Although formerly serving as the capital of the Ottoman Empire, Edirne resembles a European town unlike any other city in Turkey. Appreciated for its architectural treasures, the destination is ideal for a short escape from Istanbul.
By Marzena Romanowska
Though it has neither spectacular views of the sea, nor entertainment sites comparable to Istanbul, it was Edirne that was once called “happiness gate” (Der-I Saadet) by the ruling sultans of the Ottoman Empire. Witness to many victorious celebrations, the place was among the lucky charms of the empire’s growth. The conquest of Constantinople and further expansion into Thrace all began there.
Located in the northwestern province of Thrace, for centuries the location has been of interest to many tribes and cultures. After being ruled by Persians, Romans, and Venetians, Edirne was conquered by Sultan Murat I in 1361, and soon thereafter established as the capital of the Ottoman Empire, and the name was changed from Adrianopolis. Even nearly 100 years later, after the capital was moved again—this time to a newly-conquered Istanbul—Edirne remained one of the most important cities of the Empire. The sultans, Yavuz Sultan Selim, Suleyman the Magnificent, and Selim II used to spend a significant amount of time there, not only planning and directing political expansions west, but also indulging in leisure activities such as hunting.
By the seventeenth century the area was the fourth most populated place in Europe, with 350,000 inhabitants. However the fire of 1745 and the 1751 earthquake led to a decline in Edirne’s prominence. Only the remains of the Edirne Palace that served Suleyman the Magnificent have survived into the present day—they can be seen near the west bank of Tunca River, not far from the Beyazit II Complex, which hosts the Health Museum.
The city’s strategic location turned it into a witness of dramatic events during the Balkan War in 1912 and World War I. Edirne, first attacked by Bulgarians and Serbs, and later by Greeks, was officially released to Turkey as part of the Lausanne Treaty of 1923. European influences are partially visible in the city planning. Although Selimiye Mosque is designed as the focal point of the city, the architecture of the narrow streets around the fish market, as well as their direction towards Ali Paşa Bazaar, brings to mind traditional European market structures.
Selimiye Mosque: Sinan’s life work
No matter what type of traveler you are, there is one landmark in Edirne that should not be missed by anyone. The previously-mentioned Selimiye Mosque appears before your eyes the moment you cross the town’s border. It was commissioned by Sultan Selim II and built by Mimar Sinan, who considered it his life’s work. Envisioned as the Ottoman imperial mosque, the construction was completed in 1574 and officially opened exactly one year after Selim II’s death.
The mosque is the world’s first single-domed structure built as part of a religious building. According to historians, the development of single-domed space was the end point of architectural achievement in the pre-Industrial Revolution era. Executed by Mimar Sinan, who was 85 years old at the time, it confirmed his position as the most important Ottoman architect. The plethora of colors and patterns that cover the mosque’s interiors has been numerously adapted in contemporary design, proving that the timeless quality envisioned for the place was achieved. Since the site was added to UNESCO’s world heritage list, it is continuously preserved to maintain its original authenticity.
Around the mosque
The areas surrounding Selimiye are best explored on foot. The adjoining medrese now serves as the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Works that holds a collection of Ottoman calligraphies and ceramics, as well as dervish belongings among other objects. Edirne’s Old Mosque—one of the earliest examples of early Ottoman architecture—is a multi-domed structure known for the large calligraphic ornaments on its walls. Although focusing on souvenir sales rather than authentic small-scale production, the historical retail spaces at Arasta, Bedesten, and Ali Paşa are still worth seeing due to successful restorations and architectural attention to detail.
Experience the local gastronomy
Since 1964, Meşhur Edirne Ciğercisi Kazım & İlhan Usta has been operating on one of the side streets of Balıkpazarı. The two owners, Kazım and İlhan Usta, take care of the restaurant guests on a daily basis, and service is excellent. Don’t forget to try their side dish specialty: fried dry hot peppers, commonly known as ciğer biberi. Osmaniye Caddesi No. 69, Edirne
Since the Thracian region of Turkey is known for grape production, hardaliye is a must-try once there. This non-alcoholic beverage made of grape juice, crushed mustard seeds, and sour cherry leaves has antioxidant properties, and is best consumed ice-cold. Served in local cafes such as Tatlı Konağı at Tahmis Çarşısı in the city center.
Mixing Ottoman and Greek influences on a plate, Edirne offers a plethora of unique sweets which highlight the best of both cuisines. Arslanzade is a popular local brand, with several stores located in the most frequented points around the city (Edirne’s main promenade has at least three). Once there, keep an eye out for the almond kavala biscuits, pistachio-saffron-honey kallavi, or their delicious almond paste, which although similar to marzipan, can be used in baking in more creative ways.
When to go
Winter is a chilly time in the city, ideal for the type of indoor sightseeing that Edirne affords. Later on, May marks the beginning of the seasonal rose harvest, and some of the most beautiful photo opportunities. Choose late spring/early summer to capture blooming sunflowers, or go in early fall to taste the local grapes. The famous Turkish wrestling festival also takes place nearby, generally in late summer. Please note that many historical sites and museums are closed on Mondays.
How to get there
Edirne is approximately three hours away from Istanbul by car via Avrupa Otoyolu highway. Keep in mind that traffic on the Istanbul side can add extra time to your travel. There are bus services, such as Metro or Nilüfer, operating from Istanbul to Edirne on a daily basis. Edirne is very tourist-friendly. Directions to all major historical sites can be found on signs around the city, and with Selimiye Mosque as the focal point it is nearly impossible to get lost.