Most of the visitors come to Edirne with just one thought in mind - to see the famous Selimiye Mosque, built by Mimar Sinan and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. However, there is another splendid example of Ottoman architecture in the city, namely: Üç Şerefeli Mosque. The name of this building means 'the Mosque with Three Balconies'. It reflects one of the most characteristic features of the mosque - one of its four minarets is adorned with three small balconies.
While visiting Üç Şerefeli Mosque, it is worth remembering that after its construction it was the grandest of Edirne mosques and, at the same time, the greatest architectural achievement of the Ottoman architects before the conquest of Constantinople. Both its dimensions and unique architectural solutions made the mosque a distinguished predecessor of the great imperial mosques.
Üç Şerefeli Mosque was built between 1437 and 1447. Therefore it is more than one hundred years older than Selimiye Mosque. The building is representative of the architectural style which is a transitional form between the typical Seljuk mosques of Konya or Bursa, and the Ottoman style, which was fully developed later, in Edirne and Istanbul.
The mosque was built during the reign of Sultan Murad II. At that time, it was the largest mosque erected in the Ottoman Empire. It was seriously damaged by fire in 1732 and by an earthquake in 1748. It was restored in 1764 by architect Hacı Ahmet, on the orders of Sultan Mahmud III, along with the Old Mosque. Another major renovation took place in 1930. In addition, some restoration work of the frescoes was carried out in 1999.
A Quranic school (mekteb), a public soup kitchen (imaret) and two religious schools (medrese) were built next to the mosque as parts of Üç Şerefeli külliye i.e. the complex of buildings managed by a vakıf (religious foundation). Only the medreses, called Saatlı and Peyker, are still standing, although their appearance has been significantly modified by the recent renovations.
The mosque became a final scene of the conflict between the Grand Mufti Fahreddin and a Persian missionary from a dervish sect of the Hurufiyya order. It happened in the year 1444 when Sultan Murad was forced to leave Edirne to suppress an insurrection of one of his vassals in central Anatolia. He left his son, Mehmed, later known as the Conqueror, but then only 12 years old, as a regent, with the Grand Vizier Çandarlı Halil Pasha as the main advisor. Soon afterwards, Mehmed made friends with the Persian preacher who represented some highly unorthodox views, such as an affinity between Islam and Christianity. These views alarmed the Grand Vizier and the Grand Mufti. The latter denounced the Persian missionary as a heretic from the pulpit of Üç Şerefeli Mosque. He managed to excite the feelings of the gathered people against the dervish so that they burned the Persian at stake. Famously, the mufti accidentally set fire to his beard when preparing the fire for the execution that took place in front of the mosque.
The local guides often repeat another story related to the mosque, related to two columns made of porphyry, standing at the main entrance to the courtyard. Once upon a time, the two architects of the building had the same dream. In the morning, they related their dreams to each other. They said they had seen an angel visiting the mosque and placing two columns in front of it. Therefore they decided to put those structures there.
Unfortunately, the name of the architect who designed the mosque is not known. The mosque was built mainly of limestone blocks. However, some elements, such as columns and their capitals, mihrab, mimbar and portals, were made of marble. Red stone is used to frame entryways and - in alteration with white stone - on the voussoirs of the courtyard and portal arches.
The lavishly decorated main entrance has a form of a monumental gate, bringing to mind the gateways of Seljuk mosques and medreses in Anatolia. It leads to a porticoed courtyard, surrounded on three sides by arcades. This inner courtyard has an area half as large as the interior of the mosque. The whole complex covers a roughly square area of the sides approximately 65 meters long. The arcades around the courtyard are covered with domes of varying sizes. Many of them are still decorated from the inside with delicate geometric patterns. Some of these frescoes inside gallery domes are the original designs that were repaired in the 18th century, while the others are baroque additions.
An octagonal fountain for ritual ablutions (şadırvan) is situated in the centre of the courtyard. According to a historian Evliya Çelebi, the fountain provided the faithful with hot water in the winter. The northeast bay of the portico, covered with a trough vault, illustrates the original structure of the porch roof that was rebuilt with domes following the collapse in the 1752 earthquake.
Üç Şerefeli Mosque has four minarets of varying heights, located in the four corners of the courtyard. The tallest of these minarets - in the southern corner - is 67 meters high. At the time of its erection, it was the highest minaret in the Ottoman Empire. It is decorated with a pattern of white and red stones, arranged in a zigzag. This minaret has three balconies that gave the name to the whole mosque complex. The northern minaret has two balconies, and the remaining two minarets have one balcony each. They are adorned with spiral, diamond-shape and zigzag motifs.
The mosque is covered with a central dome that is 24 meters in diameter. When first built the dome was the largest in any Ottoman building. It is supported internally by six huge piers, and externally it is raised on a dodecagonal drum. This massive dome is flanked by two pairs of smaller domes, with even smaller ones covering the porch and the smallest ones over the arcades of the courtyard. This way, a cascading effect was achieved, that was later copied and developed in the imperial mosques of the classical period, for example in Selimiye Mosque. All domes are covered with lead on the exterior.
Inside the mosque, the wall around mihrab (a niche indicating the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca) is painted in a geometric pattern of circles and stars. The window shutters reflect the patterns of wood-carving typical for the times of the mosque construction. Adequate lighting of the mosque is provided by twelve windows in the drum of the dome.
Two blue and turquoise underglaze-painted tile panels in the tympana of the windows were probably produced by the same group of tilemakers who had decorated the Green Mosque in Bursa. There, the tiles were signed as "the work of the masters of Tabriz". The running pattern of the Chinese influenced floral border tiles is similar to those in the small Muradiye Mosque in Edirne.
Uç Şerefeli Mosque has a large graveyard, situated to the south of the building. There are almost 200 Ottoman gravestones there, dating back to the period from the 16th to early 20th century. The oldest gravestone of Uç Şerefeli graveyard is from 1666. As it served as a formal burial place for Edirne Palace, the majority of graves belong to Ottoman bureaucrats - governors, pashas, commanders, and officers, as well as Muslim priests, judges, and scholars. Only a few gravestones belong to the Janissaries as they were traditionally buried in their own, separate cemeteries.
The entrance to the mosque is free of charge, but the tourists need to observe the prayer times and visit when the prayers are over. Remember to dress appropriately - no T-shirts or shorts, and female travellers should cover their heads. It is also necessary to take off the shoes before entering the interior.
This mosque is definitely worth a closer look, especially as it is rarely visited. It remains a tranquil place, in contrast to Selimiye Mosque that draws crowds of tourists, souvenir sellers, and beggars. In the case of Üç Şerefeli Mosque, you will most probably be the only foreign visitor, accompanied possibly by local children who love to spend hot summer days running in its cool interior.
Üç Şerefeli Mosque is situated in the centre of Edirne, on Hükümet street, opposite historical Sokollu Mehmet Paşa Hamam, also designed by Mimar Sinan. The Old Mosque stands 400 meters to the south-east, and Selimiye Mosque is located 700 meters to the east.