“You have synagogues next to mosques next to churches. Istanbul is wonderful but here there isn’t the sense of rush and urgency of a big city. Edirne gives you a sense of its history.”

 

She is just one of an increasing number of tourists now making the 250km journey north from Istanbul to a city that lies right at the meeting point of three countries – Greece, Turkey and Bulgaria.

 

One time capital of the Ottoman empire, Edirne is one of those march lands of history, with tides of armies and civilisations sweeping backwards and forwards across it.

 

Most have left their mark, both in stone and in the city’s easy-going character.

 

Historical wealth

 

Edirne is one of the world’s most privileged cities with it wealth of historical, cultural and diverse civilisations,” said Fahri Yucel, the provincial governor of Edirne.

 

The city rose from humble origins to become an important outpost of the Roman Empire in its eastward expansion.

 

Declared a city of the empire in the 2nd century AD and named after the emperor of the time, Hadrian, Hadrianopolis became Adrianople and then Edirne over the centuries, as a succession of conquerors and despoilers came and went.

 

However, it was in 1365 that the rising power of the Ottoman Empire shifted its capital from Bursa in Asia to Edirne, where the court stayed until the fall of Istanbul.

 

In less than a century, Edirne was endowed with a legacy of wealth and opulence, much of which has survived further centuries of war and imperial decline.

 

Glorious architecture

 

Glorified with grand mosques, hospitals, palaces and public works, Edirne became the jewel in the Ottoman crown, though there was always an aura of impermanence as the Sultans cast covetous eyes towards Constantinople.

 

“You have synagogues next to mosques next to churches. Istanbul is wonderful but here there isn’t the sense of rush and urgency of a big city. Edirne gives you a sense of its history”

Nina Hodgson,
Australian visitor

With the fall of the last bastion of the Byzantines in 1453, Edirne lost its mantle of the capital, although it continued to find imperial favour as the gateway to the West, a role it still plays for modern Turkey.

 

“We have a responsibility to preserve the legacy of the history of the region,” added Yucel.

 

Though battered in wars during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Edirne retains its cosmopolitan and Ottoman character through its architecture.

 

Grand imperial complexes sit near to synagogues and churches of different denominations, European style wooden houses jostling alongside graceful fountains and finely worked bridges spanning the city’s three rivers.

 

Restoration programme

 

Provincial authorities, working with the Turkish Culture Ministry, have launched an ambitious programme to restore many of the Ottoman monuments in and around the city and to reclaim some of the old capital’s glory, and attract some of the tourist dollars that the usurper Istanbul draws.

 

But more than just seeking to draw tourists, the series of projects are themselves a monument to the past, Yucel believes.

 

The latest step in this process was the opening of an archaeological park in the centre of the city on 2 January.

 

Sponsored by the governor’s office, the park will provide an open air setting for many of the finds from ancient sites in the region, some dating back to prehistoric times, said Yucel.

 

However, it is Edirne’s Ottoman history that is the city’s main attraction.

 

Crowning the central hill in Edirne is the Selimiye Mosque, considered the greatest work of the Ottoman empire’s most famed architect, Sinan.

 

The oiled wrestling tournament
is famed throughout Turkey 

Masterpiece

 

Built in the late 16th century on the orders of Sultan Selim II, Sinan hoped the Selimiye would outshine the great 4th century church of Haghia Sophia in Istanbul in beauty.

 

Whilst missing out by a matter of centimetres in achieving his goal of surpassing Haghia Sophia’s free standing dome, Sinan did create a marvel, the quintessential Ottoman mosque embodying the best examples of glasswork, tiles, stonework and acoustics.

 

And it is the acoustics for which the Selimiye is justly famous, as the mosque’s imam is happy to demonstrate. Throughout the day, come to the mosque and imam Ali will give an impromptu call to prayer.

 

In a country were all the mosques are wired for sound, with speakers atop the minarets, it is a rare opportunity to experience the "ezan" (Turkish for call to the Faithful) in its true form.

 

“The tourists like it,” he said, “but really I do it because I love the acoustics. 

 

Mosques

 

“The mosque has a capacity of more than 5000, and yet you can hear a pin drop.

 

"Experts still come here to study how Sinan got it so right. If this was not a holy place, it could be an opera house.”

 

Other wonderful imperial mosque complexes include the Ucserefeli (Three Balconied) Cami, so named because each of its four minarets has three balconies; the early 15th century Eski (Old) Cami; and the Beyazit Cami, which has had its outlying buildings converted into a museum featuring the medical practices during the time of the Ottomans.

 

Another of Edirne’s claims to fame is as the host of the annual Kirkpinar (Forty Springs) Oiled Wrestling competition.

 

A traditional event that dates back to the 14th century, every July wrestlers gather at Edirne for a month long competition to decide the country’s champion at this unique Turkish sport.

 

Competitors, clad only in special hide trousers, cover themselves in olive oil to make themselves harder to grip.

 

Wrestling

 

Then, under the eye of a referee, they pair off, clasping each other by the shoulders. When told to begin, each tries to throw the other to the ground and pin their opponent’s shoulders.

 

Similar to Greco-Roman wrestling, some of these oiled bouts between finely matched athletes have been known to last for hours.

 

Edirne is one of the world’s most privileged cities with it wealth of historical, cultural and diverse civilisations... We have a responsibility to preserve the legacy of the history of the region”
Fahri Yucel,
Edirne provincial governor

“It’s a quite extraordinary event,” said Selim Karaoglu, from Istanbul, who has been visiting the wrestling since he was a boy. “The tournament attracts people from all over the world, and the honour of winning is great.”

 

Edirne also has another, though somewhat smaller, claim to fame. In 1826, Sultan Mahmut II ordered the destruction of his own rather rebellious corps of Janissaries.

 

More than 20,000 of the elite corps were slaughtered for their opposition to the Sultan’s westernising reforms.

 

The Sultan then went further, ordering all trace of the Janissaries to be obliterated.

 

Ottomans

 

This campaign of excising the force from history even went as far as the destruction of every monument and headstone marking the graves of the troops.

 

Only in Edirne, with its strong links to the old Ottoman traditions, was the order not carried out.

 

Two dozen of the headstones, each with a carving of the distinctive headdress of the Janissaries, stand in the grounds of Edirne’s Archaeological Museum, behind the Selimiye.

 

They are the last monuments to a corps that was once the Ottoman vanguard in its march into Europe, right to the gates of Vienna.

 

While relatively few visitors march through here these days, many hope this will change in the future.

 

“This city has everything Istanbul has, except it’s smaller, less crowded and more, well, human,” said Karaoglu.