More than just the quintessential border town, EDIRNE – 230km northwest of İstanbul – is one of the best-preserved Ottoman cities and makes an impressive, easily digestible introduction to Turkey. It’s a lively, attractive place of almost 140,000 people, occupying a rise overlooking the mingling of the Tunca, Arda and Meriç rivers, very near the Greek and Bulgarian frontiers. The life of the place is derived from day-tripping foreign shoppers, discerning tourists and students from the University of Thrace. Downtown, teeming bazaars and elegant domestic architecture vie for attention with a clutch of striking Ottoman monuments. The best of these, crowning the town’s central hillock and sufficient reason alone for a visit, is the Selimiye Camii, masterpiece of the imperial architect Mimar Sinan.
One of Turkey’s finest mosques, the Selimiye Camii was designed by the 80-year-old Mimar Sinan in 1569 at the command of Selim II. The work of a confident craftsman at the height of his powers, it’s visible from some distance away on the Thracian plain.
You can approach the Selimiye across the central park, Dilaver Bey, then through the Kavaflar Arasta (Cobbler’s Arcade), built by Sinan’s pupil Davut and still used as a covered market, full of household goods and cheap clothing; every day, under the market’s prayer dome, the shopkeepers promise to conduct their business honestly. The mosque courtyard, approached from the arasta up a flight of stone steps, is surrounded by a colonnaded portico with arches in alternating red and white stone, ancient columns and domes of varying size above the arcades. Its delicately fashioned şadırvan (ablutions fountain) is the finest in the city. Each of the four identical, slender minarets has three balconies – Sinan’s nod to his predecessors – and, at 71m, are the second tallest in the world after those in Mecca. The detailed carved portal once graced the Ulu Cami in Birgi and was transported here in pieces, then reassembled.
But it is the celestial interior, specifically the dome, which impresses most. Planned expressly to surpass that of Aya Sofya in İstanbul, it manages this – at 31.5m in diameter – by a bare few centimetres, thus achieving Sinan’s lifetime ambition. Held aloft by eight mammoth but surprisingly unobtrusive twelve-sided pillars, the cupola floats 44m above the floor, covered in calligraphy proclaiming the glory of Allah. Immediately below the dome the muezzin’s platform, supported on twelve columns, is an ideal place from which to contemplate the proportions of the mosque. The water of the small marble drinking fountain beneath symbolizes life, under the dome of eternity. The most ornate stone carving is reserved for the mihrab and mimber, backed by fine İznik faïence illuminated by sunlight streaming in through the many windows allowed by the pillar support scheme.
There has always been a settlement of some kind at this strategic point and its military importance has destined it to be captured – and sometimes sacked for good measure – repeatedly over the centuries. Thracian Uscudama became Hellenistic Oresteia, but the city really entered history as Hadrianopolis, designated the capital of Roman Thrace by Emperor Hadrian. Under the Byzantines it retained its significance, not least as a forward base en route to the Balkans – or, more ominously from the Byzantine point of view, first stop on the way to attempts on the imperial capital itself. Unsuccessful besiegers of Constantinople habitually vented their frustration on Hadrianopolis as they retreated, and a handful of emperors met their end here in pitched battles with Thracian “barbarians” of one sort or another.
In 1361 Hadrianopolis surrendered to the besieging Murat I and the provisional Ottoman capital was effectively transferred here from Bursa. A century later, Mehmet the Conqueror trained his troops and tested his artillery here in preparation for the march on Constantinople; indeed the Ottoman court was not completely moved to the Bosphorus until 1458. Because of its excellent opportunities for hunting and falconry, Edirne, as the Turks renamed it, remained a favourite haunt of numerous sultans for three more centuries, earning the title Der-I Saadet or “Gate of Contentment” – during which there were enough victory celebrations, circumcision ceremonies and marriages to rival Constantinople.
Decline set in after a 1751 earthquake, while during each of the Russo-Turkish wars of 1829 and 1878–1879 the city was occupied and pillaged by Tsarist troops. Worse followed, when the Bulgarians (with Serbian aid) besieged Odrin – as they called, and still call, the city – for 143 days from November 3, 1912 before taking it, thus ending the First Balkan War. The Greeks, as one of the victorious World War I Allies, annexed “Adrianópoli” along with the rest of Turkish Thrace from 1920 to 1922 and Turkish sovereignty over the city was only confirmed by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. Bulgarian, Latin Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches remain, along with elegant houses and a ruined synagogue in the former Jewish quarter, as evidence of the pre-1912, multicultural city which was half Greek, Bulgarian, Armenian and Jewish.
You can tour Edirne’s main sights on foot, but as the Ottoman monuments are widely scattered you’ll need a full day to do it. Many lie to the north and west of town, deliberately rusticated by the early sultans to provide a nucleus for future suburbs. Because of the depopulation suffered by the city since the 1700s, urban growth never caught up with some of them, which have a rather forlorn atmosphere. Still, if the weather’s fine, walking there is a pleasure, especially since you’ll follow the willow-shaded banks of the Tunca River for some distance. Public transport doesn’t serve the more far-flung sites, so your own wheels or a taxi are the other options.