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New Europe

Day Thirty-eight: Edirne

Michael Palin - New EuropeMy bedroom at the idiosyncratic Hotel Efe continues the cosy, but culturally confusing, Agatha Christie theme with some bakelite fittings, dodgy wiring and lovely old glass lampshades. I leave it early, and rather reluctantly, to explore the city with Selen Korkut, our translator, whose family comes from this most westerly part of Turkey.

We're drawn first, and quite naturally, to the crowning glory of the city, the Selimiye Cami mosque, designed by Mimar Sinan when he was in his eighties. It is considered to be the finest work of the finest architect the Ottoman empire ever produced.

Built like a small mountain range, it has eighteen subsidiary domes clustering around a single spectacular cupola with the whole complex marked at each corner by graceful sandstone minarets, which at 232 feet are the tallest outside Mecca. There is a chain low across the arched gate of the mosque, designed to make sure that one enters with bowed head, but once inside the central prayer hall our heads go up again, in sheer wonder at the immense scale of the place. Eight sturdy supporting columns raise a dome 103 feet across and 144 feet high, with no central support at all. The genius of the architect is to make this colossal weight of stone look light and airy, hovering above us as if suspended from the heavens, rather than raised above the earth. It's by no means an exclusively Islamic statement. In shape and style it owes much to the great Byzantine church of Aya Sofya in Istanbul, built almost ten centuries earlier, and though the Ottomans came originally from Anatolia in the east, Sinan was a military architect who had travelled all over Europe and must have seen Renaissance masterpieces like Brunelleschi's dome in Florence.

Nevertheless prayer here, with two thousand others around you, must be a powerful experience for a Muslim worshipper. I ask Selen, very much a modern Turkish woman, if she goes regularly to the mosque. She shakes her head. Prayers can only be spoken in Arabic, never in any other language, so if she wants to pray she would have to learn the Koran. And there was me assuming, stupidly, that Arabic and Turkish were somehow the same thing.

The reason the city is so richly endowed with fine buildings is that for forty-five years before the fall of Constantinople, Edirne was the capital of the Ottoman empire.

It has three other great Ottoman mosques, down the hill and less dominant than the Selimiye Cami. Eski Cami, the Old Mosque, is square in shape with nine domes, and on one of its outer walls the words 'Allah' and 'Mohammed' are spelled out in giant calligraphics. It was built between 1403 and 1414 as the Islamic armies of Sultan Mehmet II were beginning to encircle Constantinople, slowly squeezing the life out of the Christian empire that had lasted there for over a thousand years. Across the road is the Üç Serefeli Cami, the Mosque of Three Balconies, whose minarets are all different. One is plain fluted, and the others all decorated with red sandstone patterns, one in chevrons, another in diamonds, and one with red spirals, like a maypole, a marvellously fluent feat of masonry.

The architectural treasures of Edirne exude the confidence of conquerors.
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  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Thirty-eight: Edirne
  • Country/sea: Turkey
  • Place: Edirne
  • Book page no: 91

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