2011
03.06

SYNOPSIS:

I visited the four important mosque complexes in town, all architectural gems, one of which was converted into a most interesting museum of the history of Ottoman medicine.

Once you have seen Notre Dame Cathedral in Rouen, you know how clumsy Notre Dame in Paris really is.  If you only know Notre Dame in Paris, you would probably accuse me of a gross insult.  A few years ago, I did a tour of cathedrals in France and could see how decade by decade the standard formula of Gothic cathedrals was refined and how each element was pushed to its limits:  Façade, rose window, nave, aisles, vaulting, columns, spires, overall height.  What was heavy and crude in the beginning seemed weightless and lacelike by the end.  What was small and timid in the beginning had reached divine dimensions by the end.

When I laid eyes on the Selimiye Cami, a mosque built by the famous Sinan when he was in his 80’s it took my breath away.  There wasn’t a stone in the wrong place, no part out of proportion, and nothing had crumbled.  It was simply perfect.  Forget the Suleymaniye he had built in Istanbul a few decades earlier.  It may be bigger, but it wasn’t better.  An added benefit is that it towers over town unobstructed by buildings and framed by trees only.  A stepped park leads up to it and during the summer months it must be spectacular when flowers, shrubs, and trees are in bloom.  But it was just fine for me as it was.  The interior convinces through its simplicity.  There is no unnecessary frill.  Of course, Islamic interior decoration is anything but plain.  But for what it is, it showed restraint.  Instead of a central dome and a series of half-domes, the interior was dominated by a single dome.  Again, the effect was that of simplicity over clutter, creating grandeur.  The mosque was relatively quiet, void of throngs of tourists as it would be in Istanbul.  This mosque alone was worth the visit.

There were some very rude Eastern European tourists.  Women walked around the mosque without cover, stepping into the men’s prayer areas, carrying their shoes into the sanctuary.  I was furious.  It is this kind of behavior which can only lead to strict enforcement of rules for all of us.  I wish people would behave like guests when visiting different countries, not like rowdies who think they can get away with anything.

Just a block away from Sinan’s mosque, there is the Eski Cami, or Old Mosque.  It is the first Turkish mosque I have seen so far which deviates from the central dome and half dome principle.  It consists of three rows of three small domes each making up an interior of nine equal domes; much like a Gothic Hallenkirche would – meaning that aisles and nave are of equal height.  I could get very technical here…  All I will say is that it was hugely fascinating for me to see how the domes were held up.  Circle over square has kept many generations of architects puzzling.  Squinches and pendentives were the big breakthrough at the Hagia Sophia, and then came the Islamic invention of the muquarnas, the “honey-comb” stalactite form that bridges the square wall with the round dome.  There was a little bit of everything here.  And the decoration was superb again.    This mosque, too, would have been worth the trip.

But there was yet another one.   A few blocks from the Old Mosque, there was the third gem:  The Serefeli Cami.  The most curious exterior feature was that all four of its minarets were distinctly different in design and coloration.  And the interior was dominated by two massive hexagonal pillars rather than a series of smaller columns as I had seen previously.  So, I had a field day with all of this, but that wasn’t it.

My next stop was the Bayezid Kulliyesi, a mosque complex specifically built as a hospital.  Mosques, just like medieval churches were usually not built by themselves but had various functions in the community.  In Europe, there would have been a soup kitchen for the poor, a wing for the sick, dormitories for the monks; similarly here.   Mosque complexes usually had a hamam (bath) and a madrassa (school) attached as well as living quarters.  There also may be guest houses, mills, farms and factories attached which support the mosque.  The Bayezid specialized as a hospital and medical school.  As so many Ottoman mosques it fell into disrepair after the empire collapsed.  In the 1960’s, conceived as a university project, restoration of the buildings started with the purpose to document the history of Ottoman medicine.

This museum is one of the best museums I have ever seen.  In its historically authentic setting it is presenting a wealth of information enlivened with mannequins in costumes.  Labeling is extensive in both Turkish and English.  In the 16th Century, the hospital was known for diet, sound and aroma therapy!  Sounds like New Age, doesn’t it?!  The majority of patients were mental patients who were treated with, among other things, a musical band three times a week.  Specific musical modes had been worked out for specific illnesses!  My jaw dropped.  There was way more than I could comprehend in a couple of hours.  The entire complex was exquisitely restored. In case of the mosque, positively over-restored with marble patterns painted on everywhere, but OK, this is a minor complaint.  If you are ever so slightly interested in the history of medicine, or even if you are not, like I was, this mosque alone again, is worth its visit to Edirne.

As always, I got more than I expected.  24 hours in Edirne were well worth the extra effort.

The bus took me back to Istanbul via rolling hills and fields of timidly rising greens.  It is not quit spring yet, but nature is awakening in this part of Turkey.  I have a long night ahead of me – 8 more hours in a bus… From the western, European, urban, spring-ready areas of Turkey I will start to head out east into more conservative and rural parts which are still hanging on to winter.   You will hear from me when I have internet connection again and when I am awake enough to write.

Good night.

2011
03.06

SYNOPSIS:

Travel to Edirne:  My impression of Edirne and some misunderstandings I have to deal with since I don’t speak the local language; about beer and other strange drinks.

Travel is good when you board one of those comfy overland buses that glide down the highway in a gentle sway, where coffee, soft drinks, and snacks are served and you can snooze until you get to your destination or watch a movie on the individual TV screen in front of you.  A lot of my travel in Turkey will be done via bus.  I hope all of them are as clean and wonderful as the bus today that took me to the outskirts of the country close to the Bulgarian border in 2.5 hours.

First I had to manage the Istanbul tram and metro system, but with the help of some English speaking locals I got to my destination without delay.  The bus terminal, the otogar, is a huge open oval space.  First, I thought I was in the wrong place as there wasn’t a bus in sight.  But then I understood the layout.  The core of the oval serves as parking area for cars and taxis.  And the metro stops beneath it.  When you get out, you find yourself in that oval.  If you know your bus company’s name you look for the huge ads that line the spaces right above all of the offices filling up the outskirts of the oval. You then enter a ticket counter and waiting hall and exit on the other side where you will see dozens of buses lined up on clearly marked platforms each displaying a sign of its destination in the window.  What an efficient system!  The central thoroughfare of the oval serves as entrance and exit lane for the buses.  I don’t even want to do a comparison with the main bus station in Beirut named Kola which I had to deal with on a daily basis last year, where there was no schedule, no platform, no ticket office, no sign, no nothing.  Just people yelling out destinations…  But I got around in Lebanon, too.  That is the amazing part.

You could tell Edirne, a city of 140,000, is a bit off the beaten path.  Traffic in that direction got thinner and thinner.  But it’s worth it!  Give me a small city like this any time over one that houses millions.  As well laid out and well managed as Istanbul is, it is still a city of 13+ millions and I feel hopelessly overwhelmed.  Edirne by contrast has a compact center in which three spectacular mosques form a triangle.  South of that triangle, the town is full of pedestrian zones with shops, cafes, restaurant, and market areas.  At every corner there is either a fountain or a public monument.  There are parks, areas with benches to sit, and people are out in numbers.  This city is truly made for people and as far as I can tell bypassed by many tourists.  I heard only one family speak German yesterday, and I saw only one bus full of Eastern European tourists and a few Turkish tour buses.  My hotel, even though listed in the Lonely Planet, had hardly any visitors.   I had no problem getting a room.

Outside of the center there are small streets with traditional, brightly painted houses; one story high small squares with chimneys puffing out smoke at the side of the house.  Many larger houses here and in Istanbul are wood-clad.  That makes for a certain life span.  Some of them are dilapidated but many of them are holding up surprisingly well and some are lovingly restored to former glory.

One of the buildings that did not fare so well was the Jewish Synagogue.  I stumbled on it by accident.  The premises were boarded up and there was a construction sign with a date from 2010 – 2012.  Does that mean that there is some restoration of it in the planning?  It did not look like it.   The synagogue was just crumbling along, abandoned and forgotten.

Three lovely 500 year old arched bridges span the two small rivers that encircle the old town.  All of them are fully restored but restricted to motorized traffic.   That makes them picturesque spots.

All over town, vendors are selling the usual:  roasted chestnuts, that colorful candy I already saw in Istanbul, and trinkets.  But there is one thing I had not seen:  A yellow drink in big plastic bottles.  So far I have no idea what it contains.  Sugar cane juice?  There is nothing small to sample and I did not want to commit to a liter.

When the time came for dinner I chose one of the small diners.  No English was spoken, but there was a picture menu.  First thing on the menu was an indistinguishable heap of stuff on a plate that was advertised as the Edirne specialty.  I had to try it.  For as little as I eat out, I am particularly dismayed when I fail to order anything reasonable.  Today, I really outdid myself:  First, I got a plate of dried, paper thin cone shaped cylinders.  Obviously, this was meant to be eaten.  I took a bite and almost had to spit it out – fire!!!  This was a dried chili pepper of sorts.  I stuffed as much bread after it to cool my mouth.  That was all I could bear of that.  With it came a plate of red sauce.  I already could tell that it was chili pepper ground up.  I dipped a piece of bread into a tiny bit of it and ate it.  Yes, fire again!   No more of this either.  Behind the counter I watched the chef frying up something and was hopeful in anticipation of the Edirne specialty.  A plate full of thin fried pieces of meat showed up.  Nothing came with it.  No vegetables, no rice.  I guess, the fire-stuff was meant to go with it, but that was out of the question.  When I tasted it, it turned out to be liver. I know that the mere thought of liver will gross out some of you already.  I actually like liver but only when it comes with a big heap of mashed potatoes and with lots of glazed onions.  The strong taste of liver has to be muted with something. But I have my limits, when a heap of liver comes by itself and with two plates of uneatable chili peppers.  Now what?  The only other thing I could imagine to go with it from the limited menu was yoghurt.  I ordered it.  It made the liver palatable.  The server and the chef both laughed at me for eating the liver with yoghurt.  Oh well.  I guess, I marked myself as a foreigner.  J

While I roamed the town, I had come across a Hamam (Turkish bath) for women.  No opening hours were posted so I went in to inquire.  No English was spoken by the two old women minding the entrance hall.  I used sign language making a walking sign with my fingers, a return sign with my hands, and pointing to the spot on my arm where a watch would be.  How late are you open?  That was my question.  The women seemed to understand.  9 o’clock.  Good.  I returned at 7 only to find the place closed.  I guess, they had told me the opening hour for tomorrow rather than the closing hour for today.  Oh, well.  No Turkish bath for me then.  I missed out again.  This is the price you pay for not speaking the language.  And it’s just a representative sampling.  There is something of this just about every day.  So far it has never completely derailed me.  But it requires compromises.

What to do?  I opted for a beer in bed.  I have photos to process and blogs to write and all of that is more fun with a good beer.  Efes is the preferred local brand of Pilsen beer around here; definitely a fine beer to drink.  You can buy it and any other kind of liquor at any of the many grocery booths and markets around.  Not like in Egypt, where you have to find the rare, unmarked hole in the wall and sneak your alcohol purchase from the Christians, the only people licensed to sell alcohol. In Istanbul and Edirne, there are pubs and bars around everywhere, dogs are pets, and nobody seems to mind that both of these fly in the face of strict Islamic principles.  I like that you can make your own decisions in Turkey even if this violates the fine print in the Koran.  In fact, there hardly seem to be more hijabed women around here than in Ann Arbor and certainly way fewer than in Dearborn.

One more observation:  When we came in on the bus, the bus stopped about 8 km outside of town at a large otogar close to the highway.  A shuttle took us into the heart of town over land.  What struck me was that Edirne’s apartment blocks stopped abruptly at an invisible line.   From there on out there were fields.  There was nothing like urban sprawl, where low rises would drag on and on and the end of a city would be almost indiscernible.  I think as far as the environment is concerned, there is a lot to be said for that.

This was the first day the sun was shining in Turkey.  It was the first day where it felt comfortable if not quite yet warm.  It certainly was a wonderful welcome to Edirne.  If you are in Turkey, don’t miss it!

Good night.