Dec 23, 2011

Before Constantinople, there was Adrianapolis

The closer it is, the further it becomes. 220 km northwest of Istanbul, barely 2,5 hours drive on a flat highway, I haven’t made it to Edirne until recently. Known as Adrianapolis, this military outpost served as capital of the Ottoman Empire for almost hundred years (1367-1453) before Istanbul. And it showed! We stayed in Taşodalar, the estate where Sultan Mehmet II (the Conqueror of Istanbul) was born.  It carried this name for the last 600 years. Now renovated, it was located right behind the master piece of Architect Sinan’s Selimiye Mosque. And even better, adjacent to it, there was a Turkish bath (Saray Hamamı) where we spoiled ourselves beyond our senses.

The Old Mosque in Edirne is full of calligraphy.
Photo: Zeren Göktan.

"Allah" enscribed with calligraphy over believers at Edirne Old Mosque.
Photo: Zeren Göktan.

Arabic letter "vav" on the wall of the Old Mosque in Edirne.

A view from the serene Old Mosque in Edirne.
Notice the different architecture without
one big dome.

While the Selimiye Mosque is Edirne’s most famous monumental building, the town's early Ottoman period mosques are also considered unique pieces of architecture. They date from a period before the synthesis of Islam and Turkish civilizations came to a completion and while the signs of Seljuk style were still visible. One example is the Eski Camii (Old Mosque) of 1414 described by architect T. Cansever as standing as a sign of permanency.  It is also the first monumental building surviving from the early Ottoman era with its oldest pulpit (minber). Amid the Muhammad and Allah scripts right at the entry gate of the mosque, the Arabic writings on the walls of the mosque dating from the 18th century were truly mesmerizing. Their calligraphic beauty combined with the effect of the live prayer, turned it into a divine session for me. I was so impressed  with the muezzin’s voice, I couldn’t help to listen to him until the end. Our later discussion led him to show me around the mosque: pomegranate tree symbolizing heaven in Islam, the calligraphic art variety Sulus and my favorite prayer on the wall (la havle). He even introduced me to the governor of Edirne (who was among the praying crowd) to have me repeat the praise I had for his voice. When I confessed him that I was not “so religious”, I was taken by his response: “nowadays, religion is too much associated with appearance”, clearly taking note of me not wearing a headscarf but implying that covering one's head was not the only way to determine one's religiosity.

Inside the Three Balconied Mosque in Edirne.

Three balconies of the minarette in Edirne. 

After questioning what it means to be a faithful person a little more, we then hit the Three Balconied Mosque (Üç Şerefeli Camii). Also dating from the 15th century (1447), this mosque had four minarets that were all in different length, width and shape, one of which had three balconies, hence the name. This mosque is considered as the beginning of the later emerging Ottoman architecture. Lastly, we went to Selimiye (in İçkale district) which serves as a point of orientation since it is visible when you reach the town from Istanbul or other directions.

Selimiye mosque's famous marble mihrab in Edirne.
Photo: Zeren Göktan.

Selimiye Mosque in Edirne.
Photo: Zeren Göktan.

The dome of Selimiye Mosque in Edirne.

The minber (pulpit) of Selimiye Mosque.

Selimiye is considered Architect Sinan’s masterpiece although it was built after his other great work of Süleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul, in the name of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent. Just like the other sultans before him who had all erected mosques in their names, Istanbul was the natural location for Sultan Selim, the son of Süleyman who was patronizing the mosque. However, it was soon realized that there was no place in Istanbul (Old City). Hence, Edirne as the gate to Europe and former capital has become the natural choice to demonstrate Ottoman power to Europe. Selimiye’s dome is indeed impressive not only with its height and width but also the Islamic art on it and its pastel tones.There is also a myth that accompanies the mosque. Apparently Edirne was full of tulips (and tulip gardens) at the time. When Sinan found the spot to build the mosque, its owner, an old woman was not willing to give her land. She would only be convinced if Sinan built something in the mosque that would remind future generations of her. So, in a truly subtle artistic way, Sinan made a tulip on a barely visible part inside the mosque. However, the tulip was put in a reverse fashion to symbolize the trouble she caused himJ.

Views from the streets of Edirne's Old City.

The synagogue of Edirne, due for renovation. 

I don’t think I ever made it to so many mosques in a row at any time in my life and –surprisingly- enjoyed it that much. Maybe religion was indeed not about appearance and about your heart. Maybe it was the diversity of styles, stories and layers in Edirne that gave one this feeling? Edirne is indeed a colorful place, full of students and people. They flock to Edirne’s liver and köfte shops. The town borders both Bulgaria and Greece as evident from the signs in both countries’ languages all over the city. After all, it is located in the Balkans, always first to catch snow coming from there to Turkey. Another natural element to Balkans are the Roma people who live in various Balkan and Central European countries. Their presence adds another color as they ride around the city in horse cars and sing while listening to their hand held stereos. They are also in the business of picture taking amid plastic flowered walls behind Selimiye mosque. Right behind the mosque, Köfteci Osman is excellent place to taste köfte (meat balls) also because the shop uses really good olive oil in its salads. This is truly unusual in Turkey but given the historical oil wrestling in the town, it should probably not be a surprise. 

The pedestrian market zone in Edirne.

Thrace University building in Karaağaç, Edirne.

The town is located by the river Meriç (Maritsa) which was navigable until the end of 17th century. Today, at the river side one can spot couples, men sipping raki (Turkish ouzo) on grass and restaurants (Hanedan was our favorite). When one crosses the old bridge to reach Karağaç and the campus of Thrace University –itself a magnificent building- one is only kilometers away from Greece. Given the commercial activity associated with the river  as well as its location, Edirne was once home to sizeable minority populations such as Bulgarians and Jews. Unfortunately, the pogrom of 1934 in Thrace all but ended the latter’s presence. Today, the beautiful art nouveau synagogue building is finally being renovated while the Sveti Yorgi church holds mass every Sunday with a crowd of mere 30 people and those coming from Bulgaria. Minorities always pay for the establishment of nation states:-).

Old bridge over Maritsa (Meriç) river.

An illustration of the music therapists of the
Beyazid complex in Edirne.

The Health Museum in Edirne won the
2004 Council of Europe museum prize.

A simple room in the hospital section of the complex in Edirne.

Another place not to miss in Edirne is the Health Museum that won the 2004 Council of Europe Museum prize. Located in the hospital section (Darüşşifa) of the Complex of Sultan Beyazid II (1484-88) beside the Tunca River, this was a place where mentally ill patients were treated with water and music therapy. In fact, a different rhythm was used for each different illness. For more click here. Having served for 400 years as hospital, it later became a hospital for the mentally ill. The complex included a medical school, a guest house and a soup kitchen, as well as a mosque. When the Empire was falling apart after the Balkan War, Edirne was occupied by the Russian Army. As a result, the hospital also fell apart. Patients started to be held in isolation and in chains while the welfare system of the complex all but collapsed. While the building was later used for other governmental purposes, thanks to the renovation it again found a purpose in the form of Health Museum. One of the scenes at the Museum I really liked was the fact that two patients, described as melancholic depressive and lunatic, were housed in the same room. The Turkish translation of melancholic basically refers to someone who is so hopelessly in love, he has lost his mind. Under the circumstances, his roommate cannot be anyone but who has lost it totally, don’t you think?

The melancholic depressive and his roommate the lunatic
at the Health Museum in Edirne.

Prayer beeds inside the Bayazid mosque in Edirne.

The Bayazid complex in Edirne from outside.

Postcard showing Bulgarian machine guns
before Adrianapolis during the Balkan War.
(Courtesy of TT).