It was too good to last. We’d had free time in Istanbul for nearly two days. I posted about the trip under the Bosphorus from West to East and back again, we visited the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Market, dined in a classy Ottoman restaurant and got very wet. But crucially, especially for someone like myself suffering from a bad neck, there had been no sitting in a bus being driven across the bumpy roads of western Turkey. That relief was coming to an end.
Today we were to travel from Istanbul more or less due west across the isthmus that separates the Black Sea from the Sea of Marmara and the Aegean Sea. Our destination was Edirne, once the capital of the Ottoman Empire (before the capital moved to Constantinople) and today it is the gateway from Turkey into the European Union, specifically into Greece and into Bulgaria.
The journey was both uneventful and dull. From time to time the Sea of Marmara came into view to the south but the landscape was undulating with no significant features. At one point we stopped for a coffee break in a service station. We were the only customers. The coffee and tea service was efficient but the room was like an icebox. It was almost a relief to get back on to the bus.
Driving into Edirne, you go along a straight road lined with offices and warehouses. Gradually the commercial buildings change to housing and the shops start to appear. At a set of traffic lights we turned left and stopped outside an ancient caravansary, the place where travellers used to rest, eat and refresh their beasts of burden. This was the Kervansaray Hotel, and was to be our bed for the night. The entrance was along a pedestrianised street but a couple of porters appeared and our luggage was delivered to the lobby. Checking in was fast. The rooms were on the first floor and the only access was via a narrow, steep and irregular stone spiral staircase. And we had to haul our own luggage. This staircase emerged into the middle of a gallery so that for the last few steps there was no hand rail and little other support.
In contrast to the tiny room in Istanbul, the room here was enormous with three single beds and a proper en suite bathroom. The bedroom had a small deep set window to one side which showed that the stone walls were about half a metre thick. Looking up, the ceiling was vaulted and maybe nearly 6 metres high at the apex. The furnishings were a little sparse and the TV almost an antique but all in all this was a good, warm room. Importantly, the bathroom was well equipped and clean. We got unpacked and set out to explore.
Probably the most dramatic building in Edirne is the Selimiye Mosque. It is was designed to be larger, albeit only very slightly larger, than the Aya Sofya in Istanbul. From the outside the most amazing feature is the four minarets each with three galleries for the muezins (the men who perform the calls to prayer). I’d read that each gallery had its own spiral staircase. The thought of the architectural design and skill that must have gone into building the three concentric spirals is quite mind-blowing. What a pity they are not open to the public.
The gateway to the mosque complex leads into a bazaar selling a range of food items and tourist knick-knacks. Half way along, some steps on the right lead up to an open courtyard with grass and flowers. On the far side some more steps lead into an inner enclosed courtyard and then to the doorway leading into the mosque itself. As is the custom, indeed it is obligatory, shoes are removed or plastic covers are provided to cover the soles of your shoes. We opted for the covers. Also arms and legs must be covered. For ladies, a headscarf is required.
The doors to the mosque are made of two large, overlapping sheets of heavy rubber. You have to squeeze through the overlaps. This mechanism helps to keep out the cold in the winter and the heat and humidity in the summer. Very practical.
Inside you are immediately dumbstruck by the grandeur, the size and height of the dome and the decorative stonework. The architect, Mimar Sinan, was given the brief to produce the largest dome in the Ottoman Empire. By placing the supporting columns near to the outer walls, Sinan created a massive internal space such that all participants at the prayers could see the mihrab which indicates the direction of Mecca. The whole floor is covered in a red carpet with the gold markings to indicate individual prayer mats. I didn’t try to count the number of people who could be accommodated on this carpet but it must be measured in hundreds. What a sight it would be if you could be a fly on the wall during Friday prayers. Because of the number of tourists visiting the mosque, a large area is roped off for private devotions and there were probably about a dozen men taking advantage of the space.
Women are not allowed to pray in the main part of the mosque but there is always an area at the back, partially screened off, where women can participate. Today there were three or four ladies discreetly going about their devotions.
The only disappointment was that you could not get up to the higher levels and experience the vastness from on high. Many years ago I visited the Vatican in Rome and was able to climb, by numerous stairs, right up into the gods – I think that is the appropriate expression. The perspective looking down was so very different from looking upwards. When you look up, scale is hard to comprehend but looking down, you can see people like ants far below, and can truly appreciate the immensity of what surrounds you.
After walking into as many nooks and crannies as we could, it was time to move on. We had been told that the mosque museum was well worth a visit. So back out into the open courtyard, taking off our plastic shoe covers on the way, we looked for the entrance to the museum. And there it was over to our left.
The museum consists of a series of cell-like rooms arranged around an open quadrangle of shrubs and flowers. As you entered each “cell”, there was an eerie clicking sound and the lights came on. These rooms had originally been the classrooms of a madrasah and each depicted aspects of the school regime. All very interesting and, yes, educational.
However, a little rumbling in the stomach reminded us that we had not stopped for lunch. Just across the road was an inviting looking café. Soon we were sitting down to bowls of spicy lentil soup and glasses of refreshing ayran with freshly baked pide bread and all for a very few lira.
There’s more than the Selimiye Mosque to see in Edirne and as we had only one afternoon we tried to pack in a lot. First was the statue of Mimar Sinan who was probably the greatest architect of the Ottoman period. He trained as a mathematician and engineer in the military, studied architecture and came to the attention of sultans including Süleyman the Magnificent. He was appointed chief civil engineer and architect of the Empire and is credited with the design and construction of more than 300 major structures, including mosques, hospitals and bridges, and numerous smaller projects. He lived to the grand old age of 98.
The next place was a bazaar. In fact, a rather bizarre bazaar. Most Turkish markets sell a wide range of produce from carpets to courgettes. Some have a theme, like the Istanbul Spice Market, but even that market, when you include the outside stalls, sells just about everything. The Bedesten bazaar is housed in a large rectangular building with fourteen domes on the roof. At one time it was the largest bazaar in Edirne and would have sold a wide range of produce. Today it sells only craft supplies from crayons to knitting wool. There’s not a courgette to be seen. Unique in my experience.
After the bazaar we wandered round the town shopping area. There was a long pedestrianised avenue with the main shops – none very large – and a series of side streets with small specialised shops. At the major junctions down the avenue there were attractive fountains and other water features. And, of course, it being Turkey, “pedestrianised” doesn’t mean people on foot only, it includes bicycles and the ubiquitous scooters.
And finally, no words about Edirne are complete without the mention of their food speciality, ciğer (liver). In the early evening most of the party met in a bar cum restaurant that owed its appearance to an Austrian style. On reflection, it may be that the style westerners refer to as Austrian is actually more Ottoman as, in its day, Austria formed the western boundary of the Ottoman Empire. Anyway back to ciğer. After a few beers in the Austrian/Ottoman place, we headed for a restaurant that some of our party had dined at on a previous visit.
Aydin Tava Ciğer is a brightly lit modern eating place very close to the Kervansaray Hotel. A good sign was that the place was busy with nearly all the tables full. Four of us were taken to a table near the back of the rectangular room. Ordering was easy and very soon we had plates of very thinly sliced calves liver covered in crispy fried chillies and a few chips. A most delicious dish when washed down with ayran.
Time had passed quickly and it was now late and time for bed. Tomorrow we were going to Gallipoli, which as we knew from a previous visit, is a very moving place. This time it is going to be even more poignant as March and April 2015 mark the 100th anniversary of the end of the Dardanelles Campaign and the start of the long and disastrous siege of the Gallipoli peninsula. So off to sleep.