Amasya 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 Trabzonand Manisa). It was here that “Lightning” Beyazıd, Mehmed the Conqueror, and Selim the Cruel 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.
Amasya today 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.
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.
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.