Inside the Ottoman heartland: Glimpses of the glorious epoch

The outer view of Selimiye Mosque Complex in Edirne. (FPK Photo: Riyaz ul Khaliq)

Edirne (Turkey): An unusual sunny day and a trip to Edirne in northwest of Istanbul is more than medley of joy, excitement and sense of triumph.

On Sunday (April 22), we started our journey around 6:30, as the dawn broke in a semi-deluxe van. It’s around a 150-minute journey through beautiful gardens and nurseries on a six-lane highway akin to Pakistan’s motorway from Lahore to Islamabad.

Soon after exiting the Istanbul-Edirne toll post, I felt as if I was traveling in Kashmir: para-military personnel, known as the Janadarma (Gendarmerie) in Turkey, stopped the van and a cop came inside seeking identity cards. Don’t get surprised, Turkey is under emergency since July 20, 2016, following the failed coup, which left around 250 people killed at the hands of the now ousted Turkish army soldiers.

It took us twenty minutes to get clearance. We were given a reason for the identity check. “This place borders Europe and we’ve to keep check on the illegal immigrants who find this route easy to cross over,” one cop told us, commandingly.

By 9:45 am, a group of 30 students and dormitory staff from Istanbul Sabahattin Zaim University (IZU) had reached the 16th century marvel –the Selimiye Mosque complex.

The inside view of Selimiye Mosque Complex in Edirne. (FPK Photo: Abu Taher)

While briefing us about the place, Oktay KAYMAK – the dormitory staff member, said that Edirne was the third capital city of the Ottoman Empire from mid-14th century to mid-15th century, before the capital shifted to Constantinople, or present-day Istanbul. An agrarian society, latest census, done in 2014, shows us that the population ranges around 165,000.

“History has it that this has been the most contested lands in Ottoman Empire, given its borders with Europe,” KAYMAK informed. “The infrastructural marvel in Edirne grew under Ottomans. What we call the Classic Ottoman empire infrastructure is found here.”

The Ottoman Empire or Devlet-i-Osmaniya was a state that controlled much of south-eastern Europe, western Asia and northern Africa between the 14th and early 20th centuries. It is also known as the Turkish Empire or simply Turkey.

It had four capital cities including Söğüt – (c. 1299–1335); Bursa – (1335–1363); Edirne – (1363–1453) and Constantinople, the Istanbul. The Ottoman Empire was founded at the end of the 13th century in north-western Anatolia in the town of Söğüt which is famous as Bilecik Province today by the Oghuz Turkish tribal leader Osman-I.

History tells us that after 1354, the Ottomans crossed into Europe and with the conquest of the Balkans, the Ottoman Beylik was transformed into a trans-continental empire. The Ottomans ended the Byzantine Empire with the 1453 conquest of Constantinople, the present-day Istanbul, by Mehmet-the Conqueror.

The Selimiye Mosque complex was built by Ottoman Sultan Selim-II who named the four-minaret-bound Mosque after him. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2011.

Spread in a 190×230 square metre rectangular garden, the Mosque complex has four minarets – tallest in Turkey – of around 70-80-metre-high; three balconies and dome of around 30 diameter. It is built on 45×36 square metre space.

“The design of the structure was given by the reputed architect of 16th century, Mimar Sinan. He built the Selimiye complex in between 1569 and 1575,” the officer detailed. Next to the Mosque, the Sultan desired to have a Madrassa as well, and Sinan built not one, but two.

Later on, Murad-II, another Ottoman Sultan, built a market under the Mosque popular as Arasta and an elementary school by Devut Agha, another architect.

A view of Arasta market which runs under Selimiye Mosque in Edirne.  (FPK Photo: Abu Taher)

Like Selimiye Mosque complex, Arasta market decorated with shops flying Turkish national flag is buzzing with shoppers.

“This architectural marvel represents the peak of Ottoman architecture and dome-building tradition,” said Muhammad Ali, the manager of the trip.

Those who have visited Taj Mahal in India’s Agra will get a similar feeling here when they see the grand fountain of marble inside the main courtyard of the Mosque where the faithful perform ablution.

On the two sides, in the direction of Mecca, are two Madrassas — Darul Hadees, serves as Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum; and Darul Kurra, houses the Foundation Museum.

Inside the Mosque, one is fascinated with the huge space, state-of-art lighting and air control system and colour patterns, speaking volumes about the technical supremacy of the Ottomans.

There is, what people call the ‘godly’ stone, in the northern corner of the Selimiye complex. “It’s called the Lost Stone,” KAYMAK exclaimed. “When someone finds anything, they would go and leave it to the Lost Stone to find its owner.”

The mimber and mihrab are constructed of marble while Izmik tiles have been used to decorate the mihrab and Sultan’s lodge.

In the centre of the Mosque, a wooden lounge—sitting on 12 marble pillars—is situated for the Muezzin, to call for prayers. Below the lounge is an upside-down tulip designed motif.

“The local populace and visitors offer five times prayers here and a traditional Khutba on Fridays is also held,” said a local, accompanying a group of visitors.

Surprising to note for a Kashmiri was to find men and women together inside the Masjid, however, the females maintained distance, and were bound not to cross a line. One could find women sitting in groups in the Mosque listening to local tourist guides, who seemed enriched in Ottoman history, revealing the much-talked about story of Ottoman Sultans and their war-winning capacities.

The fountain constructed of marbles inside the courtyard of 15th centruy Mosque famous for its three different minarets built during the reign of Sultan Murad-II. (FPK Photo: Abu Taher)

While uniformed women stand guard inside the Mosque, a woman was busy cleaning the interiors.

“There remained many structural problems in the Mosque and that’s why it’s called ‘architect of apprentice’,” said one tour guide to a group of over 50 women who described architect Sinan as disciplined, hardworking solider and carpenter.

“At the time of the inaugural ceremony,” the guide recalled, “Sultan handed over keys to Sinan and bowed in front of him to show his respect for the marvel. You can see how developed Ottomans were! It’s in such a design that soot of lamps was collected above windows and used for ink. At times, 22000 lamps were lit in the Selimiye Mosque complex.”

Inside the Turkish and Islamic Arts museum, one can see life and times of Ottoman Empire. There’s a paradoxical view inside a small garden of this museum: it hosts tanks and the tombstones. A vivid reminder as how wars bring deaths.

Remains of the armoury used during the Ottoman era laying inside the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum at Selimiye Mosque Complex.  (FPK Photo: Abu Taher)

By 12 pm, we moved to a nearby café which runs under the trees. We were served traditional Turkish Tea. Through the alleys, akin to those in Old Srinagar in Kashmir, Turkish armed forces soldiers stand guard. “Beware!” reads a signboard.

A passerby stopped, saying: “Don’t worry guys, it’s a border region, and soldiers are always cautious.”

After a while, we walked to another grand Mosque complex, Eski (Old) Mosque, located in city centre—surrounded by a 14th century market – Bedestan – and a nearby food street.

“Historically,” explained an octogenarian local named Noorain, sitting on the warandah of the Mosque besides a grand inscription of Allah, “it’s a very important Mosque, built by Sultan Mehmet-I and thrown open in January 1414.”

Noticing my suiting, Noorain asked, whether I came from Pakistan. To his surprise, I just nodded, “No.”

It’s alright, he instantly reacted. “We’re Muslims and part of one Ummah,” he exclaimed, as I shrugged in a light-reddish-brown Junaid Jamshed Kameez-Salwar.

This Mosque, said KAYMAK, is considered holiest by people of every age. “The foundation was laid by Sultan Celebi and the work was resumed by his brother Musa Celebi and finished by Mehmet Celebi in 1414 January.”

The complex took time to complete because of the power struggle amongst the three brothers, Noorain informed.

The similar feature of the Mosques is a long leather-made mantle hanging at their front doors in green colour.

An Inside view of Eski (Old) Mosque in Edirne with big Quranic inscriptions on its walls.  (FPK Photo: Abu Taher)

Eski Mosque has nine domes and two minarets and was designed and constructed by architect Hari Aladdin who was assisted by Omer Bin Ibrahim.

“Sultan Murad-II continued the construction of this Mosque in between 1421 and 1448 AD during which he constructed minarets and 2 balconies,” KAYMAK said. In 1612, a lodge for women was also constructed by Filipeli Ramzan Aga while Sultan Lodge was built in 1763 by Mustafa-III. “In 1781 a marble fountain was constructed which gives hot drinks in winter and cold drinks in summers,” he informed.

Noorain said that a small black stone, Stone of Rukun-e-Yemain, lays at the wall of a window near the mimber.

“It’s a memory of the Holy Ka’ba,” he says. “Broken from the right wall of holy Ka’ba, it was put here when the Mosque was built.”

The most interesting thing about the Mosque is its historical relation with the wars fought by Ottomans.

“The announcements were made from this Mosque and there is a tradition, which still survives, that the Imam gives Friday sermon with a sword in his hand,” Noorain said.

The main entrance of the Mosque usually witnesses a huge rush and Noorain explains, “It’s also called Heaven’s Valley — a place of the holy stone. It’s believed that all wishes and prayers are accepted here, and that’s why you’ll see those not entering the Mosque make wishes outside here.”

Nearby is Bedestan – the 15th century market and it’s bustling with the rush of shoppers. One can see huge mounds of wool as Turks love clothes crafted out of wools.

There’s another Mosque nearby, famous for its three different Minarets, built in between 1437 and 1447 AD by architect Mimar, during the reign of Sultan Murad-II. This Mosque served an example for Sinan to build Selimiye complex.

All the three places appeared like a blend of faith, historical legacy and modern times. Women wearing modern-day dresses enter the Mosques, (but) with covered heads.

When the IZU student community started discussing as what were Islamic directions about two genders offering prayers in Mosque, Adam Dembele – who studies Islamic Finance and Economy at IZU – came to our rescue. “The only thing our beloved Prophet Muhammad [SAW] has directed us is to maintain distance during the prayers. Two genders cannot mix,” he emphasized, citing a few examples including that of Malaysia.

The Istanbul Sabahattin Zaim University (IZU) students pose for a group picture inside the Eski Mosque.   (FPK Photo: Abu Taher)

The students relaxed, as Adam happens to be a bona-fide Imam who has led prayers for several years in the African state of Mauritania and Malaysia during his studies.

After Zuhr prayers, IZU dormitory staff led us deep into a beautiful food street of Edirne for lunch.

The current regime, one Turkish student told me, revived this area, its buildings and markets. People are seen cherishing different cuisines while youngsters are puffing alongside the shops. A typical European market.

We sat on second floor of Kirkpinar Kasap and restaurant where Kofte and Tava Cigar besides Lassi and Salad were served. “Kirkpinar Kasap means a place where you become healthy (to fight),” said one waiter, taking our order on his Tab and updating his control room (kitchen) in ground floor over walkie-talkie.

After the lunch, KAYMAK’s deputy, Mustafa Kilic guided students to the Van. Meanwhile, I stopped outside a shop selling carpets. It is Kasmir Hali. How cannot one go inside and look around? “Kasmir Hali is famous brand in Turkey and you can see many showrooms in Istanbul,” an IZU student told me.

Kas(h)mir Hali: A famous brand in Turkey. A showroom of carpets named after Kashmir in Edirne. (FPK Photo: Riyaz ul Khaliq)

“We’re now heading to the health facility of Ottoman empire,” Kilic informed. After a 10-minute drive, we reached Sultan Bayezid-II Health Museum.

Bayezid-II succeeded his father Sultan Mehmed-II and ruled the Ottoman Empire from 1481 to 1512 AD. He was the eighth Sultan of Ottoman Empire.

Born in 1447, Bayezid-II was appointed as governor of the then Amasya province at the age of 7 and subsequently ascended the throne on May 20, 1481 after his father died.

The health facility, now a museum of Ottomans is a sprawling campus with a medical school. It was built in four years and opened in 1488 AD.

It has nearly 20 rooms where different doctors and surgeons performed duties during the Ottoman rule. Departments vary from Surgery to ENT, to Psychiatry and Gynaecology.

Ottomans claim that they had also lady doctors who worked independently and the immunization knowledge transferred to Europe from Turkey!

“Kupeli Saliha Hanim was a specialist doctor in genial hernias who operated upon men from 1622 to 1624,” read a description in the Surgery Department. Her husband was also a surgeon. After his death, she worked independently.

“She would charge in between 300 to 3000 Ottoman era silver coins and fee would depend on nature of cases,” it said. “There was a system that a patient had to fill a consent form in Sharia court before treatment so that patient, in case of failed treatment, would not claim for blood money or something like that.”

The Darul Shifa also had a music therapy facility.

“Doctors would operate for Lipoma and Abscesses, while those suffering from toothache were also operated upon,” a female tourist, wearing traditional Turkish dress, told a group of foreigners.

The Ottomans claim that females were independent doctors during its rule. In this picture, a lady doctor is seen operating a man at Bayezid-II Health Museum. FPK Photo: Abu Taher)

“A most comprehensive book on eye diseases in Ottoman medicine was written, which is popular as Murshid by Shirvanli Mahmud in 1438,” she informed. “It talks about anatomy of the eye and other 120 eye diseases.”

Besides, the Darul Shifa has a syrup workshop and a separate department of drug production. There is a meeting room, laundry and kitchen where special soup and dishes were prepared for patients.

Administrative staff of Darul Shifa would be headed by Majordoma, assisted by a scribe and a doorman besides there was healthcare staff for the care of patients.

The medical school which ran under Darul Shifa has 18 rooms for students and separate classrooms. It’s believed to be one of the best schools of Ottoman Empire era where a professor would earn as much as 60 silver coins a day.

As the clock struck 4 pm, we drove to historic 20th century era Synagogue in Edirne in Maarif Street. By the end of 19th century, this place had as many as 13 synagogues. However, due to ‘big fire’, known as Harik-i-Kabir in Turkish, on 2 September 1905, all of them got destroyed, besides, the fire damaged around 1500 houses.

It was after “Deed of Sultan” – Sultan Abdul Hamid II – the construction, in East to West direction, of a new synagogue began on January 6, 1906.

The new synagogue was designed by French architect France Depré akin to that of the Sephardi Leopoldstädter Temple in Vienna, Austria.

A description of the Synagogue hanging inside it showed that the construction cost 1,200 gold coins. The Sultan opened it for worship of Jews on the eve of Pesach (Passover) in April 1909.

However, it became deserted with the passage of time and the restoration work on it was started as recently as 2007, when AK Party was ruling Turkey and the work was completed on 28 September, 2014. One has to pass through the IT driven identity check before entering the Synagogue.

By 5:30 pm, we started our journey back to Istanbul, thus concluding the one-day tour as part of sanitization program organized by Boys Dormitory, IZU.


Riyaz ul Khaliq is associated with Centre for Islam and Global Affairs, Istanbul Sabahattin Zaim University, Turkey.

Abu Taher is a student of Business Administration at Istanbul Sabahattin Zaim University. He belongs to Bangladesh.

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