Signs of the Silk Road are, seemingly, slowly being swallowed by modernity as we travel further west. Sivas, in central Turkey, seems an unlikely stop as we drive past the smoking chimneys of iron-smelting mills towards the city centre. Yet, sheltered at its heart, amid a ring of gaudy, gold jewellery shops, are four surviving medieval madrasas — or Islamic seats of learning — exquisitely crafted by the 10th-century Seljuk dynasty.
Once there were twelve. For Sivas sat at the junction of the Persian and Baghdad caravan routes and was a major communications hub. Its madrasas became respected educational institutions for the esteemed poets and scholars of the day, including Sultan al-Ulama Baha al-Din Walad, the Persian poet Rumi’s father, who spent time here.
Via the north–south and east–west trade roads, the town contributed cereal, copper, iron and was the route’s main supplier of wet fruits, which were munched by the citizens as far away as Constantinople. And, until 1914, silk was produced here, too; sold inside the later-built Ottoman Han arcades that, today, are occupied by capped men selling evil-eye key rings, goat-horn combs and backpacks. Sericulture (silk production) has since moved west to Bursa and south to Gaziantep.
On the main square, men stand in the early morning sunlight stripping and selling husks of corn from their small carts. Behind them, the minaret of Kale Mosque spears the blue sky. “See the brickwork?” asks our guide, Tolga. “They mixed egg whites with the rubble to make the mortar, so the builders kept a chicken coop next to the building site, so they’d always had a constant supply!”
“What happened to the leftover yolks?” jokes a member of the group. “Omelettes all round for lunch!” laughs Tolga.
Off to the left, the azure-tile twin towers of Cifte Minareli Madrasah still stand straight. Its front portal was copied from Irani styles during the Turkic Karahan kingdom (c940-1211). The other three walls have been erased by long-ago attacks. Inside the entrance lie enormous catapult stones, waiting for a siege that will never come.
Across the cobblestone street stands Sifaiye Medrese. Once the largest hospital in Anatolia, its doctors performed optometry and minor surgeries – groundbreaking for the day. Inside, behind barred windows, are tombs of Izzettin Key Kaur, Emperor of Anatolian-Seljuk kingdom, and his family.
I peer through a small square window and catch a glimpse of the mosaic-tiled mounds inside and smile at the people sipping coffee just yards away. Huddled around the courtyard fountain, they pincer their hot fluted glasses of tea, their backs hunched against the encroaching chill of winter. The women still shroud their hair with headscarves and the men finger strings of prayer beads behind their back while conversing.
Tradition still runs deep here, despite modern appearances.