Despite the worldwide fame that was brought to Edirne in 2011 when the Selimiye mosque was inscribed to the UNESCO World Heritage List and the fact that Edirne used to be the Ottoman capital, not many tourists realise that it is possible to visit the remains of the palace built by the Ottoman sultans there. The justification of this grave oversight may be the poor preservation state of this structure. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to go to the Sarayiçi Island on the Tunca River in order to see the scant remains of this structure. The additional attraction for the undecided is the closeness of the modern stadium where the famous oil-wrestling competitions take place.
History and archaeology
The construction of the palace in Edirne started in 1450 by order of Sultan Murad II. The hunting grounds on the west bank of the Tunca River were selected as its location. It was further from the centre of Edirne than the Old Palace (Saray-i Atik) that had stood in the spot where Selimiye Mosque was later erected.
When Murad II died one year later, the work was suspended for some time and then resumed as ordered by Sultan Mehmet II, the conqueror of Constantinople. Admittedly, with the downfall of Byzantium and the relocation of the Ottoman capital to Constantinople in 1453, Edirne lost its significance which it had for the previous century, but the construction of the palace was finished in 1475.
The palace was called Saray-ı Cedid-i Amire (i.e. New Imperial Palace), and it was systematically expanded. The decoration and enlargement of the palace were due to the engagement of the successive sultans, including Suleiman the Magnificent and Mehmet IV.
Suleiman the Magnificent ordered the construction of waterways to the palace, bridges and other buildings. The palace was surrounded by a garden of fruit trees and flowers. Wild and domestic animals, as well as flocks of birds, lived there. This private garden of the sultan was rearranged in 1552 by the chief gardener Sinan Ağa. The detailed description of the palace gardens was provided by Evliya Çelebi who referred to it as Hünkar Bahçesi Sarayı -- the Palace of the Emperor's Garden. Evliya Çelebi relates that the area extending from the palace to Şahabeddin Paşa Bridge was forested and there were meadows to the south of the palace. The garden was covered with tulips, and the groove was full of the ornamental trees such as willows, plane trees, cypress, poplars, and elm trees, with all kinds of wild animals and birds. The garden complex was supervised all the time by the chief gardener and three thousand assistants.
The palace was abandoned in 1718 when Sultan Ahmed III decided to rule only from Istanbul. During the period of vacancy, the palace fell into a state of dilapidation, caused by the earthquake in 1752 and the fire in 1776. In 1768, Sultan Mustafa III returned to Edirne. Interestingly, by moving back to Edirne Palace, he came back to the place where he was born in 1717.
Parts of the palace were repaired during the reign of Sultan Mahmud II, in 1825. Unfortunately, soon afterwards the palace was heavily damaged during the Russian occupation of Edirne in 1829. The Russian army used the palace area as a military camp. Many buildings of the palace complex underwent restoration between 1868 and 1873.
Unfortunately, in time the significance of this place diminished and this resulted in using the palatial buildings as an arsenal in the second half of the 19th century. During the Russo-Turkish War, in 1878 the palace was blasted on the order of Cemil Paşa, the Edirne governor. This decision was motivated as the means of prevention against the seizure of the arsenal by the closing Russian army. The demolition was completed during the Balkan wars at the beginning of the 20th century. As a result, the whole palatial complex practically vanished. The structures preserved, entirely or partly, include Justice Pavilion, Panorama Pavilion, Sand Pavilion Bathhouse, Felicity Gate and the Imperial Kitchens.
In 2009 the restoration works in the palace area started. The excavation and reconstruction work has been directed by Professor Mustafa Özer from Bahçeşehir University in Istanbul. The restoration project began from the palace kitchens, and in 2011 the Sand Pavilion Bathhouse was renovated.
In July 2013, the news portal Hürriyet Daily News informed about the important archaeological finds from the area of Matbah-ı Amire. Among the excavated objects were kitchen utensils and vessels that will enable the scholars to study the secrets of the Ottoman cuisine.
Life in Edirne Palace
There are numerous stories and anecdotes related to the Edirne Palace. For a period of time, these were the main living quarters of Ottoman sultans and their families. Undoubtedly the most famous sultan born in the palace was Mehmed, the third son of Murad II, who was born in 1432. His mother was a young woman known as Hatice Âlime Hüma Hatun and her baby was to become the conqueror of Constantinople - Mehmed II Fatih. Future sultan spent in Edirne the first three years of his life, until he was delegated to Amasya. Another notable event that took place in Edirne Palace was the circumcision of young Mehmed and his older brother - Alaaddin Ali.
Also the wedding of Mehmet with a daughter of emir Ibrahim from eastern Anatolia, Sitti Hatun, was organised in Edirne. The celebration lasted for four days. Unfortunately for Sitti, she did not become Mehmed's favourite wife, and when he moved to Constantinople after the conquest, she was left behind in Edirne Palace. She died there lonely and forgotten, in 1467.
When Mehmet became the Sultan after his father's death in 1451, one of his first moves was the visit to Edirne Palace. When he was accepting condolences because of his father's death and congratulations on becoming the ruler of the empire from Halime Hatun, Murad's wife, his youngest brother and Halime's son - Kücük Ahmet, was being strangled in the palace's baths.
Mehmed the Conqueror did not move to Constantinople immediately after the conquest, as the city required much reconstruction and rebuilding after the siege. It was in Edirne Palace where Mehmed hosted numerous foreign embassies that arrived to congratulate him and negotiate friendly relations between the Ottoman Empire and their countries.
According to Aşıkpaşazade, an Ottoman historian, claims that the ceremonies organised for the occasion of circumcision of Mehemed's two sons - Bayezid and Mustafa - lasted four days. The island on the Tunca River where the palace is situated was covered with tents of dignitaries who arrived from all the corners of the Ottoman Empire.
Another Sultan who spent much time in Edirne Palace was Mehmed IV. He was known as Avcı Mehmed, Mehmed the Hunter, because of his passion for hunting. There were two reasons why he preferred the palace in Edirne to Topkapı Palace in Istanbul. Firstly, he had traumatic memories from his early childhood when his parents - Sultan Ibrahim and Turhan Hatice - had a violent quarrel. Ibrahim tore Mehmed from his mother's arms and flung the infant into a cistern. Mehmed was rescued by servants, but this incident left him with a lifelong scar on his head. The second reason for spending much time in Edirne was Mehmed's hunting obsession. His long hunting trips around the city virtually devastated the forests while thousands of wild animals were killed.
In 1661, a terrible plague decimated the population of Istanbul. Sultan Mehmed IV had evacuated his whole court to Edirne where he spent the winter, mainly on hunting expeditions. His passion for hunting was not matched with his political and military abilities. When the Grand Vizier Fazıl Ahmed started a military expedition against the Habsburgs, Sultan Mehmed IV accompanied the troops from Istanbul only to Edirne where he stayed in the palace. His first son - future Sultan Mustafa II - was born there in June 1664 and the celebrations lasted over a week. Another feast, eleven-days long, was organised in Edirne Palace in 1675, to celebrate the circumcision of the sultan's son. Again, the Sarayiçi Island was covered with colourful tents for the dignitaries.
The palace in Edirne was also frequently visited by Sultan Suleiman II who died there in June 1691. His successor and younger brother, Ahmed II, was enthroned as the ruler of the Ottoman Empire in Edirne Palace. It was an unusual event as traditionally the enthronement ceremony (tr. Kılıç alayı) of the sultans had taken place at the tomb complex at Eyüp, on the Golden Horn waterway in the capital Constantinople. His children, including the twins Selim and Ibrahim, were born in Edirne. Suleiman II was the sultan less than five years as he died in Edirne Palace at the age of 51.
His nephew was also enthroned in Edirne as Mustafa IV. Before becoming the sultan, Mustafa had spent most of his life in Edirne Palace. Like his father, Mehmed IV, Mustafa also spent much time hunting in the forests near Edirne. His absence from the capital was one of the reasons of the so-called Edirne event (Ottoman Turkish Edirne Vaḳʿası). It was a janissary revolt that began in Istanbul in 1703 as the consequence of the Treaty of Karlowitz. This treaty marked the end of Ottoman control in much of Central Europe and stopped the centuries of the empire's territorial expansion.
After the signing of the treaty, Sultan Mustafa II retreated to Edirne and left political and administrative affairs to Seyhulislam Feyzullah Efendi. His move to Edirne in 1701 was an attempt to shield the effects of the treaty from the public. The Sultan’s absence and the leadership of Seyhulislam Feyzullah Efendi were not supported by the janissaries. As a result of the Edirne Event, Seyhulislam Feyzullah Efendi was killed, and Sultan Mustafa II was ousted from power on the 22nd of August 1703. The sultan was replaced by his younger brother, Sultan Ahmet III.
Ahmet III was the last of the Ottoman sultans to be enthroned in Edirne. The beginning of his rule marks the end of the splendour of Saray-ı Cedid-i Amire - the Ottoman palace in this city. He moved back to Constantinople just three weeks after the girding of the sword of Osman - an important ceremony that marked a sultan's ascension to the throne. All his successors were enthroned in Constantinople, at the traditional location at Eyüp. Ahmet III was not happy in Constantinople as he complained about the lack of freedom he remembered from Edirne.
It the times of its splendour the palatial complex consisted of 72 buildings, including 18 baths and eight mosques. Approximately 34 thousand people lived in the palace area in its heydey. These inhabitants were served by six thousand members of palace staff. It these times the Edirne Palace competed with Topkapı Palace in Istanbul with its size and luxurious furnishings.
If you start sightseeing from the area of the car park, the first structure you can see is the Felicity Gate (Bab'üs Sa'ade), also called the Gate of White Eunuchs (Ak Ağalar Kapısı). It was reconstructed in the years 2001-2004. It used to lead to the main building of the palace, known as the Panoramic Pavilion (Cihannüma Kasrı) or the Imperial Throne (Taht-ı Hümayun). Now heavily damaged, it once consisted of the Sultan's room, a flag room, a library, a small mosque, and other rooms. It was built between 1450 and 1451, as a seven-storey structure with an octagonal room on the top floor. Initial archaeological excavations of this monument took place in 1956, but it has not been reconstructed yet.
To the south of the Panoramic Pavilion, there were three adjacent pavilions, constructed for Mehmed IV, Mustafa II, and Ahmed III. There were also harem rooms for the sultan's mother, his four wives, consorts, princes. All these buildings have been destroyed. Walking further to the north of the Panoramic Pavilion and crossing a small stream, you will reach another heavily damaged but visible structure of Water Depot (Su Maksemi). This building, which is rarely mentioned in the publications about Edirne New Palace, has a rectangular plan. The building has three floors and a basement. The first floor, rising on the two-partition basement floor, is divided into two sections. The third floor consists of a single room, located in the east-west direction. No known inscriptions provide the date of its construction, but on the basis of its architecture and building materials, the researchers attribute it to the 15th century. The interior walls of two rooms with cradle vaults, situated on the first floor of the building, were plastered with cement mortar, probably during the military use of the palace in the 20th century.
Sand Pavilion Bathhouse (Kum Kasrı Hamamı) lies to the east of the Panoramic Pavilion. This simple bathhouse, built by Mehmed the Conqueror, consists of three main sections, known as sıcaklık (caldarium - hot water room), ılıklık (tepidarium warm water room), and soğukluk (frigidarium - cold water room). These three sections are covered with three small domes. The bathhouse used to be connected to the main palace with a walkway. These baths were once used by the favourite concubine of Suleiman the Magnificient, the famous Hürrem Sultan (Roxolane). Archaeological excavations were undertaken there in 2000, revealing the existence of water supply system. The current appearance of the Sand Pavilion Bathhouse results from heavy restoration works, finished in 2011.
Imperial Kitchen (Matbah-ı Amire) is located to the south of the Panoramic Pavilion, on the other side of the modern road. It is a long, rectangular-plan building covered with eight domes. The western part of the structure is divided into four square spaces, and two equally large sections on the east side are divided into two square spaces. Each space is covered with a dome. There are four rectangular hearth furnaces made of bricks in the interior of the building and cut-stone chimneys on the roof. The building has been heavily renovated. Extensive excavations were carried out around the Imperial Kitchen in 2013, as can be seen to the south of the structure.
More historical structures stand close to the palace ruins, next to the oil-wresting stadium. The first of these is the so-called Justice Hall (Kasr-ı Adalet). It is a stone rectangular tower with a pointed metal roof, erected in 1561 by order of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificient. It is the only structure of the palace complex that remained intact. It is located next to the tiny Mehmet the Conqueror Bridge.
Just next to this tower, two stone columns with square bases still stand. The column on the right side was called the Respect Stone (Seng-i Hürmet) where the subjects could place their petitions to the sultan. The left column was called the Warning Stone (Seng-i İbret). Its name perfectly reflects its function was to display the capitated heads of criminals or the palace officials who fell out of the sultan's favour.
Other structures from the Ottoman times in the area of the palace are the bridges that lead to the Sarayiçi Island: Şahabeddin Paşa Bridge from 1451, Mehmet the Conqueror Bridge from 1452, and Suleiman the Magnificient bridge from 1553-1554. They are discussed in a separate text.
Northeast to the Sand Pavilion Bathhouse, a prayer platform (namazgah) is situated which was built in the second half of the 16th century. Behind its marble mihrab, there is a fountain (Namazgâhli Çeşme).
Finally, as the palace was built near extensive hunting ground, there is the Hunting Lodge (Bülbül Kasrı or Av Köşkü), hidden the forest to the north-east of the palace comlex and the olive oil wrestling stadium (41.693987, 26.564407). It was built in 1671 by Mehmed IV, not surprisingly known as Mehmed the Hunter. It remained partly intact but underwent a restoration in 2002, funded by the municipality of Edirne. According to an existing drawing, the mansion, rising on a square-shaped pedestal, was built with regularly cut stones and had a folding roof.
The entry to the area of the palace is free and unrestricted. It seems that the archaeological and reconstruction works have been stopped. The vast terrain of the ruined palace is now overgrown with thorny plants and bushes.
Saray-ı Cedid-i Amire palace is situated in the northern part of Edirne. It is possible to walk there from the center of the city, starting from Selimiye Mosque. From there one should walk in the north-eastern direction, along Mimar Sinan street and then to the north, along the 'Palace Road' i.e. Saray Yolu. This road leads to the Suleiman the Magnificient Bridge which enables access to the Sarayiçi Island. The total distance from the Selimiye Mosque to the Edirne Palace is approximately 1.5 km.
The alternative walking route leads from the Bayezid II Mosque along the banks of the Tunca River (the distance of 1 km). It is also possible to start from the Gazi Mihal Mosque, walk along the Tunca river to the Bayezid II Mosque and then to the palace. The walking distance is then longer (2 km), but picturesque views on the way compensate the effort.