10 REASONS TO VISIT EDIRNE
Bridges, oil wrestlers, abandoned synagogue and more...
1. Edirne Bridges
The Ottoman Turks were not famous for their roads. They preferred bridges – in fact, they were obsessed with them. If the Bosporus hadn't been so huge, they would have built bridges across it as well. The Maritsa and the Tundzha, which flow through Edirne, were simultaneously narrow enough to make bridges possible and wide enough to make their construction a feat of engineering. The result is several bridges whose stone arches rise with dignity and grace above the broad, calm waters of the rivers. Most were built according to wishes of sultans – Edirne was the capital city from 1361 until the capture of Constantinople in 1453. Traces of the Ottoman rulers live on in the central bridge over the Maritsa, which the Turks call Meriç. The sultans would watch military and artisan parades from the stone alcove in the middle. The bridge continues to be used as an everyday transport artery.
2. Balkan Wars Martyrdom Museum
Since written history began, Edirne has been the site of at least 15 major battles and sieges. The Turks decided to dedicate a whole museum to the last of them – the Bulgarian siege of 1912-13. The supposedly impregnable Edirne Fortress, which Bulgarians captured on 13 March 1913, is now full of photos, weapons, maps and captivating dummies telling the story of General Mehmed Şükrü Paşa's epic defence. Even the Bulgarians recognised his valour – the general was forced to surrender only after Istanbul delayed sending reinforcements several times. Bulgaria's King Ferdinand himself returned the sword of the defeated pasha – a moment immortalised in several paintings in the exhibit.
3. Old train station
During the First Balkan War of 1912-13 Bulgarians fought fierce battles to break through the defensive lines in the Karaağaç neighbourhood, where Edirne's old train station is located. Now they, and all the other tourists, can freely enter the station's courtyard to admire the magnificent combination of European and Ottoman architecture. Built in 1890, it houses the Trakya University Chancellor's Office.
4. Selimiye Mosque
The Selimiye Mosque is universally recognised as a masterpiece of the Islamic architecture, and the man who built it, Mimar Sinan, was the greatest architect to build for the Ottoman sultans. Some say it resembles Haghia Sophia in Constantinople. In fact, Sinan copied the famous cathedral right down to the dome's dimensions. There is, however, one basic difference between the two buildings: Twenty-one years after the church's completion in 537, Haghia Sophia's cupola collapsed following an earthquake. The dome of Selimiye – the mosque was built between 1568 and 1574 – lasted until 1912, when it was hit by Bulgarian artillery shelling the city in the First Balkan War. Luckily, the damage to the dome and the frescoes was minimal. Kemal Atatürk refused to allow repairs, leaving the damage to serve as a reminder of the horrors of war. Even today you can spot the small stain on the dome.Once you enter and your initial awe passes, go to the little spring in the centre of the mosque. Believers think that the water there is zemzem, or coming from Mecca. On one of the columns next to it you'll find Selimiye's most famous image – the tulip drawn upside-down.
5. Old houses
Edirne preserves something that Bulgaria is losing as quickly as it is losing its pristine coastline – well-preserved traditional urban architecture. Bulgarians proudly refer to this as their national Revival Period style, but don't be fooled. You can find fantastic late-19th Century houses all over the former Ottoman Empire – from western Greece to the eastern parts of Turkey. Edirne is the closest place to Bulgaria to see them.
Residents of every Turkish city erect sculptures to honour what they consider their biggest local pride. In Van, there is a memorial to the Van cat; Diyarbekır has immortalised its huge watermelons; and in Edirne they've dedicated a monument to pehlivani, or oil wrestlers. The statue greets all travellers arriving on the highway from Istanbul. In the centre of the city, in front of the Selimiye Mosque, you'll find also a statue of Mimar Sinan. Across the street there's a statue of tulips – red, of course.
7. Kırkpınar's wrestlers
Take that, Olympics! Wrestling contests in Edirne's Kırkpınar neighbourhood are older than the quarter itself. They have been held since 1361 – earning a mention in the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest continuous sporting event in the world. Hopefuls looking to win the title of baş pehlivan, or wrestling champion, gather every year during the first weekend of July.The sight of men naked to the waist, wearing leather pants, doused in oil and wrestling as an ensemble of zurni, or folk oboes, and tapani, or bass drums, primes the crowd is thrilling.
Even the French Empress Eugenie was intrigued to watch the pehlivani Sultan Abdülaziz brought with him on a visit to Paris in 1867.Two of Sultan Murad I's soldiers began the tradition during the 1361 siege of Edirne. The oily fight started as a joke, but when no clear winner emerged, the friendly match turned into a test of honour. In the end, both wrestlers collapsed in exhaustion – still tied. Forty springs appeared where they fell – hence the name Kırkpınar. Even now, the wrestlers, who come from all over Turkey, take defeat hard – some cry when they lose.
Edirne is as cosmopolitan as you would expect any city on Europe's most important trade routes to be. During the 19th Century the number of ethnic Bulgarians living there was second only to that in Istanbul. The 1905 census showed that out of 80,000 residents, only 30,000 were Muslims – including Turks, Albanians, Gypsies and Caucasians. The rest were Greeks, Bulgarians, Armenians and Jews. One century, two Balkan and two World Wars later things are different. Now many Edirne citizens will pick up at least a little Bulgarian, probably because the city is close to Bulgaria and cross-border shopping is de rigeur. Some pomatsi – a community that are the successors of Christian Bulgarians who converted to Islam during the Ottoman rule – who were resettled here from either southern Bulgaria or northern Greece after the First World War, still survive, and speak some Bulgarian. So do their offspring.
9. Health Museum
The dummies at the Health Museum in Kırkpınar tell a more peaceful story – of medicine and psychiatric treatment in the Ottoman Empire. Here you won't find European "healing techniques," like immersion in cold water, starvation or chains, which were popular until the 19th Century. Ottoman doctors followed Arabic psychiatric traditions and prescribed treatments including music, work and even floral aromas. The exhibit is in a very appropriate spot – the hospital and medical school opened by Sultan Bayezid II in 1488.
With its collapsed roof, the thick weeds that do more to keep out trespassers than the fence, the "Keep out!" sign and the padlock on the door, the Edirne synagogue looks like something out of a Caspar David Friedrich painting or a spooky movie. When Edirne's Jews built it in 1906, it was the largest synagogue in the Balkans. The local Jewish community had lived in Edirne since the time of the Roman Empire. In fact, it was Edirne's Rabbi Yitzhak Sarfati, at the beginning of the 15th Century, who called upon his fellow Jews in Christian Europe "to seek safety and prosperity in Turkey." At that time Spain and Portugal had already expelled Sephardic Jews and anti-Semitism was gaining ground.
Jews lived in the Ottoman Empire undisturbed, and Turkey's neutrality during the Second World War saved them from the Holocaust. The dream of Israel, however, was too powerful to resist. During the second half of the 20th Century most Jews left Turkey, and Edirne was no exception. The only traces left of the city's Jewish quarter are the name and the synagogue. The synagogue functioned until the 1970s, but a storm in 1997 destroyed the roof and three of its walls. It still stands now, in a state of magnificent dereliction, a voiceless witness to Edirne's turbulent history.
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