HOME About Barnaby Books        Reviews     Articles    Recommendations Links      Contact Info

Empire Builder: the legacy of Ottoman architect Sinan
Published Patek Philippe International Magazine, Vol III, No 5, winter 2011

No single city can match Istanbul. To those who have never been, I try to explain it as an urban cocktail formed from the history of Rome and the drama of New York. If that gets a curious look, I compound it by suggesting Paris draped over one of the pillars of Hercules at the entrance to the Mediterranean, or London packed with half the cathedrals and cloisters of England.

Those who have the good fortune to approach Istanbul by boat at dusk will have no need of such analogies. The drama of a blood-gold sky pierced by the silhouettes of medieval domes, minarets and towers, all set beside the rushing waters of the Bosphorus, will be etched in their memory. In the foreground will be the terrier-like activity of dozens of white ferryboats crisscrossing the straits, whilst in the background hums the thronging evidence of a rapidly expanding contemporary metropolis: suspension bridges, congested motorways, hundreds of merchant-ships anchored offshore, incoming aircraft and the gleam of the distant sharp towers of the financial district and uber-smart hotels.

Those who have landed in Istanbul, even for a half-day or a long weekend, will be caught in a web of rich, confusing experiences. Typically the garbled recollections will include tales about getting lost in the labyrinth of the covered bazaar and the treasure galleries of the Topkapi Palace, all set against the experience of the vastness of the prayer hall of the Blue Mosque, the throne room of the Dolmabaçe palace and the melancholic dignity of the interior of Ayia Sophia.

Only a tiny minority of travellers to Istanbul ­ those with energy, time, an inquiring eye and a fascination with shape and form ­ will respond to the word ŒSinan.' It takes a degree of commitment and satiation to crisscross the city tracking down works by the greatest Ottoman architect of all time. Sinan (which means Œspear') came from an Anatolian hamlet populated by Greek and Armenian peasants. As a man of 20, he was recruited to join the slave army of the Sultan, Selim the Grim, in around 1510. On one level, these enslaved Christian youths of the infamous Œblood tribute' were mere cannon-fodder for the sultan's wars, but on another, selection into the household of the Sultan meant the possibility of rising through the ranks to become a leading figure in the government of the Empire ­ a pasha or even a grand vizier. For the next thirty years, after four years basic training, which included conversion to Islam, Sinan served as a janissary soldier, rising through the ranks as he mastered the tasks of building pontoons, laying out an army encampment, commanding cavalry, building ships and directing the bombardment of fortress walls. He rose to be a Janissary colonel with two pious wives and a nest of children and adopted nephews, all safely housed in central Istanbul. His career, which spanned service in Hungary, Serbia, Bosnia, Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Persia as well as in his Anatolian homeland gave him hands-on experience of different architectural traditions, and allowed him to create a unique synthesis when he was appointed the head builder-architect to the Imperial court in 1538.

Over the next thirty years key members of the imperial family, particularly the greatest of Ottoman sultans, Suleyman the Magnificent, employed court architect Sinan to build them gifts to God. It is revealing of the essentially devout nature of Ottoman society that none of the summer kiosks, riverside palaces or townhouses that Sinan built for his august patrons survive. These secular structures were ephemeral affairs of wood, brick and plaster, whilst for their pious and charitable religious foundations, the Ottoman elite lavished vast fortunes to build with precision, order and stone.

This is the first characteristic of the era of Sinan ­ an almost Romanesque sense of order and permanence, enforced by a pleasing harmony of materials. His solid, confident exteriors of dressed limestone masonry lead up through an ascending scale of arches and vaults to support a cascade of lead-sheathed domes. Indeed Sinan's three grand Imperial mosques ­ the cathedrals, as it were, of the Ottoman Empire ­ were studies of power in stone. The ripple of domes over a porch process to a higher series ringing the outer courtyard of a mosque, all of which are but the base notes for the growing ascendancy of quarter and half domes which buttress the high, final, over-arching central dome. The imagery is insistent, from both a spiritual and a secular perception. As the great mosques are commanded by one dome, so is the Empire ruled by one Sultan, his authority buttressed by a descending authority of viziers, pashas, beylerbeys and aghas. Together, they shelter the believer.

Internally there is no need for any other symbolism than that all numbers ultimately lead to one ­ the square prayer hall and the single dome. This is unlike the architecture of Christendom, where the subdivision of internal space into porches, nave, chapel-encrusted side aisles and chancel expressed the heirachy between priests and congregation. Instead Sinan poured all his energy in creating one imposing prayer hall that dwarfs the worshipper, for all believers are equal (and insignificant) under the one God. All internal decoration ­ wall tiles, stained glass and carving ­ affirm the direction for Muslim prayer, facing towards Mecca. Even the famous floral motifs of the fabulous Iznik tiles that were created in this period (a chromatic swirl of four colours and flowers, typically peonies, carnations, tulips and wind blown reeds) are implicitly reinforcing Islamic faith. They are an insistent reminder of the great garden beyond the walls of the mosque, the heavenly garden created by God. Similarly the geometric designs carved into plaster or decorating the marble floors remind the believer that there is always one fixed point at the centre of the swirling distractions of the world. The Arabic calligraphy drawn in triumphant, exuberant scale on the dome, or hung in medallions beside the supporting drum, unite architecture with sound: the sound of Arabic prayer and the recitation of the Koran.

Sinan identified the Sehzade imperial mosque (built for the son of Suleyman, who predeceased him) as his apprentice piece, the Sulemaniye, for the Sultan himself, his work of qualification and the Selimiye, built for Sultan Suleyman's surviving son and heir, Sultan Selim II, as his masterwork. These three edifices were all built on time and on budget, yet they were only a fraction of his oeuvre. He is thought to have supervised and designed 476 buildings (some list 360) of which 196 survive. These include charitable hospices, hospitals, tombs, schools, fountains, university colleges, dervish monasteries and public bath-houses, often built as part of the complex of a memorial mosque for one of the great figures at the court of Sultan Suleyman. There were also more routine imperial duties to be undertaken. Sinan repaired ancient mosques, built bridges (one of which has inspired a nobel-prize winning novel) and aqueducts worthy of the Romans to bring fresh water into Istanbul, not to mention rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem.

The most revered of the works of Sinan are the mosques he built for the imperial family. Not all are masterpieces, though one suspects this was as much to do with an interfering patron, or being employed to complete a half-finished project, as with any lack of personal talent. For his command of detail is always impeccable, whether it is the fitted wall cupboards in a student dormitory, a series of chimneys that draw perfectly, gutters that drain, or buttresses half-hidden in the depths of a wall. He never constructed unnecessary ornaments, but used evolving embellishments to strengthen the true function and purpose of a building. And he commissioned many of the most talented craftspeople of the time ­ Ibrahim the Drunkard, the mercurial genius of Ottoman stained glass, the hereditary guild of Tabrizi potters as well as the court calligrapher (who in the Ottoman tradition stood at the apex of all the applied arts).

At times, Sinan seems to have so understood his brief that he succeeded in translating some aspect of the character of his patron into stone. By adding a row of goldsmiths' booths to the Sulemaniye complex, he made reference to the Sultan's own training in that craft. The four minarets are customarily read as a reference to Suleyman as the fourth Sultan to rule in Istanbul, whilst the ten balconies for the muezzin to call the hours of prayer refer to the Sultans position as tenth in line from the founder of the dynasty. Even more impressive was his brilliant evocation of Rustem Pasha ­ the Uriah Heap of Ottoman politics. This tight fisted, mean-mouthed miser was notorious for the bad language and his youthful occupation as a Croatian swineherd, yet he was also an efficient and loyal minister to Sultan Suleyman. Sinan commemorates Rustem Pasha with a supremely elegant mosque built above a vaulted basement, whose spaces are rented out as shops and storehouses, so that the noises, smells and babble of noise from the bazaar waft up into the exquisite prayer hall, decorated with a magpie's nest of Iznik tiles from the Pasha's collection. Sinan's first, and arguably most loyal and influential, patron was the Lady Mihrimah, the moon-faced daughter of Sultan Suleyman, who is commemorated by a bafflingly high and delicate hall of light. Hundreds of years before its time, it has survived intact beside the old walls of the city and a busy highway to become the cherished role model for half of the modern mosques being built today in the Turkish countryside. Finally, in the mosque he built for Sokullu Mehmet Pasha, one of the most enlightened and principled of all the brilliant viziers who served the sultans, one cannot but see the perfect union of patron and master-craftsman. It is strong, enduring, classical, clever, forever enchanting, inventive, of its time but also made not for eternity, but as Sinan once assured his master, Œto stand until the Day of Judgement'.

Back to Articles page

Recent Books
by Barnaby Rogerson

The Heirs of the Prophet Muhammad: And the Roots of the Sunni-Shia Schism

Book of Numbers

The Prophet Muhammad: A Biography