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.
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.
Compelled by an embarrassingly genuine enthusiasm for this kind of place, I walked over to the Archaeological and Ethnographic Museum, separated from the mosque by some incomplete and indeterminate archaeological excavations. Here the collection includes everything from prehistoric stone tools to Roman statuary to knitted socks, silver jewelry and peasant costumes from the 19th century. I strolled through, turning on the lights as I entered each empty hall. After checking out some ornately decorated Thracian spoons that I’d somehow missed before, I left to find a drink at the rambling family tea garden nearby. The guard, still at his desk, seemed relieved that I was leaving.
Tea led to liver, and liver, heavy with grease, led to a walk. I wound my way down to the Meric River, past rows of the the kind of wooden houses that Istanbul once had, beautiful and decaying by turns. I was pleased to see the cheerfully painted exterior of the Hotel Anil, where I had stayed on my first night ever in Edirne. Only after paying for my room had I read the entry in the “Rough Guide”: “Don’t let the cheerful exterior fool you, it belies a grim dosshouse inside.” Grim it was, and my nostalgia for the building is bound up with my first-ever case of bedbugs. (Subsequently I discovered that for almost the same price, rooms were available at a restored stone caravansary, where the only possible drawback was the dance music from weddings in the courtyard.)
On previous trips to Edirne, I’d been passing through the city on the way to Greece, which gave me the chance to take a bus across a series of arched Ottoman bridges, past more tea gardens and down a road to the Lausanne Museum, celebrating the treaty that fixed the Turkish-Greek border. The crossing itself seemed like what every border post should be: a red-and-white gate surrounded by tomato fields, with two Turkish soldiers pointing their guns at Greece.
This time, though, I was free to spend the rest of my afternoon at the Sultan Bayezid II Kulliye Health Museum. I’d repeatedly been told that this was not only the world’s first mental health clinic but also the European Council’s 2004 museum of the year. Which meant that, instead of wrestlers, there were mannequins depicting such psychological afflictions as melancholy (“Black Passion”) and their 16th-century cures. Ethereal flute music, which along with water and scents served as one of the principal Ottoman treatments for the mentally ill, echoed against the building’s clean stone walls.
If the mix of mannequins and music didn’t quite cure my wanderlust, it did intensify the pleasant exhaustion that had never quite lifted after the liver. In such a state, my return to Istanbul had a triumphal feel, as if I’d truly done something with my day before falling asleep on the bus.
A complete Ottoman capitals tour would have included Bursa, the seat of the empire for almost four decades in the 14th century, while Ottoman forces were en route from Iznik to Edirne. Accessible by high-speed ferry, Bursa is famous in Turkey for its peaches and pickles, shadow puppets, candied chestnuts and the country’s most beloved transsexual singer. It more controversially claims to be the birthplace of the rotating meat kebab, brought to America by the Greeks as gyro, and to Europe by the Turks as doner. Bursa is also the center of Turkey’s automobile industry. Because kebabs are now available in cities that aren’t ringed with sprawling factories, I was eager to continue along to Iznik.
Iznik is famous for its tiles and not much else, although Christians might know it under its ancient name, Nicea, as the birthplace of the Nicene Creed (“I believe in one God, the Father Almighty”). A millennium or so later, the Ottomans made it their first capital in 1331. This event marked a crucial moment in their transformation from small-time feudal lords to leaders of a worldwide empire and is represented in a trompe l’oeil mural on a power station at the entrance to the town.
My friend and I arrived late. The nighttime bus from Bursa was notable for a number of fellow riders returning from a soccer match and a brief sighting of a fox running along the rolling lakeshore. Getting off in the town square, we missed the youth hostel around the corner and ended up at a real hotel with a lakeside view for more money than we’d intended to spend.
The next morning we also spent perhaps too long enjoying our dearly purchased complimentary breakfast of cheese, tomatoes, eggs and jam before setting out to walk the city walls. I firmly believe that walking the walls is an obligatory activity in any city that has them, and while my friend probably disagreed, he was in an agreeable mood after the breakfast.
Made of thin red Byzantine brick, the walls surround the city on three sides, with Lake Iznik on the fourth. From the top, we saw the neat Roman street grid of the city on one side, dotted with mosque domes, and on the other, olive groves stretching out to the hills all around. Only after walking the north, east and south walls did we have to climb down for good upon returning to the lake.
If Edirne’s charm lies in the sheer number of its low-key sights, Iznik’s lies in the fact that, after seeing the walls, there’s little pressing to do but sit by the lake, drink tea and play backgammon. When we tired of doing this at a cafe across a barely used street from the lake, we walked down a grassy bank to the shore itself. The municipality had not only planted flowers but had also built low, horseshoe-shaped concrete benches that hung out over the lake. Their appearance, with blue and yellow paint and mushroomesque tables, might have been tacky if the location hadn’t been so beautiful and the table so perfect for cutting watermelon.
By the time we got up from the lake, it was already late afternoon. Iznik has its own Hagia Sophia, a cavernous basilica located where the streets leading in from the Istanbul, Yenisehir and Lefke gates all meet. The building has served as a church, a mosque and a museum over the years, and it was surprisingly unclear which it was supposed to be the day we were there. Rumor was that it had become a mosque again, but the man at the door insisted that for us at least it was a private museum that charged for entry. Still reeling from the hotel bill, we admired it from the outside.
That done, we devoted the rest of our time to desultory souvenir shopping while my friend waited for his train. Anyone who has admired the tiles on the inside of a Turkish mosque and thought that they would look great on a small porcelain cat can make this dream come true in a hundred different shops in Iznik. We went instead to an antique shop, where we argued over the price of Ottoman coins until the salesman, a recent graduate of a maritime academy, started trying to sell us on an olive oil importing scheme instead. When we finally grew thirsty from arguing and scheming, he offered us a mixture of yogurt and seltzer water that was, unexpectedly, as thirst-quenching as he’d promised us it would be.
When it finally came time to go, I put my friend on a train heading east toward the Georgian border and regretfully set about trying to find my way back to Istanbul. There were direct buses on the hour, but leaving such a relaxed city by such efficient means — without even a single ferry ride to break up the journey — seemed almost insulting to the whole purpose of the trip.
Danforth is a PhD candidate in modern Turkish history at Georgetown University.