Wednesday, May 23, 2012


It is May 18th and raining outside, as we are waiting under a tent for a spring break concert to start. All of a sudden the rain goes berserk and we are wet from tip to toe. The concert is cancelled and we take refuge in a parking garage. It seems like the rain is going to stay tomorrow as well. Not a good time to go sightseeing in İstanbul. Luckily, the rain is moving from west to east. Thinking outside the box, we decide to go to Edirne the next day. This way we escape from the rain and get to visit the historical sights in Edirne.

Edirne, the westernmost city in Eastern Thrace, happens to be the second capital of the Ottoman Empire. As such, there are some historical sights to visit. A daily trip to Edirne from İstanbul is a stretch, but we take our chances. Once we are outside of İstanbul, there is no traffic on the highway. The sight is quite pleasant, with green plains lying on both sides. After a 2.5 hour drive, just when we are wondering where the entrance to the city center is, we find Edirne right in front of us.

Selimiye from distance
Selimiye Mosque marks the city. It is visible from pretty much anywhere. In fact, it is the only sight we know in Edirne. We are trusting mobile Internet for the rest.  It turns out it is May 19th today, a national holiday in Turkey - Commemoration of Atatürk, Youth and Sports Day. There are some celebrations going on, yet we don't have any problem finding a parking spot for our car on the street. Edirne city center looks clean and tidy in general. However, there are some buildings that look a little run down and we see a lot of street sellers and beggars around. We decide to visit the Selimiye Mosque as the first thing. As I look at it from distance, Selimiye Mosque looks almost surreal to me. With its majestic appearance, it feels so detached from the city that surrounds it. It is grand in size and delicate in style.

There is a graveyard next to the mosque, where we find interesting headstones. These graves belong to high profile people from the old days. The various shapes and sizes of the tombstones relate to their social status and occupation. The informational text given on the wall contains a poem from Yunus:

Yunus der ki gör takdirin işleri
Dökülmüşler kirpikleri kaşları
Başları ucunda hece taşları
Ne söylerler ne bir haber verirler
Yunus says: "All this is done by Fate alone."
From their eyes, all their brows and lashes are gone;
To mark their place there is only a headstone.
They never speak nor send any news at all.

The interior of Selimiye's big dome
Commissioned by Sultan Selim II (Selim the Blond), Selimiye Mosque is considered to be the best work of Mimar Sinan, the famous Ottoman architect. We go inside the mosque through the courtyard, which is surrounded by cloisters. It is as beautiful inside as it is outside. Selimiye has one large dome and several smaller half domes. The interior is very spacious as it is not segmented by colons that you typically find in other grand mosques that have multiple domes. The use of red and blue inside the mosque is quite impressive. As a mystery, there is a reverse tulip hardly visible inside the mosque, embossed on a marble leg. Overall, it is the most elegant mosque I have ever seen. There is a sizable complex that surrounds the mosque, as is common with other imperial mosques. Some part of this complex is converted into a museum that showcases artifacts from the Ottoman era. We visit the museum. It is nice, but there are no descriptions given for the items on display. That is weird.

The interior of the Old Mosque
It starts to rain very lightly. We decide to go for a lunch, hoping that the rain will go away. We ask around to find the best place to get Edirne meatballs and fried liver. Osman seems to be the place to eat. The food is good. The fried liver is thinly sliced, different than the Albanian liver I am used to. I like the Edirne meatballs. Finally, we order a local specialty for desert: Cheese Halva (Peynir Helvası). Mmmm, yummy... 

After lunch it continues to rain lightly. We buy umbrellas just in case it starts to rain more heavily. Our next two stops are the two imperial mosques that are very close by. The first one is called the 'Old Mosque'. Strange name for a mosque. As the name suggests, it is old, and follows the older Seljuk architecture. There are equal sized domes, nine of them, in a 3x3 grid. Jokingly, I call it the 'Silo Mosque', as it looks like a series of silos. It lacks a courtyard. While it does not look too impressive from the outside, it is beautiful inside, with giant calligraphy decorating its walls and nice ornaments under its 9 domes.

The courtyard of the Üç Şerefeli Mosque
The next stop is the 'Üç Şerefeli Mosque'. We learn that this mosque is one of the first representatives of the traditional Ottoman mosques. With its courtyard surrounded by cloisters, the extended complex next to it, and most importantly the large dome surrounded by four smaller ones. The cloisters are roofed by many small domes, each having a unique decoration beneath. The mosque has four minarets, each of which has a different height, width, and style. We read that the minaret with three balconies have three independent stairs running through it. A feature shared by Selimiye, even though we are not allowed to experience it firsthand.

We decide to walk to the old palace after learning that it is half an hour away. After a 15 minute walk, we reach the outskirts of the city. There is no one around. There seems to be a restoration project on a historical walking bridge that goes over a stream of water. We take the bridge. There are green plains on both sides, with some orderly trees. We see some ruins on the right-hand side, which appears to be the site of the old palace. On the left-hand side there is another imperial mosque, which turns out to be the Beyazıd II Mosque. We decide to go and see the palace, or what remains of it, first.

The remains of the Edirne Palace
There is an information panel illustrating the original palace, which was a complex of multiple buildings spread out on a large area. Ironically, the old palace is called the 'New Palace' :D  It must be because it replaced the older palace in Bursa - the first Capital of the Ottoman Empire. There are multiple restoration projects going on. One of them, the restoration of the palace kitchens, is complete. A quick search on the Internet reveals that an explosive depot near the palace was set on fire during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–1878 by the governor of Edirne in fear of a Russian takeover of the depot. The palace was destroyed together with the explosives.

Tower at the Edirne Palace entrance
There is a small historical bridge in the entrance of the palace area, which has a small tower next to it. I have my second surreal experience here, as there is a motor road passing through the palace area and over this bridge as well, at which point the road goes down to a single lane. It is not clear what this road is doing in the middle of the historical palace area, let alone how cars manage to go over this single lane bridge in both ways without any control signs. We walk pass the small bridge. On the other side there is a stone that was used to display the heads of beheaded statesman, like the famous grand vizier Merzifonlu Kara Mustafa Pasha, who led the unsuccessful siege of Viena in 17th century.

We leave the palace area and walk towards the Beyazıd II Mosque. It has a distinguishing white color. Not too impressive in terms of its size, especially when compared to the other imperial mosques in the city. But it has a large complex outside. It turns out that this complex houses one of the first medical schools and hospitals of the Ottoman era. After taking a quick tour of the mosque proper, we visit the museum.

Beyazıd II Mosque
Once inside the museum, we break for a Turkish coffee. Turns out to be a big mistake as the museum is about to close. There is a sign that says that the museum was awarded the European Council's "Museum Award" in 2004. Certainly deserves it. We only have time to properly visit the medical school and the outpatient rooms. Each room contains an illustration of the daily life there, such as students and professors interacting in study rooms, patients being treated in outpatient rooms, or medical experiments being conducted in labs. This is some 500 years ago, so it is quite interesting to see the medical technology of the day. The museum has plenty of descriptions in both Turkish and English. Unfortunately, we can only briefly look at the hospital area as the museum closes.

A horse carriage in Karaağaç
We walk back to the city, passing through the gypsy neighborhoods. We take a walk in the main street of Edirne, which is crowded with young people. We go back to our car and drive to Karağaç - a small quarter across the Meriç River, the only land on the western side of the river that belongs to Turkey. There is a cute bridge across the river, which carries vehicles as well as pedestrians. Karağaç is very silent. The nature is beautiful. Trakya University has its Faculty of Fine Arts here, which has a traditional looking building with a modern sculpture in its garden. A mile or so away from the small town is the border crossing into Greece. We go there in the hopes of seeing the exact point where supposedly the Turkish and Greek soldiers are standing on their respective sides of the border. Unfortunately, the crossing is closed at the time we reach there. Before leaving Karağaç we stop at a cafe near the leg of the Meriç bridge to get some tea. The view is great. This marks the end of the trip. The drive back to İstanbul's Anatolian side is something we don't want to remember :D

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