From Samothraki I took the ferry before dawn back to Alexandroupoli, arriving in brilliant, freezing sunshine. After 20 minutes, the bus to Orestiada turned inland into thick fog, passing through small towns among roads lined with white single-storey Thracian cottages topped with red-tiled rooves. At Orestiada I waited for half an hour in a grim formica-surfaced bus station peopled with old men in brown and old women in black, in separate groups at different tables. More fog on the road to Kastanies, the last town in Greece, in the European Union; after the last kaffenion and pizza place, the border post. Schengen this was not: a ten-minute walk on a tight road, no pavements, between tall wire fences with signs announcing that this was a restricted zone; then a pair of Greek border guards wielding machine guns, and a similar pair of Turks. There was a moment of bureaucratic confusion when it emerged that I was carrying euros; Brits have to pay sterling, so after a clarificatory phone call to head office I had to be admitted to Turkey as an Australian.
A ten-minute taxi ride across cobbles to Edirne, where the minarets vanished skywards in the fog. My hotel, the Tasodalar, was directly across from the largest mosque in Turkey, the Sulemeiye Cami; I had a bay window which framed its magnificently floodlit bulk:
Edirne is older than Islam, though, older than the Christianisation of Rome, indeed even older, in some form, than the Roman emperor who founded it, and for whom it is named (in Greek, Hadrianopolis); on the European approaches to Constantinople/Istanbul, it has been called the most contested spot on the globe, with dozens of major battles fought nearby, from the time of Constantine to the 20th century. All that remains of the pre-Islamic city is one defensive tower and a few ruined walls of Roman buildings:
The Ottoman old town seems nearly as dilapidated, with dozens of beautiful wooden houses clearly in the process of collapse, some reduced to facades, though some (like this one) still functioning:
The synagogue is collapsing too, though faster and farther:
Yet there remain vital structures like Semez Ali Pasha bazaar, grander of the two Ottoman covered markets in Edirne:
Three hundred years ago, this was Europe’s fourth city, but now the Jews are gone, along with the Christians. What remains, though, are the three great mosques. I’ve already mentioned Selimiye, the ranking one in the guidebooks; but the other two did more for me. First was Eski Cami, dating from the early fifteenth century, the days before the long-plotted fall of Constantinople (ees teen pol – the city) when Edirne was the Ottoman capital-in-waiting. Squat and richly solid is the first impression – even warm and cosy in the pouring January rain – but dominated by the fecund calligraphy of the giant wall inscriptions:
Look at that ball of flaming microbial life away up on the angle of the right-hand arch! The rising eye doesn’t take long to notice the incredibly variegated and intricate designs of the angles and ceiling niches, like this one, say:
And at the top of it all is this:
Knocked out by that, I was expecting little from the second mosque, Üç Şerefeli Cami, completed in 1447 – but it turned out to be the best of all, even if its entrance stipulations owed a little to inflamed imaginations (see bottom right) about who might try to gain access:
The courtyard (here in the rain) struck, it seemed deliberately, a balance between intimacy and grandeur:
Inside is an internally curved space of incredible sophistication and comfort, yet with every detail of every niche and corner independently thought out. Somehow, although the grand public space requires that you can’t hide – you can hide. And that’s just the area plan and the three-dimensional space, before you even you get to the intricacies of the ceilings and their supporting niches. When you do, what can you say about this?
I was expecting even more from the Selimiye Camii, designed over a century after the other two, when, after Constantinople – Byzantium – had become Istanbul, the Ottoman Empire was in its pomp. Designed by (so they say) the greatest of Ottoman architects, Mimar Sinan, it even has its own Wikipedia page. Impressive from outside, no question:
And yet, sorry, somehow it just didn’t do it for me. Too grand, too regular, too overstated – too much the formal performance of an Empire at its height. Without the aspirational energy of the earlier creations, it felt like an elaborately, gorgeously, intricately, pompously stuffed shirt (not that I could have done it…) Here, so you can judge for yourself, are some pictures: