Unlike Istanbul, which every conqueror and pretender within marching distance hoped to have as his capital, Thrace was the sort of counry that most warriors passed on through. The climate is harsh-sizzling in summer, bitter in winter -and the landscape unexceptional. For the modern visitor, however, there are some worthy sights, particularlay Edirne, the capital of the Ottoman Empire before the fall of Contantinople.
Edirne was founded in the 2nd AD century as Hadianopolis by Roman emperor Hadrian. It has been fought over by Bulgars, crusaders, Turks, Greeks, and Russians through the centruies, though once the Ottoman capital was moved to Istanbul, it became something of a picturesque backwater. Its rich collection of mosques and monuments is relatively unspoiled by the presence of concrete towers so prevalant in Turkey’s boomtowns. Its lanes are still cobbled and shaded by the ovefhanging balconies of traditional Ottoman wooden houses.
The bus and traing stations are on the outskirts of town, too far to walk to comfortably. Take a taxi into the center, asking for Hürriyet Meydanı. The sites within town can all be reached on foot.
Hürriyet Meydanı, the central square, should be your starting point. At its center stands the monument to Edirne’s great passion: Two enormous wrestlers steal the spotlight from the obligatory Atatürk statue. Just off the north side of the square is the Uc Serefeli Mosque, built betwen 1437 and 1477. The galleries circle the talles of the four minarets, which are notable for their fine brick inlay. On the mosque grounds is the 15th century Sokullu Hamam, built by Sinan and one of the country’s more elegant baths.
Walk east along Talat Paşa Street to the Eski Cami. The mosque is well named: Completed in 1414, it is the city’s oldest. The huge-scale calligraphy illustrating quotes from the Koran and naming the prophets is exceptional in its grace and intricacy. Adjoining is the Rustempasa Kervansaray, restored and reopened as a hotel, just as it was in the 16th century. Also alongside the mosque is the 14-domed Bedestan, and one block away on Talat Paşa Caddes, the Ali Paşa Bazaar. Both are more authentic than Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, as the wares sold here are meant for locas rather than tourists.
Follow Mimar Sinan Street to the Selimi Mosque. This, not Istanbul’s Suleymaniye, is the mosque Sinan described as his masterpiece, and it is certainly one of the most beautiful buildings in Turkey. It was completed in 1575, when the architect was 85 years old. The central dome, more than 100 feet in diameter and 148 feet high, rests on eight pillars, set into the walls so as not to disturb the interior space. External buttresses help support the weight of 999 windows; legend has it that Sultan Selim thought 1000 might be a bit greedy. The marble mimber is exquisitely carved, and the mihrab is set back in an apse adorned with exceptional Iznik tiles. The “medrese” (mosque compound) houses Edirne’s Turk-Islam Eserleri Müzesi, which displays Islamic calligraphy and photos of local wrestlers, as well as collections of weapons and jewelry from ancient Thrace, folk costumes, kilims, and fine embroidery.
The other great mosque in Edirne is on the outskirts of the icty across the Tunca(Tunç) river. The immense Beyazıt Cami complex is about a 20-minute walk from Hürriyet Meydanı via the fine-hewn, six-arched Beyazıt Brige, which dates from the 1480s, as does the mosque (you can also go via dolmuş from the square). The absence of pillars to support the mosque’s large dome is remarkable, as is the marble fretwork of the mihrab. The medrese includes two schools, a mentaş institution, a poorhouse, and soup kitchens, and all have been restored.
Another 20-minute walk farther upstream from the mosque brings you to Sarayiçi, the site of Edirne’s famous wrestling tournament. Edirne’s usually held in June, is the most famous of those held in villages throught the country; its burly, olive-oil-coated men have been facing off every year here for more than 600 years. Thousands of spectators turn out.