Whitewashed, wooden-framed houses overhanging the limpid waters of the Yeşilırmak (Green River). Waterwheels turning slowly in the sun. Tombs of aching antiquity pitting a steep rockface topped with the remains of a medieval castle. This is Amasya, far and away the most picturesque of all the Central Anatolian towns.
Amasya has an intriguing history as one of three places, all of them conveniently distant from the capital, to which the sons of the early Ottoman sultans were sent to practice statecraft (the other two being Trabzon and Manisa). It was here that “Lightning” Beyazıd, Mehmed the Conqueror, and Yavuz Selim cut their governing teeth, along with a series of rather less well-known crown princes who didn’t ultimately have the good fortune to accede to the throne. Now that all things Ottoman are back in fashion again, Amasya is keener to promote this connection than it used to be. Like Manisa, it has rebranded itself as “Şehzadeler Şehri” (the City of the crown princes), and there is now a small museum that lets waxwork models of the princes show off the colorful finery that would have been their workaday outfits back in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries.
Long before the Ottomans came along, however, Amasya was already the capital of the Pontic Kingdom, a state carved out by Mithridates I from 302 B.C. that ran at one time all the way from the Black Sea coast right down to Cappadocia. All went well for a couple of centuries. Then Mithridates VI Eupator was silly enough to take on the Romans, a game no outsider ever won and which ended with Pontus absorbed into the Roman Empire in 70 B.C. It was the rulers of Pontus who were buried in the rock-cut tombs that loom above the town and provide the main justification for a visit, although in truth there’s nothing to see inside them. Graffiti artists have been at work on the facades and ongoing “restoration” of the Maidens’ Palace in front of them has left building paraphernalia everywhere -- admire the tombs from a distance rather than risking your ankles on the highly-polished stone steps leading up to them.
The importance of Amasya to the early Ottomans means that the town is blessed with one of the highest concentrations of early Ottoman mosques outside İstanbul. The most beautiful is the unmissable Sultan II. Bayezid Camii, completed in 1485, which sits slap-bang in the center of a complex including a fine library and a soup kitchen housing a cutdown model of Amasya that may appeal to visiting children. Adults will be better off inspecting the şadırvan (ablutions fountain), one of a group with “witch’s hat” roofs to be found in this part of Central Anatolia. More interestingly, its ceiling is adorned with folk-art paintings of mosques, waterwheels and other local features.
The Ottomans also endowed the town with the rambling Çilehane Camii (1413), the pretty Beyazıd Paşa Camii (1414), and the Yörgüç Paşa Camii (1428). But perhaps their most unexpected gift was the Büyük Ağa Medresesi, completed in 1488, which takes the form of an inward-facing octagon. There’s no other building quite like it in Turkey.
Although Amasya held nothing like the importance to the Selçuks that it did to the Ottomans, there are still many fine building dotted about town that testify to the fact that it was already doing well before the princes descended on it. Most famously, there is the Gök Medrese, a somewhat higgledy-piggledy building with a vast eyvan (vaulted recess) leading into the mosque and a pointed dome that would once have been covered in sky-blue (gök) tiles. Nearby, the kümbet (tomb) of Halifet Gazi (actually a Danışmend leader) goes almost unnoticed despite its elaborate carvings.
But the most impressive reminder of the Selçuks is the Bimarhane (also known as Darüşşifa), once a mental hospital with a soaring, densely decorated entrance and a courtyard flanked with columns that reused old Byzantine materials. This has now been turned into a museum of medicine and surgery that highlights the work of the medieval surgeon Şerefeddin Sabuncuoğlu (1385-1470) and the use of music in healing.
Most young Turks first hear about Amasya while studying the story of the Turkish War of Independence because this was one of the staging posts on the road to war, visited by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk on June 21, 1919. During that visit he signed a document in the Saraydüzü Kışla (barracks), at that time up a hill on the southern side of town. Destroyed by landslides in 1935 and 1944, the building has now been completely reconstructed on the northern shore of the river where it houses a museum devoted to the war.
Recently a lot of work has been done to renovate Amasya’s historic buildings and to repair the crumbling Ottoman housing stock. This work is still ongoing in back streets far from the main tourist center, and next February the Archeological Museum, home to a collection of rather gruesome mummies, will be moved to a new location away from the center.
These days Amasya is a favorite with Turkish tourists who flock in by the thousands in summer. To house them all, a plethora of pleasing hotels have opened in the attractive Hatuniye Mahallesi (neighborhood) that runs along the northern bank of the Yeşilırmak. Here in the narrow streets you’ll find ancient hamams, forgotten mosques and a 19th-century mansion -- the Hazeranlar -- that is open to the public. A stay in an Ottoman-house hotel is as much a requirement of a visit to Amasya as it is of a visit to Safranbolu, with the added extra that here you can sometimes bag a room overlooking the river too. In high season, live music from the outdoor restaurants can detract from the chance to have a good night’s sleep. One way to avoid that risk is to put up at the newly renovated İlk Pansiyon, apart from the other hotels near the Gümüşlü Camii and the main square.
Side trip to Merzifon
Most visitors will find more than enough to occupy their time in Amasya itself, but should you have half a day free, it’s well worth hopping on a minibus for the short run west to Merzifon where you can visit the mosque of Kara Mustafa Paşa, the leader in charge of the Turkish forces that threatened Vienna in 1683 and whose defeat there ultimately led to his death.
The Kara Mustafa Paşa Camii may not be either the finest or the largest mosque in the country. However, much of its külliye (complex) survives intact and is currently being renovated as part of wider improvements to the town center. The old bedesten (covered market), for example, has been turned into a restaurant good enough in its own right to justify a visit, and if things go according to plan, the old caravanserai should eventually start hosting travelers again as a hotel. But be sure to take a look at the şadırvan here too. Peek under the witch’s hat and you’ll find paintings even finer than those gracing the one in Amasya, presumably done by the same artist, a man from Zile who left his mark in a calligraphic cartouche amid the cute little pictures.
WHERE TO STAY
Eylül Büğüşü. Tel: 0358-212 1405
İlk Pansiyon. Tel: 0538-218 1869
Haşena Hotel. Tel: 0358-218 3979
Grand Pasha Hotel. Tel: 0358-212 4158
Emin Efendi Konakları. Tel: 0358-212 6622
HOW TO GET THERE
There are regular buses to Amasya from Ankara and Tokat, as well as trains from Samsun and Sivas. Coming from İstanbul you might want to fly to Samsun or Sivas and proceed from there.
Minibuses to Merzifon leave from beside the Büyük Ağa Medresesi in the town center.