Turkey’s Piece of European History
My trip to the European side of Turkey began with a visit to the Suleymaniye Mosque, the second-largest mosque in Istanbul. I was so impressed with its beautiful architecture that I longed to know more. I learned that the architect behind this striking mosque was Mimar Sinan, the most famous architect of the Ottoman Empire. Enough curiosity drew me to hop on a bus destined for Edirne, a small city off the traditional tourist path, where I could see the architect’s true masterpiece.
Edirne, the capital of the Eastern Thrace province, is situated in northwest Turkey. It is only a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Istanbul and easily accessible by intercity bus. While the European side of Turkey is less exotic, the ride offers impressive views of Turkey’s countryside and cities.
My first impression upon arriving in Edirne was that the city has many high-rise concrete buildings. But, unlike other cities in Turkey, it has statues and monuments located at intersections. I found out that Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Republic of Turkey, visited Edirne three times, which easily explains why there are so many statues of him.
The name Edirne evolved from its original Greek name, Hadrianopolis, named after Roman emperor Hadrian, who founded the city. It was the capital of the Ottoman Empire from 1365 until 1453, when Sultan Mehmed II, born in Edirne, captured Istanbul and made it the capital.
The city, situated near the border of Greece and Bulgaria, is important in Turkey’s history. It was a battleground for the Russian-Turkish War, the Balkan War and the Turkish War of Independence. It is also home to about 20 mosques — an unusually large number for a European city.
Selimiye Mosque is located in Dilaver Park, where visitors are greeted by the statue of Sinan (1490-1588), who was the court architect and civil engineer for three sultans. At 80, he designed the mosque and called it the peak of his career as a master architect.
Sinan built the mosque in six years, finishing it in 1575. It is situated on land that is slightly higher than its surroundings. As one of the largest mosques in Turkey, it covers an area of 1,575 square meters. He wanted to build a dome higher and wider than Hagia Sophia’s dome in Istanbul. With a diameter of 31.28 meters, Selimiye’s dome is just a few centimeters wider than Hagia Sophia’s.
The mosque has four slender minarets — at 71 meters tall, they certainly are eye-catching from a distance. Its ornaments are made of materials including stone, marble, glazed tiles and wood. Rumor has it that the majestic design of the mosque moved a foreign architect to say: “This is not a man-made building but a divine temple that descended from heaven.”
In 2011, Selimiye Mosque was listed as a World Heritage site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
Nearby is the Old Mosque, built in the early 14th century. It is the smallest and oldest mosque in Edirne and features beautiful inscriptions of calligraphies.
Strolling down in the city center I found that Edirne is also a city of covered bazaars. Among them is the Selimiye Shop Complex, located just near the Selimiye Mosque. Built during the reign of Sultan Murad III in the 16th century, the bazaar helped gain income for the mosque. Currently, there are 124 shops on both sides of the corridor.
The bazaar is filled with many shops that sell fruit soaps, in the shapes of apples, bananas, watermelons, grapes and lemons. I was told that this was a city commodity in the 19th century when producing fruit soap became the occupation of its citizens. These were ornaments for Sultans’ daughters and concubines, and were used in their dowries.
Another typical handicraft of Edirne are brooms, which can also be found in the bazaars. Lately, however, people have opted for mass-produced brooms over Edirne’s hand-crafted ones. Therefore, the Edirne broom is now a handicraft instead of a mass product for households. Since the city is less touristy, the prices of handicrafts are lower than in Turkey’s more heavily visited cities.
Saraclar Street, a wide pedestrian boulevard in the heart of Edirne, is another spot that should not be missed when visiting Edirne. It is a car-free area of commerce and business, where assorted shops, cafes and restaurants are concentrated. The pedestrian-friendly road intersections are decorated with artistic statues and a walk on Saraclar Street offers up a pleasant Balkan atmosphere.
Visitors also come to Edirne to watch Kirkpinar Oil Wrestling, the oldest oil-wrestling festival in the world. The festival dates back to 1357 during the Ottoman empire.
Since 1640, the national event has been held in a grassy field near Edirne, where wrestlers douse their bodies with grease. In 1924, after the foundation of the Turkish Republic, the Sarayici area in Edirne has became the place for a weeklong competition that is held each July.
With a population of around 140 000, Edirne may not be on top of the list for tourists who visit Turkey. But don’t be fooled. There is a lot to entertain you.