the çaycı (tea seller) in the corner fill the space and waft upward into the open air. Instantly mesmerized, I sit down at a table in the courtyard, ask the waiter for a cup of tea, and pull out my notebook and camera.
Çukur Han (“Hollow Inn,” historically known as Kütahya Han) is one of more than a dozen hans scattered throughout Bursa’s labyrinth central bazaar, which in 2014 was deservedly recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Most of Bursa’s hans were built between the 14th and 16th centuries as inns and trading posts for caravanning merchants peddling their wares along Asia’s trade routes. These hans, like Ottoman hans elsewhere in this region, are large rectangular open courtyards surrounded by two-story buildings of stone, brick, and wood. One main gate leads into the central courtyard, which is ornamented with a centerpiece water fountain or a domed mesjid (prayer chapel). Inn rooms on both levels face the courtyard and provide space for traders, livestock, and merchandise.
“All of Bursa’s hans are similar,” explained Ömer Ziya Topsakal, a distinguished local photographer. “There is a large main gate, a large central open area for trading and bartering, upper rooms for the merchants, and lower rooms for their animals and goods.” Mr. Topsakal recently directed an acclaimed photography project for Bursa’s photographic art society, extensively photographing the city’s hans for exhibitions and publications. “You can imagine horses and camels loaded with merchandise walking through that gate and into this busy open area,” Mr. Topsakal said, gesturing toward Koza Han’s main gate as we sipped tea under an umbrella in its courtyard. He points at the open corridor of the second floor, “rooms up there are where the merchants would have stayed,” then turning his attention to an interior gate in the east wall, “that’s where the animals were kept.”
Nearly all of Bursa’s hans were commissioned by Ottoman sultans or high officials in the sultanate. After its capture from the Byzantines in 1326, Bursa became the first official capital of the Ottoman Empire. For this reason, along with its position as an important terminal on the famed Silk Road, the Ottoman sultans had great interest in the city’s economic development. Consequently, Bursa’s marketplace underwent significant development during the first couple centuries of Ottoman rule, including the construction of most of the city’s hans. These hans became cornerstones in the city’s economic foundation and the income generated often went to support important social projects in the city and region. “If you want to know about Bursa,” Mr. Topsakal suggested with a hint of enthusiasm, “you have to know about the hans. They are very, very important here.”
Koza Han (“Cocoon Inn”) is the most well-known of Bursa’s hans. It is prominently situated between Grand Mosque and Orhan Bey Mosque with direct access to the bustling Orhan Gazi Square. Opened in 1491 by Sultan Bayezid II, the han was to become a center for the city’s then vibrant silk trade. By the time of the Ottoman conquest, sericulture had become an important industry in the region around Bursa. Silkworm larvae had been brought from China centuries earlier, and the area’s natural conditions were suitable for the cultivation of mulberry trees, a chief food source for silkworms. Expert local craftspeople spun silken thread from silkworm cocoons and weaved delicate, high quality silk fabric that had gained a favorable international reputation. Bursa silk had become a highly-desirable luxury throughout Europe, North Africa, and parts of Asia.
Koza Han was built to capitalize on this thriving local industry and to bolster the city’s standing as a world silk trade center. For 500 years, cocoon trading was done in the courtyard surrounding Koza Han’s large stone mesjid and beautiful marble fountain. But by the 1990s, waves of cheaper silk imported from places like East Asia had reduced Bursa’s silk production to slow trickle.
Today, cocoon dealers no longer flood Koza Han’s courtyard. It is now a friendly mix of tea gardens, kebab restaurants, and souvenir shops. In many of Koza’s 95 rooms, you can find an abundance of silk for sale—scarves, shawls, shirts, skirts, dresses, neckties, table linens, and the like. Most of these goods, however, are cheap imports brought in to satisfy the price-conscious crowds. But if you are willing to look around a bit and dig a little deeper into your pocket, it is still possible to purchase a genuine, locally produced piece of Bursa silk, now a remnant of the city’s proud past.
Though the days of traveling caravans are long gone with Bursa’s status as a major Silk Road trading center a distant memory, hans remain significant and enchanting pieces of Bursa’s vast bazaar complex. Each of Bursa’s hans uniquely contributes to the city’s central marketplace, and collectively offer visitors countless places to shop, eat, and explore. In Pirinç Han, locals eat lamb meat kebabs and enjoy conversation over a hookah, a traditional water pipe. In Eski Īpek Han, textiles and linens overflow out of storefront doors. In Tuz Han, shopkeepers drink tea under the gazebo that shades the central fountain. In Fidan Han, peaceful green gardens surround an ornate, elevated mesjid. From the second floor of Geyve Han, it’s not difficult to envision a crowd of traders bartering over their goods in the now serene courtyard below.
And in the quiet, hard-to-find Çukur Han, locals and foreigners alike can easily lose a few hours sipping tea and relaxing on couches tucked away in little hollows in the old brick walls.