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.

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