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Stan Stories. Istanbul pt. 2. Bursa

Bursa, the first capital of the Ottoman Empire, nestles against the slopes of Mt. Olympus. Once gleaming with the bustle of the Silk Road, its silhouette still shimmers under the sun, reminiscent of the silkworms harvesting their tightly wrapped cocoons in mulberry trees.

A three-hour drive led me into Bursa, searching for remnants of the ancient silk harvesting trade. On arrival, I found myself swimming upstream in a crowd of tourists in the silk bazaar. With intrusive handouts of spices and sweet breads all around, I slipped out at the glow of a sign reading “Antiques.” An ancient concrete nook stood apart from the shining piles of souvenirs, where a man sat amidst an earnest pile of vintage memorabilia. But I reminded myself that I didn’t rush to Bursa, a city steeped in the historic art of silk weaving, to sift through old silver rings.

Using Google Translate, I asked the man if he knew of anyone practicing traditional silk weaving methods. Swiftly, he pulled out a notepad and relayed a phone number of a friend who employs these ancient techniques. My local guide, Yasar, called the number scribbled on the notepad. A few words lit a spark in Yasar’s face, and I detected hope. More Turkish mumbles followed, and he turned to me, explaining we had an invite to a workshop to learn traditional silk cultivating methods. Though closed that day, the invite stood for tomorrow. We spent the remainder of the day hiking the cascading mountain slopes, overlooking Bursa.

The next day, fueled by a double dose of Turkish coffee, we set out again, this time directed down a network of fringe roads. We arrived to the cordial greeting of a brawny man in a stiff mohair vest, a dark brown draping silk fringed scarf matching a burly rustic beard. Mehmet introduced himself, followed by his epithet: The Silk Whisperer. Four generations of his family’s tradition had kept this brick and wooden building standing. Mehmet walked me through the harvesting process he had followed since he was a young boy in this very room. From the worm’s life cycle to the moment they decapitate themselves in their cocoon, Mehmet steps in and boils the tightly wound structures with a rope bundle of twigs, releasing thousands of yards of continuous fibers. A dozen more mechanical processes followed on archaic wooden contraptions. I observed keenly, as if I were the next in line to inherit his heritage teachings.

In the adjacent room, a gathering of women, backs turned, labored over looms. One invited me to tie a single Turkish knot amidst the 2 million she would hand-tie over the next two years on a three-foot-square silk rug which emanates a remnant of an ornamental Ottoman tapestry. Mehmet explained that operations are subsidized by the government in a program to preserve their cultural heritage.

Afterward, Mehmet invited me for tea, and him for a cigarette, in the courtyard. With Yasar translating, I asked why he still used traditional methods. How could four generations continue to thrive amidst a commercially driven world? Why employ women to arduously hand-tie 2 million knots for a single rug?

He illustrated his reasons through stories. The first was of the Turkish war, where young boys crowded the winter battlefields, vastly outnumbered. They ran into firing lines of certain death, stepping over fallen comrades through the night, winning the war as their opponents ran out of bullets. He explained that this culture of sacrifice to protect traditions of art and history made them who they were. If such a war occurred again, he might be one of those defending those traditions. If they left them behind, what would they say to the 40,000 boys who died in one night? If he didn’t nourish the traditions of his ancestors, all those sacrifices would be in vain.

After my tears evaporated into the Turkish heat, Mehmet continued. He spoke of the unique smells each business-place has—the smell the owner knows. To smell it in the morning, before any doors or windows open, one must be the first to open the door. Every morning at six o’clock, Mehmet is the first to open that door, inhaling the essence that brings him close to his older brother, father, and grandfather.

Mehmet has three sons, one of whom shows more interest in the family silk trade than the others. Following Turkish tradition, a male must ask a female’s father for permission to marry. For Mehmet’s sons, he has written contracts stating that to seek marriage, they must prove their comprehension of the entire silk harvesting process from A to Z.

Mehmet explained a Turkish term: “Sanaat” refers to an artist, while “Zanaat” refers to a craftsman. From this, you get the esteemed title “Zanaatkar”: someone who produces art while making a living from it. Seven characteristics define this title:

  1. He does his craft very well

  2. He is honest

  3. He knows the tricks of the trade, but does not do them

  4. When he opens his mouth to talk about his craft, he can talk on and on and on about it through his immense knowledge

  5. He is a good salesman

  6. He is not afraid of scarcity and sharing knowledge of his trade. If someone else with the same trade asks questions, he is not scared of them stealing his work

  7. Finally, and most importantly, he is able to make others love his art, and teach it well.

Mastering these seven standards allows one to call themselves a true Zanaatkar.

Mehmet placed a dark brown silk scarf around my neck, the same one he wore. A token, a bequeathal of responsibility to carry on tradition. A touching acknowledgment of my pursuit to highlight stories like his and share them upon return to my country.

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When I read your story, I literally am right there until I am snapped back to my reality.


Any stories about silk are fascinating. I make hand dyed silk scarves. I love the feeling of “raw silk” as well. It makes superb clothing. I enjoy your Instagram account.

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