We visited the Selimiye Mosque on Thursday, the 25th of November as well as on the 1st of December, 2021. On the first visit we went inside and on the second visit, we wandered around the on-site museum.
The Idea to Visit Edirne
Once the idea of taking the ferry from Ukraine to Turkey across the Black Sea was on the table, I put forward Edirne as well. Though I’d hitchhiked across the Edirne border with Bulgaria twice – and had the passport stamps to prove it – I’d never made a stop in town. Why would this small Turkish city interest me at all?
Well, that all changed when I got into playing Age of Empires II again. At some point, I realized that all the ‘wonders’ in the game were inspired by real buildings. As in real places that one could travel to in this world. That led me to create a map of the location of all the wonders—and the idea to visit (all of) them, eventually. Turkey is a special country on this map; along with Iraq, it has two wonders on the Age of Empires II map: the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul represents the Byzantine civilization and the Selimiye Mosque represents the Turks.
I carried this knowledge in the back of my head until Jonas put Istanbul on the itinerary after we’d arrived in Karasu by ferry. I wasn’t too thrilled about returning to Istanbul; the city makes me feel a little trapped. But Jonas wanted to see it with his own face eyes. I said we could take a train or bus to ‘Erdine’. Until recently, I had the city name spelled wrong in my head and it took a lot of effort to switch it from ‘Erdine’ to ‘Edirne’.
It turned out that the Turkish railway company was fixing the track to Edirne or Karaağaç, so there was only the bus. Hitchhiking out of Istanbul would have been too draining for the distance of about 250 kilometers. So we took the bus and arrived in Edirne for a week-long stay before our flight out of Istanbul Airport.
History of the Selimiye Mosque
Sultan Selim II of the Ottoman Empire commissioned the mosque in the mid-16th century. The empire’s main architect (mimar) at that time was Mimar Sinan. He already had loads of mosque building experience and Selimiye Mosque would become his crowning achievement after a lifetime of work. He didn’t do it alone; leading imperial architects had apprentices – journeymen – that would travel with him to learn the craft.
Work began in 1568 and they completed it in 1575. The octagonal supports are visible on the exterior of the dome as well which makes it a highly-recognizable mosque. There are four minarets. But it’s not just a mosque; it’s a külliye or complex with other useful services to the people as well, such as a bathhouse, school, market, and soup kitchen.
It’s a shame city planners don’t build like this anymore. What I especially like about the history is that Edirne used to be the capital city of the Ottoman Empire until 1453, but that the rulers hadn’t forgotten about little Edirne after capturing Constantinople.
In 1912 and 1913, Edirne was besieged for five months and five days by the Kingdom of Bulgaria and the Kingdom of Serbia during the First Balkan War. Some of the first plane-dropped bombs were used on the city and the mosque was damaged either by a dropped grenade or, more likely, artillery fire. But the mosque withstood the abuses of war. Supposedly, the damage is still visible and left unrestored on the orders of Atatürk. His motive was that it should serve as a warning against war.
Visiting Selimiye Mosque as a Non-Muslim
Seeing this wonder with my very own face eyes was priority number one. But I really wanted to enter as well. It’s not safe to assume that every (functioning) mosque also lets in tourists—that is rather the exception than the norm. But Turkey is a very hospitable country where they’re not afraid of a stranger, not even in their holy places. When I figured it’s been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2011, I knew it would probably be accessible to non-Muslims. I read a few reviews on Google Maps to confirm this.
The day after we arrived, I wanted to visit the Selimiye Mosque. It was the 25th of November and that turned out to be a special day: Liberation of Edirne. We had planned to be at the mosque between prayer times, but the parade we stumbled upon was also quite interesting, so we stayed and watched. I had no idea what the celebration was about until I googled the date in Turkish. Turkish Wikipedia said something about the 1922 Liberation of Edirne from the Greeks during the Greco-Turkish war from 1919 till 1922. Interestingly, this is also the time when the Ottoman Empire transformed into the Turkish Republic (est. 1922). This area of the Balkan Peninsula called Thrace has historically been managed by a great many different peoples. Specifically, the currently Turkish part of Thrace is called “Eastern Thrace“.
After the celebration, we walked toward the mosque. I’d already seen its prominent minarets from a distance, but seeing the whole mosque was a different experience. I finally made it here!
Attached to the mosque is a type of bazaar (Selimiye arasta çarşısı) that, by association with the mosque, used to raise money for the mosque. This one is several hundred meters long and would have space for more than a hundred little shops. Today, the vendors are just making money for themselves and the rent they need to pay. We walked through it assuming we could go to the mosque from here. Several vendors tried to sell us stuff, of course. We eventually saw a sign that said ‘mosque’ up the stairs. We went up there and I was a little disoriented, so I assumed we would somehow enter the mosque and already put on a headscarf. But it just connected to a side yard of the complex.
I gasped at the aesthetic beauty of this mosque for a bit before Jonas and I headed inside. We took our shoes off at the designated spot and wandered in onto the cozy carpet. The interior was also in a good condition but looked hard to differentiate between most major mosques in Turkey. We only noticed how tranquil it is when the cleaner turned off the vacuum for the enormous carpet. The whole interior looks extremely organized, especially compared to the church-turned-mosque-turned-museum-turned-mosque Ayasofya in Istanbul that we’d visited recently.
The adhan started and more congregants entered the mosque for the afternoon prayer, so it was time for us to leave. We put our shoes back on and walked from there into the courtyard, which was very beautiful in the low-hanging winter sun. There was a gate towards the other side of the mosque where there was an Ottoman gravestone exhibition. That’s where we met a few playful kittens. And that concluded our visit to Selimiye Mosque.
A cool thing I learned is that there’s a mosque in South Africa that used the Selimiye Mosque as a template: the Nizamiye Masjid in Johannesburg.
Visiting the Museum Onsite
The day before we departed Edirne and Turkey to Mauritius, we walked around the city one last time. I wanted to visit the museum still. To my surprise, the exhibition wasn’t particularly focused on the mosque and Mimar Sinan, but had more general stuff of the timeperiod. Think old Qurans, calligraphy, prayer beads, tilework, astrolabes (cool), and life in the madrasa.
It was a quick visit. Then we had to go to the Trakya hospital to take a PCR test.
Selimiye Mosque Wonder Representation in AOE2
Considering the Selimiye Mosque is Mimar Sinan’s masterpiece after a lifetime of mosque building, there is no better mosque out there to represent Ottoman Islamic architecture. In Age of Empires 2, the makers have chosen to call this civilization the Turks instead of the Ottomans because it refers more broadly to the Turkic civilizations of Eurasia. You can play as the Seljuk Turks against the Byzantines.
The representation of Selimiye Mosque in the game is quite accurate, although it’s missing the attached sahn (courtyard) and the colors are much darker than in real life. The missing courtyard can be explained by the square structure of all wonders in AoE2.
Hover over this picture with your mouse on computer 🖱️ or tap and hold on phone 👆 to see the comparison.
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