A tale of three cities

Once, the Ottomans were Europe's dominant force. Today their dazzling artistic legacy lives on throughout Turkey. Jonathan Gregson explores the remains of an empire

The New Year's first blockbuster exhibition, "The Turks", opens at The Royal Academy today. Featuring treasures never previously allowed outside the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, it will be a real eye-opener for anyone who thinks Turkey's main attractions are its beach resorts.

The New Year's first blockbuster exhibition, "The Turks", opens at The Royal Academy today. Featuring treasures never previously allowed outside the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, it will be a real eye-opener for anyone who thinks Turkey's main attractions are its beach resorts.

The exhibition reveals the richness and diversity of Turkish culture. Spanning 1,000 years, from around AD600 when Turkic tribes roamed the steppes of Central Asia, it concludes with the glory days of the Ottoman Empire under Suleyman the Magnificent in the 16th century, when the Turks rivalled Spain as Europe's great power.

Turkey is much more than a museum piece, and many of its finest monuments are to be found in just three cities: the former capitals of the Ottomans - Bursa, Edirne and, greatest of them all, Istanbul.

ISTANBUL

The glory that was once Byzantium is evident as soon as you leave the airport. Heading into the city you pass the ancient sea walls that deterred so many marauders, before turning up the hill towards that most magnificent of basilicas, the Haghia Sofia. Constantinople had been a great city for nearly 1,000 years before the Ottoman Turks finally captured it in 1453, and there are still many reminders. Looking up towards the Old City from Galata bridge, the skyline is dominated by the spiky minarets of the Sulemeniye and other imperial mosques. For all its history, the Old Stamboul we now see is an Ottoman creation.

To get a real feel for it, I was staying in one of the many Ottoman town-houses that have been converted into characterful boutique hotels. The Yesil Ev Hotel next to Haghia Sofia is probably the most elegant, and its courtyard garden is a wonderful spot for a drink or a quick lunch. But I was heading for the Turkoman and a room looking across to the Blue Mosque that cost just $50 a night. The following morning, I awoke to the haunting sound of the muezzin's call.

I opted for an early start to get to the Topkapi Palace before the tour buses arrived. While many of the prize exhibits at the Royal Academy are on loan from the palace, the former sultans' treasury is so rich in works of art that they have easily been replaced. Quite apart from the famous emerald-encrusted "Topkapi Dagger" that stayed behind with the sultans' golden thrones and bejewelled scimitars, I was entranced by the extraordinary layout of this distinctly Oriental palace. The canopied divans where the sultans held audience and the sumptuously tiled labyrinth of the harem felt like a very different and exotic world.

Facing the Topkapi from across The Golden Horn, the recently opened Istanbul Modern museum offers a very different take on Turkish culture. This new venue is dedicated to all that is modern in Turkish art from the late 19th century to the present day. The exhibition space, housed in a converted warehouse, is brilliantly adapted to this purpose; and although most of the artists were unfamiliar, their distinctive take on the various modernist movements was fascinating.

Other treasures to be seen at The Royal Academy were loaned by the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts, which inhabits the palace of the Grand Vizier Ibrahim Pasha directly across the Hippodrome from the Blue Mosque. Here, the Turks' brilliance in the decorative arts can be appreciated - from early Seljuk woodcarving to the wonderful Iznik tiles (decorated with tulips and other floral or abstract motifs), calligraphy and metalwork of the Ottomans at the peak of their powers.

The Blue Mosque may be the most visited, but for harmony of proportions it is no match for the Sulemeniye and other works of Mimar Sinan, the greatest of Ottoman architects. The small and often overlooked Mehmet Pasha Camii is a haven of calm, while my other favourite, Rustem Pasha Camii, is hidden down a side alley from the spice bazaar and has the most beautiful Iznik tilework. For atmosphere alone, I find this the best bazaar in Istanbul, though if you are planning on some serious shopping (and haggling) then you must climb the hill to the covered market - a vast Aladdin's cave piled high with rugs, leatherwork and, increasingly, fake designer labels. What I love most about Istanbul is how at every turn you come across an abandoned kiosk where some pasha once took his ease, or an intricately carved public fountain. That, and the view of the city's skyline from one of the ferries that are constantly chugging over to the Asian shore and back.

Turkish food is pretty special, too, and has been compared to French or Chinese as one of the world's great cuisines. To experience genuine Ottoman recipes in a modern setting, the best place in Istanbul is Asitane, up by St Saviour in Chora, where you can indulge in such delicacies as lamb in honey and figs or shredded goose in flatbread. Alternatively you can dine in original Ottoman surroundings at the Daruzziyafe, the vast kitchens attached to Suleymeniye Mosque.

EDIRNE

For nearly 100 years before they captured Constantinople the Ottoman Turks' main city was Edirne, from where Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror advanced to lay siege to Constantinople. Even after establishing their new capital here, the Ottoman sultans spent a lot of time in Edirne and lavished great wealth on the city. The result is an astounding concentration of fine buildings - covered markets and caravansarai, hospitals, bath-houses and religious complexes. Edirne's skyline is dominated by the Selemiye mosque, its soaring dome larger than Haghia Sofia's, its pencil-thin minarets shorter only than those in Mecca. Again it is the work of Sinan, who thought it his finest achievement. To step beneath its lofty ceiling is to enter a world of effortless harmony infused with light.

Beneath it stand two smaller 15th-century mosques and a covered bazaar, while the green spaces in between are filled with tea-houses and cafés where students from the University of Thrace and off-duty soldiers while away their time. Edirne remains a sleepy market town where farmers arrive by horse and cart, yet it is full of monuments befitting an imperial capital.

Among its many hidden jewels is the 600-year-old Dervishes' mosque, the Muradiye Cami, in the

gypsy quarter on the outskirts of town. It is only open during the hours of prayer, so when you first hear the muezzin you need to move quickly. I arrived to find the place deserted apart from some small boys playing football; but the caretaker appeared and proudly showed me around. The simple interior is adorned with the most beautiful Iznik tiles.

Then there is the Rustem Pasha Kervansaryi, originally built by Sinan as a han or boarding house for merchants, now converted into a heritage hotel. Its two great courtyards are surrounded by more than 100 rooms, and the original steam baths still work.

The river that curls around the city is straddled by early Ottoman bridges, and on the waterfront down by the Meric Bridge I discovered a line of open-air restaurants and cafés serving deliciously fresh fish. Upstream is the Ikinci Beyazit Kulliyesi, a combined mosque, college and asylum on a scale superior to anything in Western Europe from the same era.

Nearby are the ruins of the sultans' palace. Once equal to the Topkapi in magnificence, the Edirne Sarayi was deliberately blown up to prevent a Russian army from capturing its arsenal. Now anglers sit beneath the lone surviving tower that stands guard over the remnants of the imperial bath-house and a covered bazaar.

BURSA

Osman, the first leader of the Turkic tribes whose followers became known as the Ottoman Turks, ruled from the saddle. Wherever he pitched his tents became the real seat of power. But all this changed when his son, Orhan Gazi, captured the ancient citadel of Bursa in 1326 and made it the first Ottoman capital, embellishing it with exquisitely tiled mosques and mausolea.

Most of the Ottoman palace cooks came from Bursa, and the city still takes pride in its cuisine. It has its own Daruzziyafe up by the citadel, where you sit under arched vaults overlooking the city. The food is very refined - their "kebabs" are tiny cutlets moulded from ground lamb and pistachios.

More recently, Bursa was the birthplace of the ubiquitous doner kebab when a local cook called Iskender invented the vertical spit rotisserie. You can try his original recipe at the Iskender Kebab-house passed - slices of pale lamb with butter and fresh tomato sauce.

While Bursa can just about be fitted into a long day's outing from Istanbul, to fully enjoy its peaceful quarters it's well worth taking more time. In the old town are elegant cafés and tea-houses set in shaded parks around the oldest imperial tombs, and traditional Ottoman town-houses with their jutting upper storeys - many of them lovingly restored and painted in bright ochre and pink. One of them has been turned into the boutique Safran Hotel, and from my room I could see the turbes - the mausolea of the first sultans.

Some of the finest turbes are within a carefully tended garden in Muradiye, a religious complex at the foot of the citadel. Here lies Cem Sultan, favourite son of the conqueror of Constantinople who ended up in Rome as a prisoner of the Pope. His tomb is lined with sea-green tiles beneath a richly-decorated dome, as if to suggest this princely poet had found his garden of paradise.

Bursa's oldest mosque, founded by Orhan Gazi in thanks for his victory, retains many features of the earlier Seljuk Turks. Around it spreads the covered bazaar, second only to Istanbul in size, and I happily lost myself among its arched passageways. The fruit and fish markets are the most frenetic, though the so-called "Women's Street" is the place to seek out hand-embroidered silks and lace. The Koza or Silkworm Han is still the scene of an annual auction of silk cocoons, but for the rest of the year its galleried courtyard is given over to tea-houses and cafés. Small boys run between the tables carrying innumerable glasses of sugary tea to the merchants and shopkeepers who are their primary customers.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

London's Royal Academy (0870 848 8484; www.turks.org.uk) hosts The Turks: A Journey of a Thousand Years, AD600-1600, from 22 January to 12 April.

GETTING THERE

British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) and Turkish Airlines (020-7766 9300; www.turkishairlines.com) fly between Heathrow and Istanbul for £200 or less. For Bursa take a ferry across the Sea of Marmara to Yalova and then a bus. Edirne is a three-hour drive from Istanbul.

STAYING THERE

In Istanbul, the Yesil Ev Hotel (00 90 212 517 6785; www.hotelyesilev.com) and the Turkoman (00 90 212 516 2956; www.turkomanhotel.com). The Rustem Pasha Kervansarayi (00 90 284 212 6119) in Edirne. The Safran Hotel (00 90 224 224 7216) in Bursa

MORE INFORMATION

Turkish Tourist Office (020-7355 4207; www.gototurkey.co.uk).

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