We had just passed the border and were still twenty kilometers from our destination, but as the Orient Express neared Edirne, the Selemiyi mosque with its floodlit dome and 70 meter high minarets, shone like a beacon into the night sky.

This was as it was meant to be. The mosque – biggest in the Ottoman Empire; greater even than Hagia Sofia in Istanbul – was supposed to wow European travelers into respectful obeisance – as if to say: Here is Turkey! Behold her might, all ye who enter. That was the message, at any rate.

Edirne sits on the westernmost fringe of European Turkey, bordering Bulgaria and Greece, at the mouth of the Maritsa valley, the perfect staging ground for military campaigns into the Balkans.  Though it is today  only a middling town of a hundred thousand inhabitants, it was once, briefly, the capital of the Ottoman Empire, and as such is full of regal mosques, bridges, medresas, caravanserais.

It was summer 2005, and I was in the midst of my Balkan fascination. After having  visited, Belgrade, Niš, Sofia and Plovdiv – all Balkan towns strung out along the Orient Express, my idea was to hit Edirne for a couple of days, before heading on to Istanbul, as the logical conclusion of my travels.

But at four in the morning the train door wouldn’t budge. I cursed as the train rolled on in the direction of Istanbul, mission unaccomplished.

***

For years Edirne was an itch I couldn’t scratch, the only city missing that would make sense of the whole Balkan puzzle in my mind.

As luck would have it, I was in Istanbul in 2011, teaching English to well-heeled businessmen, when one of my students invited me on a weekend excursion to Edirne.

Edirne is a kind of provincial get-away for claustrophobic Istanbulus. Judging from the proliferation of “34” license plates, the visitors from Istanbul were many. They had come up to visit Ottoman sights and sample local specialties like thinly sliced fried liver, drink alcohol and in general indulge in the famous Thracian hedonism. Gypsies were giving tours in horse-drawn wagons, replete with blasting Gypsy 9/8 rhythms; riverside restaurants advertised freshly caught catfish; and Atatürk’s visage was everywhere.

Number one on our tourist itinerary was of course, the Selimiye Mosque. It was created by “Ottoman Leonardo de Vinci” – Mimar Sinan – his masterpiece – at eighty years of age between 1569 and 1575 on the order of Sultan Selim II and financed with the spoils of war from the conquest of Cyprus in 1571. By then Edirne was no longer the capital of the Ottoman Empire – hadn’t been since Fatih Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror sacked Constantinople in 1453. So, it is generally not known why Sultan Selim II selected Edirne for such a magnificent mosque, accept to say that he had a special affinity for this well-watered boondocks with its famous hunting. 

Umut, my student, was a dyed-in-the-wool Kemalist, for whom Ottoman-era mosques meant above all museums, rather than places of living faith. Thinking it would be good for a laugh, he took a black prayer gown from a peg on the wall, put it on and posed for a photo. Outside the mosque we perused the tesbih – prayer beads – offered for sale by an old woman beside the entrance. “It’s good for the nerves,” said Umut as he selected a kuk nut wood model with thirty beads (proper religious tesbihs should have 33 beads). Later in the evening we went to a local restaurant and ate liver washed down by plenteous glasses of rakı. We were back in Istanbul by midnight. 

***

Okay, so I could say I had been to Edirne, but I hadn’t experienced it as a Muslim, and so I felt I had missed out on a lot of what Edirne had to offer.  So, this summer, upon hearing that a new Balkan Museum had opened up in an old Ottoman-era fortress from the Balkan Wars, I decided to spend a couple of days in the city, and even catch some of the oil wrestling that Edirne was famous for. 

In walking the streets of Edirne, sometimes I caught a whiff of other Balkan cities, imagining  I was in Plovdiv, Sophia or Niš – or even Belgrade. One neighborhood full of cobbled streets and kafanas even put me in mind of Belgrade’s hedonistic Skadarlija neighborhood.

Unmistakably there was the feeling of being in a Turkish town. There were the same rickety streets, uneven pavements, chaotic shopfronts, fallen-in old köşk wooden houses – things which made for a welcome change from the all-to-orderly Berlin, where I was coming from. Mornings the ezan woke you from sleep and roosters crowed the dawn. Everywhere men sat in çay bahçeleri – tea gardens – on low wood stools drinking tea to the clatter of rumikub.

***

Edirne’s history goes way back. The city is said to be the birthplace of Thracian civilization. In the second century AD, Roman Emperor, Hadrian made the town a city, christening it Hadrianopolis. During the Byzantine period it was known as Adrianople, the third most important Byzantine city, after Constantinople and Thessalonica.

In 1361, the Turks conquered the city, extending its policy of istimâlet – or goodwill – to its inhabitants, who surrendered without a fight. Sultan Murad I endowed the city with the name Edirne, and in the course of time it became known variously as the “City of Borderlands” and “Gateway to Happiness”. Sitting on a slight incline overlooking the Thracian plains, its skies tilt towards the Balkans – Bulgaria, Macedonia, Serbia. 

Edirne has traditionally guarded strategic roads leading deep into the Balkans. At the confluence of three rivers, giving out on the Maritsa Valley, it was the capital of Rumelia Eyalet, eyalets – also known as beylerbeyliks – being  primary administrative divisions of the Ottoman Empire. Initially, Sultan Murad I instituted the grand division of his domains into two beylerbeyliks – Rumelia (the Balkans) and Anatolia to the southeast – around the year 1365. 

At the time that Edirne was the capital, the fledgling Ottoman Empire was on the rise, flexing its muscles, swelling in might, perpetually on the move, flying up verdant Balkan valleys, in a lush and luxuriant land that must have seemed like paradise to warriors weaned on the arid steppe. Sufi dervishes were sent into the Balkans in advance of  Ottoman armies, making converts and easing the path of empire. At this time the sultans fought at the forefront of their armies. They were gazis – semi-holy warriors of the faith, who brought Islam in tow wherever they went.

Continuously making forays westward and eastward, and caught up in a frightful momentum, the gazis were accustomed to living in tents, always on the move, and even kept the custom in peacetime in Edirne. This partially explains why there is no extant Ottoman palace in Edirne (there were two, not very magnificent ones, which were mainly destroyed by earthquakes).

There were a couple decisive Balkan battles. One was the battle of near Maritsa River in today’s Bulgaria in September 1371, when Serbian forces were trounced by the Turks decisively. 

The second was the long-shadowed battle at Kosovo Polje in which both Serbian and Turkish leaders were killed, and could have been a draw, or even a victory at great cost for the Serbs, but which the Turks won if only for the reason that their forces could be replenished with new blood, whereas the Serbs were clearly at the end of their tether, having lost their entire nobility in the battle.

Edirne was also the birthplace of Fatih Sultan Mehemet II, who embarked on his conquest of Constantinople in Edirne. The gigantic cannon that was so decisive in overcoming Byzantine defenses was cast in Edirne. Its originator liked to boast to Mehmet II that “the stone discharged from my cannon would reduce to dust not only those walls but even the walls of Babylon”.

***

All in all I spent three beautiful days in Edirne. I  could have conceivably staid longer. The mosques are a definite pull. Particularly appealing are the many fine examples of Ottoman architecture peppering the outskirts and immediate surroundings of Edirne – especially the many exquisite Ottoman bridges that lead nowhere, many existing in a state of neglect next to more modern roadways, and making for fine semi-urban, semi-rural strolls.

One thing that should be born in mind is that weekends the city is fairly overwhelmed by Bulgarians hopping across the border to do their shopping, thus making decently priced hotel rooms hard to come by. Turkey has just announced that Bulgarians needn’t present a passport at the border to Turkey, and so the cross-border traffic is bound to increase.

Edirne is a border town and as such it has the air of a kind of more high-culture Frankfurt and der Oder with its attending Polenmärkte and bargain hunting border-crossing day-trippers. Oddly, considering its sundry charms, Edirne has yet to be discovered by western tourists. And this is perhaps a good thing. 

“There is nothing beautiful in it,” wrote Giovanni Francesco Gemelli Careri about Edirne in 1693, “the houses being low, build of wood and clay, and some of brick, and streets so dirty, that a man must wear boots in winter; so that it looks more like a great village than a city.”

Edirne still is that kind of place today. And that is its charm: a city at part village, part seat of empire.