Between 1348 and 1418 the Ottoman principality (beylik) emerged from local obscurity, having acquired a settled aspect. Through a variety of means, it had first triumphed over the Byzantines (Rûm) and rival Turkish beys, then experienced disastrous defeat at Ankara at the hands of Tamerlane (Timur) in 1402. It then reembraced sultanic restoration, just, after a breathless civil war (1402-13) and the brutal 'pacification' (1416) of the politically ambitious, legally learned, and sufi-minded Sheykh Bedreddin - a figure who was to capture the communist imagination of Turkey's greatest poet, Nazım Hikmet. By the time the plague reached the Ottomans, Orhan I (1281-1361), still a bey, had been busy – while still campaigning- for more than twenty years in rebuilding and expanding Bursa into an Islamic city.
Bursa remained the main city of learning and culture, as well as the spiritual domicile, of the House of Osman (all the first six sultans are buried there) even as its beys became sultans (it was Bayezid I the Thunderbolt, Yıldırım, who first adopted the title) well into the fifteenth century, even after Edirne (Adrianople) became the residence and centre of gravity out of which the increasingly successful, not to say lucrative, Ottoman military campaigns in the Balkans were launched. A good deal of the wealth amassed was spent on an ambitious building programme; this transformed Bursa into an attractive imperial city and a hub of trade, especially when the route south to Antalya (on the Mediterranean coast) fell into Ottoman hands. In the works of the period-- precious few contemporary chronicles survive, and most of these are legendary and at times epical in character-- Bursa came to be known as the 'Abode of learning" (dâr al 'ulemâ), whereas Edirne (between Thessalonica and Constantinople) was famed for its less theologically inclined warriors (dâr al-ġuzzât), the infamous ghazis (one of the terms used for Islam's version of holy warriors). Still, Bursa had to fight for the honour of cultural preeminence, as the first Ottoman medrese (converted from a Byzantine monastery) was opened by Orhan in nearby Nicaea (site of the early Christain councils). The city (known as İznik) passed into Ottoman control in 1331. Long before it becoming really famous for its tiles, it became renowned as alma mater of great Ottoman men of learning, such as the dynasty of Fenarîzâde theologians. Perhaps keeping some distance from the main centre of power was a good thing for Islamic learning, or perhaps something of the theological reputation and mystique of Nicaea carried over.
Bursa lies at an idyllic site on the foot of Mt Olympus, which peaks impressively at over 2500 meters. Tellingly, this was known as Monks Mountain (Keşiş Dağı) in Turkish: Bursa's inhabitants always included non-Muslims, even though some of the local defenders chose to depart on surrender in 1331; those who stayed in the acropolis had to make way for the newcomers. And Bursa, as the seventeeth-century, travel-obsessed Ottoman genius, Evliya Çelebi, put it in his Book of Travels (which has to be the world's longest travel account, at ten volumes) ‘was all about water’. Already a Byzantine resort, the Ottomans developed spas (kaplıcas) on a grand scale during the fourteenth century, and they are still there to refresh locals and visitors.
Such abundance of fresh mountain water points to Bursa’s suitability as a summer pasture (yayla) for the transient life-style of the warriors, especially as the city opened up, on the north side, towards the fertile alluvial ‘Green plain’ (Yeşilova). This provided excellent winter pasture (kışla) while being at the same time of considerable strategic significance in opening up to what the Byzantine historian Pachymeres called "the backyard of Constantinople" (τῆς βασιλίδος προαύλια) on the Marmara Sea.
Ibn Battuta, who visited in 1332 and did not find much to say about Orhan, was full of praise for the city and its new backbone of local ahis, an open-minded Muslim brotherhood ubiquitous in Anatolian cities during and after the Mongols. But Bursa was fully and truly regenerated under the Ottomans, acquiring a spiritual pride of place second only to Konya (where the great Sufi master, Mevlana, Rûmî, had put ‘Rome’, the sultanate of Rum, squarely on the Islamic map). Regeneration of the city proceeded unit by unit, mahalle by mahalle, as neighbourhoods clustered around entire complexes (külliyes) of imperial patronage; these fearlessly burst out of the citadel into previously remote places whose isolation was still much exaggerated over a century later in the Ottoman chronicles of Aşıkpaşazâde and Neşrî. These külliyes, with a number of piously-endowed (vakıf/waqf) buildings beyond the necessary mosque, like medreses, hamams, imarets as well as commercial bazaars and hans, formed the hub of thriving new neighbourhoods.
The story of the Ottoman triumph in the fourteenth century is as colourful as it gets, although for the full picture we need to consult not only Ottoman but Greek, Italian, and Slavic sources, canon and apocrypha. The story includes marriages to Byzantine princesses, troops being ferried across the sea in Genoese or Venetian ships, earthquakes, and the occupying of Gallipoli; it sees fighting on the side of claimants to the Byzantine throne, but also sees the Emperor himself take part in campaigns again Muslim rivals. And while there was intense fighting on the frontier, there was also marked emphasis on tolerant convivenza with local Christians (who more often than not formed the majority population as expansion in the Balkans proceeded). The spread of hesychasm from another mountain of monks, Mount Athos, with its encouragement of unceasing prayer and the attainment of inner stillness, may have played its part in accommodating arrangements for coexistence. In any event, a key figure of hesychasm, Gregory Palamas, who opted for the walled security of Salonica (rather than the Sinai) and became archbishop there, fell captive to the Ottomans when they crossed the Dardanelles. His correspondence has left us a first-hand account of his captivity: although he did not mince his words on the rough and tough ghazis, he was full of praise for courteous treatment received at the court of Orhan, noting especially the eagerness of Orhan himself, his grandson, and other notables to engage in debates about the relative merits of their religion, both at the outskirts of Bursa and at Iznik, another Ottoman city of learning. And if Palamas suffered some abuse at the hands of recently converted Jews, Gemistos Plethon, another controversial figure of both the Paleologuan and Italian Renaissance, fared better: when exiled from Constantinople in his youth, he came and studied with a Hellenizing Jew called Elissaios at the Ottoman court, this time in Edirne.
Bursa, in short, was part of a network of Ottoman centres of patronage and learning, although by the end of the fourteenth century it had clearly eclipsed networks centered on the other beyliks in Anatolia.
And as can be expected, Bursa's primacy in Ottoman spiritual life did not owe everything to the court and the men of learning. Rather, it benefited from the blessing associated with the so-called wandering dervishes, the abdals. Chronicles and hagiographical literature (menakıbnâmes) connect the Ottomans to the auspicious figure of Hacı Bektaş, whose followers had strong links with the Janissaries from early on, further underlining the crucial but still not clearly understood or well-researched role that conversion played in the social and cultural life of the period, not to mention military life. Popular figures in Bursa included Abdal Murad, who was alive and popular among the Christians while Bursa was still in their hands, and in whose tomb (türbe) Evliya Çelebi saw a legendary sword which foreign visitors to the city, from the sixteenth century onwards, were being told belonged to Roland: "The Turks keep it as dear as some relic because they think that Roland was a Turk, at least if what the man in the street thinks can be true." (Pierre Belon 1555:204). Or consider Emîr Sultan (the dervishes were also called sultans, as well as abdal or, most commonly, babas), who made his father-in-law Sultan Bayezid promise that he would build twenty mosques if he were victorious against the Crusade at Nicopolis. Bayezid was indeed victorious, but opted to build a Great Mosque (Ulu Cami) in Bursa with twenty domes. His menakıbnâme also reports how keen Emir Sultan was to visit a Christian hermit up on Keşiş Dağı, famous for its sanctity.
Muslims and Christians, local Rum builders and master craftsmen from Persia, sultans, viziers, men of learning and dervishes all contributed to making Bursa a great Islamic city in the fourteenth century. So much so that even after Timur's humiliation of Bayezid --which gave that crucial lease of extended (Christian) life to Istanbul-- and the sacking in reprisal by the rival Turcoman Karamanid beys of Konya, Bursa retained its aura and importance. In fact, paradoxically and perhaps because of the Persian artistic influx occasioned by Timur, it was really only in the tumultuous period following the Ankara defeat that Ottoman literature, which had only really started in the court of Bayezid I, came into its own.
Ahmedî (1332-1414?) and Ahmed-i Daʿî (d. after 1424) were two highly cultured court poets who benefited from Ottoman patronage after Bayezid subdued the rival Germiyanids. They both composed long mathnawis (poems in rhyming couplets), translating or adapting Persian works into Turkish. Ahmedî is responsible for the only Alexander romance (İskendernâme) in Ottoman, a 'translation' of Nizami's eponymous work; he took two decades (1390-1410) to complete his version in order to accommodate the need for political legitimation expressed by his Ottoman patrons. As such the romance includes not only an encyclopedic Universal History, but within that history the very first Ottoman Chronicle (always in verse) that we know. Ahmedî also included a section called mevlid (Ar. birth) celebrating the birth of the Prophet Muhammad, possibly only just beating the imam of the Ulu Cami, Süleyman Çelebi. Ulu Cami was a native of Bursa through and through; his 1409 composition entitled The Path to Salvation became known as the Noble Mevlid (Mevlid-i Şerîf) and achieved tremendous fame throughout the Ottoman period. That an Arab ʿâlim called Muhammad ibn al-Jazari (d. 1429) visited Bursa during this period and subsequently composed an Arabic mawlid himself, and that the later biographers tell us of dramatic debates on the superiority of Muhammad over Jesus taking place during Friday sermons in Bursa only heightens the importance of Süleyman Çelebi's work. It became a popular fixture in the life of Turkish Muslims, second in popularity and importance only to the Koran: testimony to the accomplishment of an author who, still today, makes Bursa proud.