Due east of Ankara, the Central Anatolian town of Sivas attracts relatively few foreign visitors despite the fact that it has two major claims to fame: firstly, as the home to a superb collection of Selçuk buildings, and secondly, as the setting for the Sivas Congress that served as one of the stepping stones on the road towards the creation of the Turkish Republic.
Fortunately for those visitors who do make it here, most of the sights are handily grouped together right in the town center. Dubbed the Meydan (Square) by the locals, this is also a part of town that has been given a completely new look in the last few years. Out have gone the park that used to surround the Selçuk medreses and the trees that used to shield the congress building from passers-by. In have come a mini-amphitheater and a great deal of open space that some will find appealing while others mourn the trees.
The Meydan itself, now pleasingly kitted out with a fountain, is overlooked by the imposing Valilik (Governor’s office) built in two stages in 1884 and 1913, which explains why the upper floor is more elaborate than the two sturdy stone ones beneath it. Across the road stands the old Gendarmerie, built in 1908 with a distinctive corner tower. Then across another road is what started life in 1892 as a boys’ high school, then turned into a town hall in 1911. It was here in this grand Neoclassical structure that Mustafa Kemal Atatürk convened the congress on Sept. 4, 1919, and plans for the Turkish War of Independence were laid.
Today the building houses the town’s fine ethnography museum, the ground floor showing off a selection of items from local homes, including some magnificent wooden ceilings and some even more magnificent floral carpets. But most visitors make a beeline straight for the upstairs schoolroom where old wooden desks carry pictures of the men who came together to lay the foundations for the future. Atatürk slept in the room next door, which is still kept as if he might return. Other schoolrooms flesh out the story of Turkey’s birth in words and pictures.
In 1174 Sivas was seized by the Selçuk leader Kılıç Aslan II, and went on to alternate as the Selçuk capital with Konya. Just as Konya was beautified with fine Selçuk monuments, so was Sivas, and across busy İnönü Bulvarı from the congress building no fewer than three Selçuk medreses (seminaries) are clustered together, two of them apparently built at more or less the same time.
The oldest of the three is the Şifaiye Medresesi, built for the Selçuk Sultan Keykavus I as a hospital and medical school in 1217. The sultan’s tomb is inside the medrese, which makes it all the more disappointing that the building, once bustling with souvenir shops and a teahouse, is currently closed to the public. You’ll have to make do with a look at the pointed dome that topped off the tomb from the outside.
Across the road, the Çifte Minare Medresesi is simply superb even though all that survives of it is the front wall with a soaring portal (said to be the loftiest in Anatolia) beneath the twin minarets that gave it its name. Built in 1271, it’s a riot of floral and occasionally figurative carvings; were it not for the even more vigorous carvings on the mosque and hospital complex at nearby Divriği, it would probably be much better known.
Behind the medrese the position of the students’ cells and the porticoes of the medrese courtyard have been marked out, as have the foundations of a hamam in front of the Kale Cami that you’ll pass as you stroll towards the Buruciye Medresesi, also built in 1271 for Muzaffer, the son of a man named Hibetullah Burucerdi. In its heyday it served as a school for physics, chemistry and astronomy, although today the courtyard is filled with a tea garden and the students’ cells now house some very classy souvenir shops selling handicrafts with a long local history even if they have now been adapted to suit tourist preferences. Although the dirt of the centuries has yet to be scrubbed off the medrese’s stonework, it’s still absolutely splendid. In the courtyard the capitals of the twin porticoes look as if they must have been taken from the ruins of the old Roman Sebasteia that once stood on the site.
A short walk away you’ll come across the Ulu Camii, the city’s main mosque, built in 1197 in the long, low style favored by the Selçuks. The interior is full of stone arches that block the view; you may be more impressed by the battered old minaret outside with its few remaining turquoise tiles (a painting in the museum shows the minaret with a fire at its base and archers using its balcony to fight off attackers). Then if you turn down Cumhuriyet Caddesi you will come to Sivas’ second twin-minareted medrese, the Gök (Blue) Medrese. Some would argue that this is an even grander building than the Çifte Minare Medresesi, but for the time being it’s still undergoing restoration, which means that you can only admire it from a distance. Since this, too, went up in 1271, one can only imagine the residents of Sivas tut-tutting over the constant noise of building work going on around them.
There’s one stray “Selçuk” monument worth seeking out and that’s the Güdük (Thick-Set) Minare, a strangely stumpy tomb built for Sheikh Hasan Bey, one of the Eretnid beys who ruled the city in the 14th century. It’s hidden in the back streets east of the Meydan Hamamı.
Longer stay visitors
For most people that will be more than enough to fill a day, but if you’re able to stay a bit longer it’s worth knowing that Sivas now has an archeology museum housed in what started life in 1914 as an occupational school built in the style known as First National Architecture. Here you can see the finds from the Hittite site of Sarissa at Kuşaklı, southwest of Sivas, as well as a fine Roman mosaic dug up in a garden in the village of Tepecik. It’s uphill from the Valilik, between the hospital and the open prison.
At first sight Sivas appears to have torn down all its old Ottoman housing, but if you look a bit more closely you’ll find a few survivors. Near the Gök Medrese, for example, the 19th-century Akaylar Konağı has been completely restored, as has the Kangalağa Konaği, beside the huge Paşa Camii (1980) on Atatürk Caddesi. Built in 1877 to serve as a guesthouse for a rich trader’s foreign visitors, this house now operates as a restaurant with, on its top floor, a truly spectacular ceiling painted by an Armenian.
Also near the Paşa Camii are two neoclassical stone structures, one built as the Ziya Bey Kütüphanesi (library) in 1908, the other as a han rather like some of those in İstanbul’s Eminönü district. It’s currently under restoration.
The Meydan Camii (1564) with, in its grounds, the tomb of a local holy man named Şems-i Sivası (1517-97), repays a quick visit. More interesting are two newly restored buildings near the Yeni Cami (New Mosque, 1770). Facing it, the Subaşı Hanı has been renovated to serve as the Sivas take on İstanbul’s Spice Market, while beside it a building that started life as a dergah (dervish lodge) has just reopened as the Sivas İhramcızade Cultural and Art Center with lots of little handicrafts workshops ringing the ground floor and one room upstairs dedicated to the memory of the eponymous İhramcızade İsmail Hakkı Toprak Efendi (1880-1969), who is buried in the grounds of the Ulu Camii.
WHERE TO STAY
Buruciye Otel. Tel.: 0 (346) 222 40 20
Büyük Hotel. Tel.: 0 (346) 225 47 67
Otel Köşk. Tel.: 0 (346) 225 17 24
Sultan Oteli. Tel.: 0 (346) 221 29 86
HOW TO GET THERE
There are regular buses from Ankara to Sivas, and a few services from Kayseri and Erzurum. Coming from İstanbul you would be better flying to Sivas Airport, which is 20 kilometers northwest of town.