As İstanbul prepares to celebrate the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople on May 29, 1453, now is perhaps a good time to remember the city tucked away in the far northwest of the country that was the springboard for that assault.
Edirne is a wonderful town that is all too easily overlooked by visitors because it doesn’t fit easily into a circuit around the country, which is a great shame because it makes the perfect place for a day trip out of Istanbul or, better still, for a long weekend away from it.
Edirne was the old Byzantine city of Adrianople when it fell to the Ottomans in 1363. Until then, this increasingly powerful warrior group had been based in Bursa, a short hop south of their birthplace in Söğüt. But the early Ottoman sultans soon had their sights set on Constantinople and recognized Adrianople as the best base from which to launch their assault.
By the time they made their final march on the Byzantine capital, they had already held power in Edirne for the best part of a century. Not surprisingly, then, the mark of early Ottoman architecture was already firmly stamped all over the city. Ever since Mimar Sinan’s masterpiece, the Selimiye Camii, became Turkey’s 10th World Heritage site in 2011, it has tended to hog the headlines. In reality, marvelous as it certainly is, it faces competition in its immediate vicinity from a pair of fine early Ottoman mosques: the Eski Camii (Old Mosque) and the Üç Şerefeli Camii (Three Balconied Mosque).
Of these two mosques, the Eski Camii is the less dramatic on the outside, despite having a roofline studded with nine domes rather like the Ulu Camii in Bursa. Inside, however, it is a sight to behold, with the exquisite patterning of its domes overshadowed by the dramatic calligraphy adorning the walls. Even if you can’t read Arabic and so can’t understand the messages, you can certainly admire the extraordinary range of these inscriptions that sometimes come paired with a shadow as if they hadn’t been completed or flow out into more conventional decoration on the walls. As you leave, be sure to look out for the old timekeeper’s cottage on the corner that now serves as a religious bookshop, and for the fountain carved into the base of one of the minarets, a particularly unusual feature.
The Eski Camii was built between 1403 and 1414, which makes it slightly older than the nearby Üç Şerefeli Camii, which went up between 1437 and 1447. Externally, this is by far the more striking of the two, its four minarets, each with three balconies, all differently designed and surrounding a vast courtyard that shows how, even before Sinan, Ottoman architecture was spreading out and becoming grander. Inside, however, it is a bit of a disappointment. Like many early Ottoman mosques, it was designed on a long axis, rather like its Selcük predecessors, and here the central dome feels too big for the space it’s covering. Four smaller domes are less overbearing. However, in between them and the main dome, mini domes seem to have been shoehorned into too small a space. The visual problems they caused were as nothing, though, to the structural ones as support beams have had to be built across the arches to strengthen them.
In the years between the creation of the Eski Camii and the Üç Şerefeli Camii, a third spectacular early Ottoman mosque went up in the city a little further to the north. The Muradiye Camii was built between 1426 and 1436 on the summit of the hill and until the coming of the Selimiye would have dominated the skyline. Inside, its mihrab (a niche in the wall of a mosque or room indicating the direction of Mecca) is picked out in turquoise and the lower walls are papered with hexagonal tiles of blue and white. Recent restoration has left traces of the old paintings that used to adorn the walls pleasingly intact. It’s well worth the diversion to see it.
After 1447, building activity in Edirne seems to have come to a halt, presumably because most creative energy was being focused on the capture of Istanbul. Then, between 1484 and 1488, Sultan Bayezid II resumed building work, creating a large and lovely mosque complex in the water meadows to the west of the town center. Today this complex is best known because it houses an award-winning Museum of Health in what was one of the earliest hospitals in the country, a place where patients with mental health problems were compassionately treated through a regime that included music and occupational therapy (which seems to have been rather nicer than what happened to some of those with physical problems whose treatments, as displayed in other rooms, look barely distinguishable from torture).
So popular is the museum that the mosque next door barely gets a look in, its garden overgrown and its additional buildings locked up. But like the Üç Şerefeli Camii, it has a large and beautiful courtyard centered on an ablutions fountain that must surely have influenced Sinan when he came to design the Selimiye.
From the II. Beyazıt Külliyesi, a short walk along the Tunca river leads to the sad remnants of what was once the Edirne Sarayı, the palace where the early Ottoman sultans lived and where Mehmed the Conqueror continued to spend much of his time even after the capture of İstanbul. Work began on this palace during the reign of Sultan Murad II (1421-51) and continued during the reign of Sultan Mehmed II (1451-81), and it continued to be used by the sultans into the mid-19th century. Then in 1878, during the Russo-Ottoman War, it was almost completely destroyed. Today just a few shattered walls remain, along with the Adalet Kasrı (Justice Tower), just across the river, that was added by Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent in 1561 and comes equipped with two stone plinths, the Seng-i Hürmet (Stone of Respect) to the right where people left petitions for the sultan, and the Seng-i İbret (Stone of Warning) to the left where the sultans would place the heads of court officials who had displeased them.
Recently, the hamam of the Kum Kasrı (Sand Pavilion) was completely rebuilt, and the rebuilding of the kitchen block is nearing completion. Still, you will need a pretty vivid imagination to conjure up any idea of what the palace would have looked like in its heyday.
And then there was Sinan. Between 1569 and 1575, the genius of Ottoman architecture oversaw work on what he himself regarded as his masterpiece in the form of the Selimiye Camii, dedicated to his patron, Sultan Selim II (1566-74). Now the centerpiece of Edirne in every way, this spectacular mosque complex was built on high land so that it could be seen from all around town, and in its vast courtyard, its central dome and its soaring minarets Sinan brought to a climax all the themes that can be seen in his other mosques, the majority of them in İstanbul. Rather surprisingly, the statue of the architect that stands in front of the mosque has been positioned so that he has his back turned to it in perpetuity.
Behind the mosque, its medrese has just reopened as a cute but sadly unlabeled Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts. Beyond that lies the town’s excellent Archeology and Ethnography Museum and the Taşodalar Hotel, which stands, if the signs are to be believed, on the site of a house where Fatih Sultan Mehmed was born in 1432.
WHERE TO STAY
Taşodalar Hotel. Tel.: 0 (284) 212 35 29
Hotel Rüstempaşa Kervansaray.
Tel.: 0 (284) 212 61 19
Antik Hotel. Tel.: 0 (284) 225 15 55
Tuna Hotel. Tel.: 0 (284) 214 33 40
HOW TO GET THERE
There are trains from İstanbul to Edirne over the weekend, but it’s easier to catch a bus from Esenler Otogar for the three-hour run.