Thanks to a popular Turkish television series beamed around the world, this once-forgotten town is experiencing a tourism boom.
Sogut is a quaint, nondescript town of 14,000 people. A three-hour drive from Istanbul, navigating snaking roads cutting through the plateaus of sunflower, wheat, hop and lettuce fields, the town is fast gaining traction on Turkey's tourism map.
Unlike the country's major tourist destinations Antalya, Bodrum, Cappadocia, Istanbul, Izmir, Konya, Trabzon and others, this picturesque little settlement of the midwest Bilecik province was never on the radar of foreign or local tourists until, as locals say, it was "resurrected" from a bygone era.
"Sogut was once the nucleus of the Ottoman Empire. It all started here. And, as the empire expanded, we got insulated, gradually. But now it's resurrected. The world knows about us, again," says Ibrahim Ayyildiz, a member of a Kayi tribe. He owns one of the only three hotels in Sogut.
The history of Turkey's predecessor state, the mighty Ottoman Empire, is deeply rooted in this humble rural setting.
It's here that Ertugrul (1188-1281) –– head of a nomad Kayi tribe and father of Osman, the Ottoman Empire's first sultan –– established his first principality in the 13th Century, sowing the seeds of an empire that would last for the next 600 years.
Like many other empires, the Ottoman realm dwindled and a new republic – Turkey – was born out of immense sacrifices made by the Turkish people between 1918 and 1923 in the liberation war against the Western allied forces.
"But on Turkey's tourism map, Sogut was nowhere until recently," Ayyildiz says.
Five years ago Sogut came under the spotlight as Turkish TV series Dirilis Ertugrul (Resurrection Erturgul) was aired across the country. The series, a TRT production, is largely inspired by the events that marked the beginning of the Ottoman Empire, taking the Turkish public by storm and leading the television ratings. In 2016, a website was inaugurated that introduced the show to international audiences. Netflix circulated it further to a wider global audience.
"Sogut got stuck in my head when I first watched its episodes on Netflix. That was last year, And, here I am today," says Zakir Muzaffaro, a visitor from Ukraine, outside the Ertugrul Gazi Museum located in the heart of the idyllic town.
Accompanying him is his brother, Islam Muzaffaro, who chips in: "The serial inspired us to visit this place. In the serial, you see tents, horses, sword fighting and hospitality. Everything has changed… new roads, buildings, houses… but hospitality remains intact."
The central attraction in Sogut is the tomb of Ertugrul, where tourist numbers have swelled in the past few years. It was a normal grave until 1886 when it was turned into a decorated tomb. In 1921, invading Greek soldiers are said to have targeted and fired at the tomb. Visitors can still see some of the window shutters pockmarked by bullet holes. Free standing flags of several Turkic nations decorate the inside of the structure. And encircling the grave are small boxes containing packets of soil brought from erstwhile governorates of the Ottoman Empire in Ertugrul's honour. A Kayi flag –– with two arrows and a bow decked on a blue cloth –– and a Turkish flag stand on either side at the crown of the grave.
Outside the tomb are the graves of the Kayi leader's wife, Haleeme Hatun, his second son, Savci Bey, and 19 honorary graves of Ertugrul Gazi's friends and close Alps (Kayi warriors).
Nearby, marquees have set up selling Kayi merchandise: swords, leather armour, Bey caps, fur hats, flags, tribal attire, and gifts themed around Dirilis: Ertugrul for fans of the series.
"The last two years have seen an uptick in tourism here. Many of them say they saw the TV serial and decided to visit Erturgul Gazi's final resting place," says Bilge Hatun, one of the curators of the tomb.
"Most of the visitors are local Turks or from those countries which were once part of the Ottoman Empire. Pakistanis, Europeans, and Canadians have also started coming here."
Over a kilometre further on is "the first work of the Ottoman Empire" –– Kuyulu Mescid or Ertugrul Gazi Mescid, a mosque built by the Kayi leader. Surprisingly, a few steps inside the mosque, a dried up, well-lit, and restored well welcomes visitors. It's said to have been excavated by Ertugrul and his friends. Because of the well (Kuyu in Turkish) inside the venerated place, it's called Kuyulu Mosque.
Nearby, in the heart of the town, is one of the oldest buildings of Sogut – Celebi Mehmet Mosque or Ulucami. Built in the reign of Ottoman Sultan Mehmet I during 1414-20 and restored continuously by later rulers, the multi-domed and fenestrated mosque is a remarkable work of Ottoman architecture.
A few steps away is the Ertugrul Gazi Museum, a magnificent wooden mansion that serves as the window to the Kayi tribe's lifestyle. Restored and opened to the public in 2001, the museum displays Kayi weapons, clothing, rugs, earthenware, weighing instruments and money pouches besides many other implements. The museum also exhibits coins from the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires.
"Two years ago, not more than 400 people used to visit the museum in a month. But today, we're registering 4,000 visitors a month. The interest in Sogut's history is building amongst outsiders," says a supervisor of the museum. He did not want to be named because he wasn't authorised to speak with media.
"All the major buildings and mosques around were restored in the last three years, given the flow of tourists. The Turkish TV serial has done a huge favour to this otherwise secluded place."
Outside the boundaries of Sogut town and set on a hilltop is the shrine of Dursun Fakih –– a mystic, poet, and a scholar of Islamic jurisprudence. With Osman, he witnessed the foundation of the Ottoman Empire. After the conquest of Karacahisar in nearby Eskisehir province, he is believed to have delivered the Friday sermon in which he announced Osman as the head of a new and independent Ottoman state.
A visit to Sogut is considered incomplete without a stopover at Fakih's shrine. Not only does it offer spiritual peace, but the hilltop also provides a magnificent bird's-eye view of the villages, orchards, and highlands around.
"But Sogut still needs to be marketed like other destinations," says Raif Dogan, a tourist taxi driver.
More than 40 million foreign tourists visited Turkey in 2018, many of them of Turkish descent, Russians and Germans. This year too, Turkey continues to taste a good tourism season.
Dogan says Sogut could draw more tourists to Turkey if the place is marketed well and developed more.
"There are just three hotels here… that means some 65 rooms… few taxis, and not a single English-speaking tour guide. People usually spend a few hours in Sogut and then travel back to Bilecik. That needs to change."