Edirne is a city of around 140,000 people, most of whom work in agriculture. Crops cultivated in the area include corn, melons, and grapes. All the fields were fallow because of the winter season, but farming is inescapable once you step or drive outside of the city core. Rows of trees mark orchards and muddy flats stretch out for large distances, occasionally interrupting the city. Within the center of the city, however, most of the economic activity is in services, especially food and retail.
Though it existed as a Thracian settlement in early antiquity, the first major settlement activity in the area came with the expansion of those villages by the Roman emperor Hadrian, who named the resulting city after himself: Hadrianopolis. This later derived the Greek name of the city, Adrianople. Edirne is the Turkish adaptation of Adrianople. One year after being conquered by the Ottomans in 1362, it became the imperial capital, which it would remain until the fall of Constantinople––modern Istanbul––in 1453. Because of this heritage, the city hosts a bounty of impressive architecture.
Despite that ancient pedigree, however, most of the city appears to have been built within the last half a century or less. Digging into the ground reveals Roman stone work, most of which was covered in trash in the various construction and dig sites that are visible in the city.
The relative modernity of the rest of the city, excluding a few major sites, can be explained both by the frequency of geological activity in the area and the devastation wrought by the Balkan Wars and World War I in the 1910s. The city’s population fell from about 300,000 to less than 35,000, meaning that it has been mostly rebuilt since then, albeit on a smaller scale. This is a marked difference from much of Western Turkey, which is caught in the throes of capitalist expansion. At the time of its destruction, the city hosted large Jewish and Christian minorities, both of which fled or were driven out throughout the twentieth century.
Early Ottoman architecture dominates the skyline, especially the mosques. Two of them, the Old Mosque and the Selime Mosque, are pictured below. The former was a smaller complex that nonetheless demonstrated elegant, recently restored calligraphy and art on the walls. In keeping with normative Islamic style, the walls were bare of any human or animal representation, instead presenting an impressive display of geometrical swirls, floral motifs, and the aforementioned calligraphy. Entering the Selimiye was a journey in itself, requiring a walk through a cramped covered market and stark marble courtyard, both of which are part of the mosque complex. According to our professor and our guide, the mosque served not only as a sacred space but also as a place for daily intercourse, including commercial transactions. That idea is certainly foreign to the Christian tradition, but considering the level of public investment in their construction, it makes sense that they would become focal points for city life. Selimiye is also notable in that its architect was the famed Mimar Sinan (1490-1588), royal architect to Suleyman the Magnificent and his two successors. He also helped design the Taj Mahal in India, though that has no relevance to this trip.
All of this architecture mixed in the most eclectic way. Each mode of transportation we used––walking and taking a tour bus––revealed different perspectives on the bewildering variety of buildings, from wood structures to modern block constructions. Walking through Edirne’s commercial district on the weekend can be confusing even if the crowds are not quite claustrophobic. Riding the bus makes the city feel both much smaller, especially the narrow alleyways, and more expansive, since we had more access to the periphery of the city, including an Ottoman-era medical complex discussed below.
Sultan Bayezid II Health Museum:
In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Ottoman medicine was far more advanced and elaborate than contemporary European practices, the result of a long legacy of Muslim enlightenment in medical practices. The health museum showed an old mental hospital, a place where about 34 patients at once were nursed back to health through musical therapy and relaxation while students and doctors sharpened their skills in the adjoining medical academy.
in addition to preserving the buildings themselves, the museum also hosted some exhibits on the nature of Ottoman medicine, including these lovely depictions of Ottoman surgical techniques in the treatment of gynecological and urological diseases.
We also saw a pillar memorializing the Balkan Wars, whose memory is particularly sharp and evident in Edirne. Especially because there is a palace complex that was destroyed in those wars just across the road.
Epilogue: Stray Cats
One of the most marked differences between Edirne and American cities is that stray cats and dogs are allowed free reign in the city, at least apparently. You could find stray animals lounging about around every corner. I found cats on pop machines, dogs lying in the park, etc.