The 15th-century Health Museum at Edirne

Edirne, which stands on the Turkish border with Greece and Bulgaria, has seen extraordinary highs and lows during its history. As the Roman Adrianople, it stood close to the site of one of the most disastrous battles in history, when the Roman emperor Valens and most of his army was annihilated in AD 378. In 1205, just after they had taken Constantinople, the Crusaders were defeated here by the Bulgarians. In 1365 the Ottoman Sultan Murat I captured the city and made it the capital of his empire—until his successors finally took Constantinople itself in 1453. Edirne suffered appallingly in the Balkan Wars of the early 20th century. At one point, 20,000 Ottoman troops were marooned on an island and starved to death while thousands of civilians died in the city itself.

The hospital complex with its mosque (image © Nevit Dilmen)

Times are quieter now. The Treaty of Lausanne of 1922 ensured that the city remained firmly inside Turkey. Today Edirne is worth visiting for its two 15th-century mosques and the wonderful Selimiye Mosque, built in the 1570s by Sinan (1489–1588), the greatest Ottoman architect of them all. It was completed when Sinan was in his eighties and is now a World Heritage Centre, even though, at three hours driving from Istanbul, it is still little visited. The city is also famous for its special fried liver—the main dish at any restaurant and apparently impossible to recreate anywhere else!

Almost as impressive as the Selimiye Mosque is the Medical Complex built by Sultan Beyazit II, the son of Murat I, just outside the city. It was completed in 1484 and was still functioning as a hospital until as late as 1916. Now beautifully restored to its original state and resplendent with its multiple domes and its mosque, the complex was opened to the public in 2008. Even before this it had won awards from the Council of Europe.

The hospital could take 32 patients at a time, housed in ten rooms, but in the first courtyard were treatment rooms for outpatients. The central room of the hospital has a fine dome: the treatment of mental cases in particular placed great emphasis on soothing surroundings. The hospital had a ten-piece orchestra with a repertoire designed to calm or stimulate according to the patients’ state of mind of the patients. Water, too, was considered to be calming, so the fountains were an important part of the ambience.

Alongside the hospital was the Medical School, with room for eighteen students. The hospital was well endowed with income from the local market dues, which meant that treatment was free and that the students were even paid for their attendance. The exhibit includes re-created displays of teaching and treatment sessions with illustrations of some of the procedures. Resolving back pain seems to have been a priority, as patients are shown tied up and being yanked about by 15th-century physios. Other treatments, one of them involving a cockerel, were perhaps less likely to succeed.

Until I had seen this wonderful museum I had been hesitant about bringing a group three hours out of Istanbul across a dull stretch of countryside. The Selimiye Mosque was perhaps enough of a draw in itself, but it is the Health Museum that made it a must. Adding the resplendent 19th-century Railway Station, now home of the History of Art Faculty of Edirne University—you approach the porter’s lodge through the original glass front of the booking office—and the recent, impressive, monument to the Treaty of Lausanne, plus a concluding cup of tea by the 16th-century bridge makes an excellent day out. Who knows, I may even get my group to tuck into the fried liver!

by Charles Freeman. Charles will be leading a tour of Istanbul and Edirne for Ciceroni Tours from 2nd–8th October.

City of Fortune, How Venice Won and Lost a Naval Empire

The struggle by the city-states of Italy to dominate the medieval Mediterranean trade routes was a ruthless one and Venice was the key player. The famous account of Venetian merchants stealing the body of St Mark from Alexandria in 828, whether the stuff of legend or not, shows that Venetian merchants were trading in the East as early as the ninth century. Roger Crowley begins his own lively study of Venice’s fortunes in the eleventh century, but he is soon off to his first great set-piece, the notorious Fourth Crusade of 1204.

Roger Crowley, Faber, 2011.

The crusaders who had answered the call from Pope Innocent III to free the Holy Land had booked a fleet of Venetian galleys to take them there. Crowley tells the tale of what actually happened when they could not pay up: a free-booting enterprise which ends with the sacking of Constantinople, the greatest Christian city of the Mediterranean, by the crusaders.  Whether or not this shocking diversion was manipulated by the aged, and blind, Venetian doge, Enrico Dandolo, who led the expedition, the Venetians were quick to ensure that harbours and trading posts of the shattered Byzantine Empire along the routes back to Venice now became theirs. Booty, including the fine copper horses that were placed on St Mark’s and a mass of sacred relics, looted from the heretical Greeks, flowed back into Europe.

Crowley tells this story with great panache. Then he turns his attention to the problems of control of the Stato da Mar, the Venetian Empire, that followed. Crete was vital as a staging post but with its people tenaciously clinging to their Greek Orthodoxy and resentful of the Venetian settlers, there were continual revolts. The Venetians never pretended that they ruled in the interests of their subjects and suppression was harsh, especially when a revolt of 1363 was crushed with the help of mercenaries. Everyone in Venice knew how vital the Cretan harbours were to their prosperity and the city exploded with flamboyant celebrations in St Mark’s Square as soon as the galleys brought home the news of a successful repression.

The fourteenth century also saw the culmination of centuries of struggle with Genoa. The Genoese had been masters of the sea almost as early as the Venetians. Yet Venice’s success in the Fourth Crusade had edged them out and they were determined on revenge. The wars were debilitating and in 1379 nearly ended in utter disaster for Venice when the Genoese captured Chioggia, just a few miles south of the city. Venice was isolated and the Genoese stranglehold began to suffocate her.  The charismatic Venetian naval commander, Vettor Pisani, who had been brought back and imprisoned in the city after an earlier defeat, was the Venetians’ last hope and by popular acclaim he was released. Crowley regales us with the story of how Pisani, with a revitalised fleet behind him,  finally out-manoeuvred the resilient enemy.

After these dramatic events, Crowley pauses to draw breath and there are more reflective chapters on the Venetian state and empire in the fifteenth century, the intricacies of diplomacy and the management of the fleets, with the lucrative pilgrimage trade to the East among the sources of new income. Yet by the fifteenth century there is a new threat after the Ottoman empire begins its inexorable expansion over the eastern Mediterranean. Crowley makes another set-piece of the fall of Negroponte, the island of Euboea, in 1470, and then there is the devastating loss of nerve by the Venetians at the battle of Zonchio in the Ionian Sea in August 1499, when Venice failed to engage the Ottoman fleet and so lost the initiative for ever.

This is a fast-paced and enjoyable book. Perhaps Crowley concentrates too much on the big moments when all seemed lost or won and the blood flows freely—but read City of Fortune and you will understand with what trepidation the arrival of a galley from the East was greeted. Did it bear news of a defeat that could put all in jeopardy or of another conquest which would keep the fabulous riches of the Orient flooding into the city? Each was equally possible and Crowley vividly reminds us that the survival of Venice was as precarious in the fourteenth century as it is today.

Reviewed by Charles Freeman, historical consultant to the Blue Guides and author of Sites of Antiquity: 50 Sites that Explain the Classical World. His Holy Bones Holy Dust, a study of the medieval cult of relics, is reviewed here.

Books about Istanbul

Some suggestions from Blue Guides’ historical consultant Charles Freeman

I haven’t been to Istanbul for some years, so it is good to be going back at last, to set up a tour I shall be leading in October. Of course, I shall be keen to put the new Blue Guide to Istanbul to the test and I have already been browsing. John Freely has alerted me to several smaller mosques that I have never visited so my appetite is already whetted. All my group will have their copies of the Guide but I need to offer them other recommendations.

I was depressed by Orhan Pamuk’s novel Snow, which I read last summer, but have preserved much warmer memories of his Istanbul, Memories of a City, a bittersweet account of his growing up in the city in the 1960s and 1970s (Faber, 2005). Pamuk brilliantly describes the complex and brooding relationships of a family that is trapped between traditional life and the pseudo-western alternative that is replacing it. He mourns the wooden buildings of the old town but in his adolescence he gradually found his own way into the complex and transient cultures that were being erased. So here too is an introduction to the literature of the city, the writers who visited it with their preconceptions and desires. Over the city, for Pamuk, rests huzun, a blanket of melancholia, heavy with the memories of those who have passed through. Has anyone really found a permanent home in a city of such transience? Pamuk suggests not. This haunting and beautifully-written book will certainly be on the list.

Recently out is Peter Clark’s Istanbul, A Cultural History in The Cities of the Imagination series (Signal Books, Oxford, 2010). Clark has never lived in Istanbul but he has family there and a long experience of viewing, as a British Council employee, its impact as the capital of the empire on its former provinces. He has amassed a large repertoire of stories and impressions, of his and others, and writes with a pleasing style. The bulk of the book comes after the Ottoman conquest of 1453; only 45 pages are on the Byzantine Empire and much of this on the empire rather than the city (although this could be justified by his title). As the book continues, it gradually becomes more of an anthology, a pastiche of the stories Clark has picked up in his wide reading or gleaned from his wanderings in the city. While never dull, it really needed to be brought into better order. Chapter Four, on the nineteenth century, jumped from subject to subject, often without any relationship between them. Another chapter is a wander through Belle Epoque Istanbul. I would happily sign Peter Clark as a real guide here but in print, and with few illustrations, the details of each building overwhelm. The chapter ‘Sailing to Istanbul’ is simply a series of vignettes of nineteenth-century travellers who left some memories of their visits. With good editing, however, there is a valuable second edition waiting to emerge from the present text.

So I have gone back to rereading Philip Mansel’s superb Constantinople: City of the World’s Desire, 1453–1924 (John Murray, 1995). I finished it the first time as I was on a boat going up the Bosphorus in the late 1990s and found it magnificently detailed and absorbing. It brilliantly captures the atmosphere and tensions of the city. Much of my work on Istanbul is on its Christian Byzantine past and I have forgotten most of what I learned about the sultans the first time around, so it will be a treat to meet them again in Mansel’s vivid account. He reminds us too just how much Istanbul was part of a wider Mediterranean commercial and political world in the nineteenth century as the European powers tried to fit it into their strategic plans. It remains a great and relevant read nearly twenty years on and so will certainly be on my recommendations list.