More than just the quintessential border town, EDIRNE – 230km northwest of Istanbul – is one of the best preserved Ottoman cities, and makes an impressive, easily digestible introduction to Turkey.
A lively, attractive place of almost 140,000 people, it occupies a rise overlooking the mingling of the Tunca, Arda and Meriç rivers, very near the Greek and Bulgarian frontiers. Its life derives from day-tripping foreign shoppers, discerning tourists and students from the University of Thrace. Downtown, teeming bazaars and elegant domestic architecture vie for attention with a clutch of striking Ottoman monuments. The best of these, crowning the town’s central hillock and sufficient reason alone for a visit, is the Selimiye Camii, masterpiece of the imperial architect Mimar Sinan.
To explore all Edirne’s main sights on foot, you’ll need a full day. Many of its Ottoman monuments lie north and west of town, deliberately rusticated by the early sultans to provide a nucleus for future suburbs. Because of depopulation since the 1700s, urban growth never caught up with some of them, which have a rather forlorn atmosphere. Still, if the weather’s fine, walking there is a pleasure, especially since you’ll follow the willow-shaded banks of the Tunca River for some distance.
The strategic point now occupied by Edirne has always held a settlement of some kind, destined to be repeatedly captured – and sometimes sacked for good measure – over the centuries. Thracian Uscudama became Hellenistic Oresteia, but the city really entered history as Hadrianopolis, designated the capital of Roman Thrace by Emperor Hadrian. Under the Byzantines it retained its significance, not least as a forward base en route to the Balkans – or, more ominously from the Byzantine point of view, first stop on the way to attempts on the imperial capital itself. Unsuccessful besiegers of Constantinople habitually vented their frustration on Hadrianopolis as they retreated, and a handful of emperors met their end here in pitched battles with Thracian “barbarians” of one sort or another.
In 1361, after Hadrianopolis surrendered to the besieging Murat I, the provisional Ottoman capital was effectively transferred here from Bursa. A century later, Mehmet the Conqueror trained his troops and tested his artillery here in preparation for the march on Constantinople; indeed, the Ottoman court was not completely moved to the Bosphorus until 1458. Because of its excellent opportunities for hunting and falconry, Edirne, as the Turks renamed it, remained a favourite haunt of sultans for three more centuries, earning the title Der-I Saadet or “Gate of Contentment” – during which it saw enough victory celebrations, circumcision ceremonies and marriages to rival Constantinople.
Decline set in after a 1751 earthquake, while Tsarist troops occupied and pillaged the city during each of the Russo-Turkish wars of 1829 and 1878–79. Worse followed, when the Bulgarians (with Serbian aid) besieged Odrin – as they called, and still call, the city – for 143 days from November 3, 1912 before taking it, thus ending the First Balkan War. The Greeks, as one of the victorious World War I Allies, annexed “Adrianópoli” along with the rest of Turkish Thrace from 1920 to 1922, and Turkish sovereignty over the city was only confirmed by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. Bulgarian, Latin Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches remain, along with elegant houses and a ruined synagogue in the former Jewish quarter, as evidence of the pre-1912, multicultural city, of which half the population was Turkish, and the remainder Greek.