The Uzunköprü Bridge is the unique construction from the Ottoman period as the longest stone arch bridge in Turkey. It spans the banks of the Ergene river, a major left tributary of the Maritsa (Meriç), flowing entirely in the East Thrace region.
The history of the human settlement in the area reaches the Neolithic period, i.e. 8000–5500 BCE. The archaeological surveys, conducted near Kırkkavak village, revealed fragments of ceramics with unique designs. In the 15th century BCE, the region was inhabited by the Thracian tribes and starting from the 7th century BCE, the East Thrace was ruled by the Greeks, Persians, Macedonians, and Romans.
On the other hand, the exact location of the town of Uzunköprü was not inhabited in these periods because of the disadvantageous conditions. It was the area of vast swamps and dense forests until the Ottoman conquest. When the Ottomans captured Adrianople (now Edirne) in the mid-14th century and made it their capital city, the region of Uzunköprü was located on a highly strategic road connecting the new capital to the Gallipoli Peninsula and the Western Rumelia.
The town, now called Uzunköprü, was the first Turkish city established in Thrace, founded in the early 14th century by the Ottoman Sultan Murad II. At the same time, the famous Long Bridge (tr. Uzunköprü) was built by the order of the sultan. The work was led by the architect Muslihiddin, the chief state architect of the period, to span the Ergene river. The construction of the bridge was intended to facilitate the crossing of the river, which was a natural border, making it difficult for the Ottoman troops to march to the Balkans. Sultan Murad II decided that a stone bridge in this location was necessary because his troops could not cross the river during the Gallipoli campaign. Especially when heavy rains caused floods, the temporary wooden bridges collapsed easily. Thus, a permanent construction was needed for the military purposes.
The first stone bridge, constructed between 1424 and 1427, did not meet with the sultan's approval and was quickly demolished. The second construction took a long time as the works started in 1427 and finished in 1443. Because the works lasted for such a long period, it became necessary to meet the needs of the construction workers and the soldiers who protected them. In this way, the town developed gradually near the bridge, while various buildings were added, including a mosque, a public kitchen, a religious school, a bathhouse, and two water mills. Moreover, a caravanserai was built for the travellers and merchants passing the town. The town expanded and prospered, attracting Turkish settlers from various regions of Anatolia and Thrace.
Sultan Murad II was personally in attendance during the opening ceremony of the long-awaited bridge. The original name of the bridge, Cisr-i Ergene, referred to the river and also became the name of the whole settlement. Because of the bridge, the town developed a thriving commercial centre, as the merchants carrying the goods between Thrace and Anatolia passed it on their overland route.
The bridge was built of ashlar blocks of limestone and travertine, obtained from the quarries at Yağmurca, Eskiköy, and Hasırcıarnavutköy villages bound with Horasan mortar. The original length of the bridge was 1392 meters with the extended wings, today non-existent. The unusual length of the bridge, once carried on 174 arches, was because it was constructed over wetlands. They were created by the seasonal floods of the Ergene river that rapidly increased its level in the rainy season. For this reason, the arches directly above the river are higher. The largest of these arches has a span of 13.10 meters. The widths of the arches varies between 4.68 meters and 13.55 meters.
Some of the arches of the bridge are pointed, and some - rounded, for an unknown reason. They are decorated with the reliefs depicting plant and animal motives such as lions, elephants, birds, eagles, tulips, as well as some geometric patterns - pentagons, hexagons, octagons, seven-pointed stars, Star of David, and a circle.
The norther side of the bridge, towards Edirne, has a sloping section where the arches rise slightly creating a kind of ramp. The section standing directly over the Ergene river is almost 44 meters long and has the largest arches that let the water flow through freely. The southern section, the longest one, turns to the southeast with a wide angle and slopes down towards the town of Uzunköprü.
The bridge underwent many restorations because over the centuries it was damaged by earthquakes and floods. The recorded repairs were made during the reigns of Mehmed II, Osman II, Mahmud II, and Abdulhamid II. The restoration of Mahmud II period was made in 1828 and is commemorated by a marble plaque placed on the bridge.
Today, the bridge is shorter and the initial number of its arches was reduced to 171 visible today, while two are below ground and two others were merged into one. Still, the bridge, 1238.5 meters long, is the longest historical stone bridge in Turkey. Moreover, when it was completed, the structure was the longest bridge in the Ottoman Empire and later in Turkey, a title which the Uzunköprü Bridge held for more than half a millennium, until 1973, when it was surpassed by the Bosphorus Bridge in Istanbul. Also, the width of the Uzunköprü Bridge was modified when it was widened from the original 5.24 meters to 6.8 meters during the restoration carried out between 1964 and 1971.
Interestingly, the bridge still serves travellers, but it is mainly a tourist attraction nowadays. For many years it was used by the E97/550 state road from Edirne via Uzunköprü and Keşan to Gelibolu and Izmir but now a new road and bridge over the Ergene, located to the east of the old bridge, replaced it in this role. The final restoration of the bridge was carried out in 2014 by the General Directorate of Highways.
The bridge was registered by the Edirne Cultural and Natural Heritage Board in 2010. Moreover, this outstanding bridge was added to the Tentative List of the UNESCO World Heritage sites in 2015.