There are numerous historical cemeteries in Edirne, but Selimiye Mosque Ottoman Gravestones Exhibition (tr. Osmanlı Taş Eserleri Sergileme Alanı) is not one of them. It is just an exhibition of gravestones collected from different graveyards of the city. However, if you do not have time or patience to visit the real cemeteries, scattered around Edirne, this is a conveniently located place to see the most prominent examples of various gravestones, representing the Ottoman era burials.
The exhibition was prepared by Edirne Museum, with the financial support of Thracian Development Agency. Its primary goal is to present rare and beautiful specimens of gravestones that were selected from Edirne's numerous cemeteries. The tombstones of Janissaries are the most prominent exhibits of this extraordinary collection. Who were those people and why there are so many graves of Janissaries in Edirne? Before visiting the exhibition, let us take a closer look at this elite unit of the Ottoman army.
The word Janissaries is a distortion of the Turkish phrase meaning New Soldiers (tr. Yeniçeri). The formation of the Janissaries dates back to the reign of Sultan Murad I, i.e. to the second half of the 14th century. We need to remember him as the conqueror of Edirne who made this city a new capital of the Ottoman Empire. Murad I introduced the system of devshirme as a means to counteract the growing power of the Turkish nobility. To explain it very simply - devshirme - also known as the blood tax - was the practice of taking Christian boys from the area of the Ottoman Empire and raising them to serve the state. From this pool of human resources, the sultans constructed the Janissary corps as a personal army loyal only to them. The boys were forced to convert to Islam and subjected to strict discipline but were paid salaries and pensions upon retirement. With time, they became one of the ruling classes of the Ottoman Empire, rivalling the Turkish aristocracy.
Among the most famous Janissaries it is worth mentioning Sokollu Mehmed Paşa who became a grand vizier, served three sultans, and was the de facto ruler of the Ottoman Empire for more than 14 years. He also built the bathhouse in Edirne, still functioning today. Another notable Janissary was Mimar Sinan who became the most celebrated architect of the Ottoman Empire but started humbly as the son of a stonemason. He developed his engineering skills during military campaigns with the Janissaries and later became a chief royal architect. In his opinion, the grandest building that he constructed was Selimiye Mosque in Edirne.
Edirne was the capital of the Ottoman Empire for almost 100 years, and even when it lost this title to Istanbul, it was still one of the most important military bases of the Ottoman army. Janissaries had their barracks there, to keep the border of the empire secure and to arrange raids into the Balkans. Therefore, there are literally thousands of military tombstones to be seen in Edirne. Possibly, even more of them are still hidden underground, waiting to be excavated.
In 1826, most of the Janissaries revolted against Sultan Mahmud II who had intended to form a new army, organised along modern European standards. When the Janissaries mutined, their barracks in Istanbul were set on fire by artillery, and around four thousands of them died there. The survivors were executed or exiled, and their order was formally disbanded. The slaughter of Janissary troops was so cruel that even their gravestones were broken into pieces or destroyed. Therefore, it is very difficult to find Janissary gravestones in Istanbul, and the Edirne collection is unique in the area of the former Ottoman Empire.
Tragically, further destruction of the Janissary gravestones has been ongoing in Edirne since the 60-ties of the 20th century. The cemeteries have been demolished to make room for new residential buildings and commercial areas.
Selimiye Mosque Ottoman Gravestones Exhibition was created to protect the most beautiful examples of endangered Ottoman-era gravestones, representing different variations and classifications. Thus we have tombstones of the Janissaries, scholars, bureaucrats, masters of religious orders, artisans, and craftsmen.
Another division is between female and male headstones. The female ones are decorated with floral motifs, such as cypresses, trees of life, dates, hyacinths, and tulips. The male gravestones are further divided into may subclasses according to the occupation of the deceased. These tombstones can be recognised by comparing different kinds of headgears, carved in the stone.
The Janissary tombstones displayed in the area of the exhibition, provide information about the squad number, badge, name, and age of the soldier. There are several kinds of Janissary headgear displayed on these tombstones, including:
- Çatal Kalafat which was worn by squad commanders and generals. It was made from parallel cotton rods with a white turban, the lower part was narrow, and the upper part was much wider.
- Dolama Destar headgear, worn by the rowers of sultan boats, was a cloth or a shawl wrapped on a conical hat or a turban.
- Serdengeçti headgear distinguished the members of Janissary special forces. It was made of thick cotton, with a sharp peak leaning to the left, to show the privilege badge. Serdengeçti or Dalkılıç Janissaries were special forces who performed the most dangerous tasks - capturing the castles, attacking the enemy lines, etc.
- Dardağan, made by wrapping a white turban around a thick felt, was worn by the majority of Janissary troops.
- Bork headgear was very tall and had long dangling ends at the back to buffer the sword hits. In front of the bork, there was a place called kaşıklık for keeping a spoon as a symbol of fraternity of the Janissaries.
The gravestones of the bureaucrats of the Ottoman court can be distinguished by the specific types of headgears called Paşalı and Kallavi - worn by pashas and viziers. The tombstones of the masters of various religious orders can also be seen, decorated by the headdresses worn by the members of particular Sufi sects, such as Mevlevi or Gulşeni.
The entrance to the exhibition is free of charge.
Turkey Gravestones is a great source of information concerning historical burial sites in Turkey and the types of gravestones that can be seen there.
Selimiye Mosque Ottoman gravestones open-air exhibition centre is located between Selimiye Mosque and the Archaeological Museum, next to the historical Saray Baths.