Edirne, A City Of Mosques

In 1453, the twenty one year old Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II left home with two hundred thousand men and three hundred ships. A few months later, he had conquered Istanbul, brought down the last vestiges of the Byzantine Roman empire, and begun the final ascension of Ottoman power. Istanbul was made the new capital, the Bospherous would never again change hands.
But what of the city that Mehmed left behind? Today, Edirne is a thriving border city of one hundred forty thousand people, with tons of energy and lots to do. But once it was the capital and cradle of the Ottomans, nurturing the future Sultans and serving as the center of a burgeoning empire. Some of the finest mosques in Turkey survive from that time, including one that ranks among the greatest in the world.There is a high concentration of mosques within a small area near the city center, all built within a span of two centuries. The middle mosque in the timeline is probably the least-used, but is still extremely interesting. Called the Üç Şerefeli mosque, or the mosque of "three balconies," the temple has a number of compelling architectural details. One of them is the partially covered courtyard, which became a feature of many later Turkish designs. Built in the middle of the fifteenth century, its appearance represents a transitional period - Üç Şerefeli was the last grand project before the capture of Istanbul. As the Ottoman empire grew, their mosques became more distinctive, the style solidified.
Inside, the space feels more contemporary than it is, thanks in part to a six walled support system for the massive dome. Unlike previous mosques, which featured square rooms with necessarily smaller domes, Üç Şerefeli is more open and feels spacious. The frescoed ceiling is among our favorites, the place has almost no visitors.
Most intriguing to the casual visitor, probably, are the four minarets. Not one of them is like the others, and the tallest one has the three balconies which give the mosque its name.
When Üç Şerefeli was built, Edirne was asserting itself in the region. This was the final stage of the conflict between the Ottomans and the Byzantine Romans that had been simmering for two and half centuries. As the Christian influence in the eastern Mediterranean region was diminishing and the Ottomans were gaining power, the construction of symbolically massive religious buildings became an obsession.
The Eski Camii, or "Old Mosque," was the original grand religious building in Edirne. Built at the beginning of the 15th century, it has a much lower, multi-domed design that's typical of large pre-classical buildings like it.
We were never quite able to go in. The interior is supposed to be wonderful, but we've been dissuaded by constant funerals. It's a very functioning place, it seems. From the minarets, the loudest call to prayer booms out over the city. The row of foot-washing stations outside is particularly long, there are always people performing wuḍhu before their prayers.
By 1566, not much more than a century after Mehmed took Istanbul, the Ottoman empire had become bloated and the sultanate was decaying. That year, Selim II took the throne, which some historians believe was the beginning of the empire's decline. Known as "Selim Mest," or "Selim the Drunkard," he was famous for his debauchery and excess. In 1569, as part of a grand-works spree that nearly bankrupted the country, he commissioned the Selimiye Mosque in the old capital.
Luckily for the city's skyline, Selim hired the famous architect Mimar Sinan to design it, and gave him unlimited funds to build a masterpiece. Here it is at sunrise, flanked by its four minarets - each two hundred and seventy feet tall.
The amazing thing about Selimiye is how many windows there are beneath such a huge dome. Wider even than the Aya Sofia's, in Istanbul, Selimiye's central roof soars to one hundred forty feet, and is seemingly held up by nothing at all.
The secret to the openness and size of the place are a series of setback pillars that bear most of the weight while remaining unobtrusive. During the day, the carpets and corners are awash in natural light from all the windows. The dome is so well designed that it withstood Bulgarian artillery shelling during the first world war with only minor damage.
It is difficult to describe exactly how ornate the interior is. There are so many layers of frescos that it's impossible to take them in all at once. Sinan's stroke of genius here was to allow so much openness that the dome is visible, almost whole, from everywhere in the building. It takes a while for the eye to travel outward, finding the secondary alcoves and the undersides of the archways. The gaze is continually drawn up and inward; patterns rearrange themselves from different vantage points. It's a magical building, one of the heights of Ottoman classical architecture. A few tourists circled in awe, men knelt for prayer in distant corners.
Wonderfully, Edirne still feels like a city that was left behind - not by its colorful residents, and not in a mournful way, but like a childhood home. The history and life of the place are still there, maybe more vibrantly than ever. Un-preoccupied by the ongoing course of life, it feels like a time warp - the city that was capital and home to sultans, still waiting for Mehmed, its hero, to come home.
From the rooftops the city looks especially proud and unchanged. The jutting minarets are monuments to that bright moment in the history of its people, when they were setting out to take on the world.
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