If you like former capital cities of the Ottoman Empire, you’ve probably been to Istanbul. Perhaps when you were there, though, you didn’t realize that there were several others that you could visit. I recently had a chance to go back to two of my favorites, Iznik and Edirne. Both can be reached in a few hours from Istanbul, though it took the Ottoman armies more than a century to make the trip. Better yet, while they offer much of the same spectacular architecture as Istanbul, both have a sleepy, ramshackle quality that I’ve always imagined to be the defining feature of all of the 19th-century Balkan and Anatolian towns I’ve never visited.
A tour of two former Ottoman capitals
First was a day trip to Edirne, where I was excited to relive old memories and visit some remarkable local museums that I’d missed when I’d visited several years before. Northwest of Istanbul, on the border with Greece and Bulgaria, Edirne is famous in Turkey for its fruit soap, brooms, fried liver, oil wrestling and gypsies.
The fruit soap looks shockingly like fruit. It comes in every variety imaginable, from apples to garlic, and has also been known to produce an allergic reaction among friends of mine who’ve received it as a souvenir. The small brooms, decorated with blue ribbon and mirrors, historically symbolize the virtuosity of the local women. The fried liver tastes amazing, with sumac-flavored onions, tomatoes or fried peppers, and can be found at any of the city’s many cigercis, or liver restaurants. The oil wrestling, alas, lasts only three days in early summer, when the city is so crowded with spectators that I’ve never been able to reserve a hotel room. It is by all accounts a significantly more legitimate athletic spectacle than you would expect from shirtless men doused in olive oil. The city’s gypsies, though not as famous as in neighboring Kesan, have nonetheless produced musicians such as Edirneli Deli Selim (the mad gypsy from Edirne), whose music is readily available in CD shops around the city.
I began my visit at the stunning Selimiye mosque complex, which dominates the city’s skyline. Edirne was the third and final Ottoman capital for almost a century before the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul in 1453. It subsequently became a relaxation spot for the royal family, which had the mosque built in the 16th century. Selimiye’s architect, Mimar Sinan, had already designed some of Istanbul’s most impressive mosques but considered this his masterpiece. Which is to say that, coming from Istanbul, it’s easy to be jaded about stunning Mimar Sinan mosques, so I continued on to the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Works and Arts.
Housed in the mosque’s former school, the museum is a modest affair with some nice examples of Islamic calligraphy and woodworking, and with a courtyard full of beautifully carved tombstones and portraits (not to mention plastic mannequins) of famous oil wrestlers. On this visit, I observed the mixed results of recent renovations. The life-size replica of a loaf of “broom bread” (made from floor sweepings during the last Bulgarian siege of 1912-13) was gone, as was the genial but troublingly anti-Semitic tour guide I’d had on both previous visits.