Escape to Edirne
‘And why do you go to Edirne?’ Yavuz, our Istanbul hostel receptionist, asked us in bewilderment. ‘There is nothing in Edirne. There is one mosque and nothing else.’ He recommended that we travel to Cappadocia instead, enthusiastically promoting the area’s beauty and the wealth of sight-seeing activity it offered. Brendan and I had agreed to take a short trip out of Istanbul, and other places like Gallipoli and Ephesus were considered. Edirne, however, was a relatively convenient (and short) trip from the heartland of Turkish tourism and the fact that it was the Ottoman capital prior to the conquest of Constantinople made a visit to it – to me, at least – quite appealing. Most, if not all, other tourists we met during our time in Istanbul were unaware of Edirne’s existence. A few would nod in acknowledgement when I referred to Edirne using its former name, ‘Adrianople’. Having spent an academic year studying Ottoman history, I was a little surprised at the former Ottoman capital’s relative obscurity. We decided to stick to our original plan in the end, hopping onto a bus at the bus station (‘otogar’) and taking a two-and-a-half hour
ride to Edirne, located west of Istanbul, very close to both Bulgarian and Greek borders.
We were taken aback at the heat and dryness of the place as we alighted in Edirne. The lack of tourists in our bus and at the Edirne otogar foreshadowed our experience in the city itself. We did not come across a single Chinese-looking tourist in our two days there and if there were other tourists (it is difficult to tell with the racial makeup of Turkey’s population), their presence was far from obvious to us. Even the guests in our hotel seemed to be locals! We were certainly aware that Edirne was not the number one tourist spot in Turkey but the both of us were utterly surprised that the historical sites and proximity to Istanbul were not successful in attracting more foreigners to visit the place. As I footed the bill at a particular kebap shop, Brendan told me that a waiter flipped through my Lonely Planet guide and when he saw my bookmark at the ‘Edirne’ page, he shrugged his shoulders, as if wondering why we would visit a place like this. Walking along the streets, it
was common for locals to aim curious stares at us. A few would fix their gazes on us for a lengthy period of time. Brendan noticed an elderly lady in a mosque’s courtyard whose eyes constantly followed us, her head turning in any direction we walked. On the bus back to Istanbul, two children were seated across the aisle and when they first noticed us, looked at us in wide-eyed curiosity, as if we were newly-introduced animals in a zoo enclosure. In retrospect, the lack of familiarity and linguistic comfort were to make my visit to Edirne more special and pleasurable.
Accompanying this was a contrasting dearth of ‘slimy-ness’ and the pleasing absence of a mercenary atmosphere, traits we had become quite accustomed to during our time in Istanbul. It was indubitably a favourable change of atmosphere for us. I may go so far to say that while in Edirne, we were foreigners, aliens perhaps, but not tourists. No one attempted to sell us anything we didn’t want and there was no pressure to enter any particular lokanta, the Turkish version of a canteen, or ciğerci, which served the local speciality:
deep-fried chicken liver eaten with dried chillies. The friendliness we received as foreigners was consistent and because of that, always appeared genuine. A Kurdic man we passed on the way back from the Bayezid mosque complex even invited us to have tea with him in his abode. After Istanbul, it was strange to not hear a word of English during our stay in Edirne and my very limited Turkish came into good use. Almost everyone we interacted with, be it shopkeepers, waiters, or even passers-by we approached for directions, seemed to appreciate attempts to communicate with them in their local language. Sometimes, they would beam upon hearing you say something in Turkish and immediately proceed to speak to you as if you were actually fluent. Most of the time, it wThe locals we approached for directions were always willing to help (after initially being somewhat astonished by our presence) and although we were to experience a very palpable linguistic barrier between us and the local people, I’d say that touring the former Ottoman capital was a comfortable enough experience, and a very rewarding one indeed.
Edirne’s not one of the most obvious tourist destinations in Turkey and if I
The Greatest Ottoman Architect
hadn’t studied Ottoman history, we would definitely not have considered visiting it. Not wanting to go into too much detail, the main attractions offered include the Selimiye Mosque, the Eski Cami (‘Old Mosque’) as well as the Three-Balcony Mosque. The Selimiye Mosque was built by Mimar Sinan, undeniably the Ottoman Empire’s most famous architect, and was considered by the architect himself to be his finest work. The Eski Cami expectedly predates any mosque in Istanbul (with the exception of the Aya Sofya, which has stood for almost 1500 years but was only converted into a mosque in 1453) and it is possible to appreciate an amalgam of Ottoman and Seljuk influences on its architecture. A walk in a northward direction from the city centre will take you to Sarayici, the former hunting ground and palace of the Ottoman sultans, as well as to the stadium where Edirne’s annual oil-wrestling matches are held. Nearby the Sarayici is the Sultan Bayezid (II) Mosque Complex, built for one of the, in my opinion, more underrated Ottoman sultans who had the slight misfortune of being sandwiched between the more famous Fatih Mehmed Sultan (better known as ‘Mehmed the Conqueror’) and Selim I who was
responsible for the conquest of Mecca and Medina. A less scenic walk south of the city centre takes one to Turca Bridge. Across the bridge and around the area, there are several nice riverside cafes serving Turkish cuisine and one can savour a nice cup of tea (‘ςay’) or a glass of beer while watching the sunset.
On hindsight, our decision to resist the trip to Cappadocia was a right one and the two days we set aside to tour Edirne were very well-spent. My dear travel buddy, Brendan, initially claimed that, unlike me, he liked the presence of hordes of tourists, and this may have seemed preclude Edirne as a favourable destination for him. I was, of course, pleased to see him eventually retract his statement and credit must be given to him on two levels. Firstly, he had graciously agreed to my proposal of Edirne as our out-of-Istanbul destination. Secondly, his assertion that ‘if he (Yavuz) says that nobody goes to Edirne, we must go there’ helped to make resisting Cappadocia much easier. It was pleasing to know that he did not regret our sojourn in Edirne. I certainly did not!
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