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Thrace (Trakya in Turkish), the historic territory bounded by the rivers Danube and Nestos and the Aegean, Marmara and Black seas, is today divided roughly equally among Turkey, Greece and Bulgaria. In ancient times it was home to warlike tribes, whose bizarre religions and unruly habits presented a continual headache for rulers bent on subduing them. Contemporary life is decidedly less colourful. Until the late 1960s, nearly all of Thrace was a military security zone, off-limits to foreigners. Most of the area is now unrestricted, though the towns remain heavily garrisoned.
The flatter terrain of southern Thrace has long since been denuded of trees, while much of the coast has fallen prey to estates of concrete holiday homes – seasonal barbecue pads for İstanbul’s workers. Inland is staunchly agricultural; in summer a sea of yellow sunflowers, grown for oil, spreads for many kilometres. Further west, in the wetter lands around Üzünköprü, rice is predominant; to the north, the rolling Istranca hills with their dense forests of oak and conifers hide itinerant charcoal burners and myriad fish farms raising rainbow trout. Across the whole region opencast mines extract sand and gravel from the prehistoric sea bed.
The E80 motorway from İstanbul to the main Thracian town of Edirne runs parallel to the route of the Roman and Byzantine Via Egnatia, which later became the medieval route to the Ottoman holdings in Europe, and is now the D100 highway. Many towns along this road began life as Roman staging posts, a role continued under the Ottomans who endowed each with a civic monument or two. Few spots have much to detain you, though keep an eye out for fine old bridges, which like the road itself may be Ottoman reworkings of Roman or Byzantine originals. The best of these is the quadruple Büyükçekmece span, crossing the neck of an estuary west of İstanbul and built by the great architect Mimar Sinan in 1563.
More than just the quintessential border town, EDİRNE – 230km northwest of İstanbul – is one of the best-preserved Ottoman cities, and makes an impressive, easily digestible introduction to Turkey. A lively, attractive place of almost 140,000 people, it occupies a rise overlooking the mingling of the Tunca, Arda and Meriç rivers, very near the Greek and Bulgarian frontiers. Its life derives 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.
To explore all Edirne’s main sights on foot, you’ll need a full day. Many of its Ottoman monuments lie north and west of town, deliberately rusticated by the early sultans to provide a nucleus for future suburbs. Because of depopulation 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.
The strategic point now occupied by Edirne has always held a settlement of some kind, destined to be repeatedly captured – and sometimes sacked for good measure – 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, after Hadrianopolis surrendered to the besieging Murat I, 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 sultans for three more centuries, earning the title Der-I Saadet or “Gate of Contentment” – during which it saw enough victory celebrations, circumcision ceremonies and marriages to rival Constantinople.
Decline set in after a 1751 earthquake, while Tsarist troops occupied and pillaged the city during each of the Russo-Turkish wars of 1829 and 1878–79. 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, of which half the population was Turkish, and the remainder Greek, Bulgarian, Armenian and Jewish.
Oil-wrestling (yağlı güreş) is popular throughout Turkey, but reaches the pinnacle of acclaim at the doyenne of tournaments, the three-day annual Kırkpınar festival, staged early each summer on Sarayiçi islet outside Edirne (wkirkpinar.com or wturkishwrestling.com). The preferred date is the first week of July, but the event is moved back into June if it conflicts with Ramadan or either of the two major bayrams that follow it.
The wrestling matches have been held annually, except during war or Edirne’s occupation, for over six centuries. Despite the less than atmospheric environment of the modern stadium where it now takes place, tradition still permeates the event. The contestants – up to a thousand – dress only in leather knickers called kisbet and are slicked down head-to-toe in diluted olive oil. Wrestlers are classed by height and ability, not by weight, from toddlers up to the pehlivan (full-size) category. Warm-up exercises, the peşrev, are highly stereotyped and accompanied by the davul (deep-toned drum) and zurna (single-reed Islamic oboe). The competitors and the actual matches are solemnly introduced by the cazgır (master of ceremonies), usually a former champion.
Several bouts take place simultaneously. Each lasts anything from a few minutes to nearly an hour, until one competitor collapses or has his back pinned to the grass. Referees keep a lookout for the limited number of illegal moves or holds, and victors advance more or less immediately to the next round until only the başpehlivan (champion) remains. Despite the small prize purse donated by the Kırkpınar ağaları – the local worthies who put on the whole show – a champion should derive ample benefit from appearance and endorsement fees, plus the furious on- and off-site betting. Gladiators tend mainly to be villagers from across Turkey who have won regional titles, starry-eyed with the prospect of fame and escape from the rut of rural poverty.
In addition to providing the music of the peşrev, the local Romany population descends in force during Kırkpınar, setting up a combination circus-carnival on the outskirts of town. They also observe the ancient pan-Balkan spring festival (Hıdırellez) in the fields around the stadium during the first week of May. The Romany King lights a bonfire on the evening of May 5, a torch relays the flame to other nearby bonfires, and a dish of meat and rice is given to the gathered picnickers. The next morning, young Romany girls are paraded through the streets on horseback around the Muradiye Camii (focus of a Romany mahalle) to the accompaniment of davul and zurna, wearing their own or their mothers’ wedding dresses.
Designed by the eighty-year-old Mimar Sinan in 1569, at the command of Selim II, the masterly Selimiye Camii is one of Turkey’s finest mosques. 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, souvenirs and cheap clothing. Every day, beneath 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. In a nod to his predecessors, Sinan gave each of the four identical, slender minarets three balconies. At 71m, they’re 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.
It’s the celestial interior, however, and specifically the dome, which impresses most (no photos). Planned expressly to surpass that of Aya Sofya in İstanbul, it succeeds, 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.