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Sinan, the Architect
Jan 1, 1993

Sinan is one of the most internationally renowned and admired architects, and certainly the best architect of the period which European history designates the High Renaissance. Sinan lived a tremendously long life, a year or so short of a hundred years, from 1490 to 1588. This century of Sinan’s life coincides with the most affluent and powerful period of the Ottoman Empire which, during that time, stretched across the three continents of Asia, Europe and Africa. Ottoman civilization then enjoyed unprecedented wealth, energy, and self-confidence, which led to the emergence of a great number of notable figures in the arts and sciences, as in politics and administration, and law and theology.

The Ottoman treasury had a surplus of revenue coming in from the booty of wars, as well as from taxes collected from Muslims and non-Muslims. This revenue was disbursed in expenditure on large and extensive public works on local amenities such as inns, hospitals, schools and places of worship, and on infrastructural projects such as bridges, roads, canals, and so on, in the conquered territories. The Ottomans aim was not to expropriate the wealth of these lands in the form of raw materials or slave labour, as the Western powers did in the lands they conquered. Rather, their aim was to spread Islam and thereby spread civilization and justice. There are a considerable number of historical buildings, bridges, inns, schools, etc., in Europe, Asia and Africa, which date from this period, some of them still in use even now. Thus, the milieu in which Sinan was born and grew to manhood was conducive to the discovery and development of his extraordinary genius. Today the works of Sinan the Architect can be found, and are admired, on three continents. The son of one Abdulmennan Efendi, Sinan was born in a small village called Agirnas in Kayseri in 1490, where he spent his childhood. In 1512 he was selected and brought to Istanbul as a recruit to the Janissary division. His life changed completely as a result of this move, new horizons opened up before him. He took part with the army in the Chaldiran campaign in 1514. Two years later, he again campaigned with the Ottoman army in Egypt under the leadership of Yavuz Sultan Selim during the years 1516-1520. During these campaigns, he saw and studied the arts of Anatolia, Persia and Egypt. In 1520 he joined the service of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent and began his university education the same year. He served as a zemberekcibasi in the battles of Rhodes, Belgrade and Mohac. Here too his mind was busy, now picking up the styles and techniques peculiar to Western architecture. He went even to Baghdad and Persia during the campaigns there, in 1529 and 1536 respectively.

In that last campaign the army had to take Van Castle situated on the shore of Van Lake, the biggest in Turkey. Sinan was commissioned to design and build three galleys which the Army needed in order to conquer the Castle. He completed this task so successfully that he was given command of the galleys. On his return to Istanbul, he became the haseki or personal bodyguard of the Sultan. In 1537, he prepared the navy for a jihad to Italy. After two years, he was appointed super-intendent of police.

As the reader will have gathered, already at the age of 49, Sinan had yet to embark upon the career that was to make him world-famous. The duties given to Sinan so far had nothing directly to do with architecture. However, when in 1539 he was put in charge of the Ministry of Public Works his life and work changed dramatically. From 1539 until he passed away, he worked continuously constructing a seemingly endless series of the most remarkable and magnificent monuments from Bosnia to Makka.

Beginning in the West, according to historical documents, Sinan organized and supervised the construction of some public building on behalf of Sokullu Mehmet Pasha in Bosnia. The most important work of Sinan’s, in what is now misnamed Yugoslavia, is the 180-metre long Sokullu Mehmet Pasha Bridge on the Drina river. In Greece too there is a Sinan-designed mosque, built for Osman Pasha. In Budin, the capital city of Hungary at the time, Sinan built another mosque, this one financed by Sokullu Mustafa Pasha.

In the Eastern part of the Empire, there is a mosque and tekke (lodge) named the Qanuni Sultan Suleiman Mosque in Syria which was built by Sinan. The second of his major works was the Husrev Pasha Mosque in Halep. We can see another of his mosques in the Crimea built on behalf of Devlet Giray Khan I of Crimea. In Makka, the House of Allah was enlarged by Sinan: first of all the pillars were put in place and later minarets. In the city centre, there were a number of buildings, including Turkish baths and a university, attributed to Sinan. However, today, none of these have been conserved because of misguided Saudi hostility towards their Ottoman heritage.

Naturally, Sinan paid special attention to Istanbul as the Imperial capital. He solved its drinking water and transportation problems, as well as designing the city’s sewage system. He constructed roads and bridges; he established its navy and navy buildings; he also restored or renovated castles; he built public watertraps, dykes and waterways; and he built inns, schools, hospitals, dormitories, and so on. He restored the Aya Sophia Mosque and deserved, in every respect that his name be inscribed on the golden pages of Ottoman history and Islamic civilization. It was by his help that Constantinople, the centre of the Eastern Roman Empire, was converted into a great Islamic city, Istanbul, and the capital and centre of Islam.

Three of his monumental works are generally accepted as representing the three stages of his work. The first, the Shehzadbasi Mosque, is referred to as his apprentice work. The second, the splendid Suleymaniye Mosque is described as his master-craftsman work. Finally the Selimiye Mosque is said to be Sinan’s supreme masterpiece, the most sublime of his extraordinary achievements.

Among the fascinating innovative features of these mosques are, in the Suleymaniye mosque, 64 large earthenware jars, 50cm in length placed upside-down, which function superbly as resonating chambers for the recitation of the imam. There is also a small chamber just above the main entrance which accumulates the soot emanating from the huge candles and oil filters. The soot is carried through by means of a very soft breeze circulating inside the mosque. The black powder collected in the chamber was the best raw material available at the time to make the fine inks used during the Ottoman Empire. The mosque is situated in a compound of 700,000 square metres, housing, as well as the mosque itself, four schools, a faculty of medicine, a library, an inn, a primary school, private premises for those studying the sciences of hadith and kalam, a big bazaar and, finally accommodation facilities for the staff. The construction took seven years during which 164 account books were kept to certify where each of the 996,300 gold coins allocated to the whole project were spent.

As for the Selimiye mosque, the great man himself judged it to be his masterpiece and believed that with the construction of this mosque, Islamic sacred architecture gained an unequivocal victory over Christian sacred architecture. He himself wrote of the Selimiye:’I concentrated the whole of my powers on the Selimiye mosque. I meant to put on show the whole of my talent [so that] even if all architects and construction engineers were to come together and do their best, they would not be able to build such a masterpiece of art.’ The two minarets of the mosque are utterly stunning: although there are three winding stairways leading to each landing (sherefe), a person climbing up to any of the landings cannot, from any point during his ascent, see anyone else climbing the other. The stairways are so delicately twisted that mathematicians with very powerful modern computers have difficulty calculating the linear formulas needed. The subtlety of Sinan’s use of colour to match and vary the lines of the stairways will be clear from the photograph.

Sinan built the dome of such awesome dimensions deliberately to exceed those of the Aya Sophia: it is roughly 5 metres higher and 3.5 metres deeper. The simple reason for this rivalry was that some arrogant architects among the Christians had claimed that a dome could not be raised in the Islamic world as large as the one they had put up in the Aya Sophia. They were proud of what they had achieved to the point of claiming that such a dome would be virtually impossible to build again. In the end, Sinan more than matched what had been achieved before him: he exceeded it by a substantial margin in both engineering and artistic terms: The radius of the dome of the Selimiye mosque is 31.5 metres, while its weight is 2,000 tons.

By the time the Selimiye was completed, 400 master craftsmen and 14,000 workers had laboured on it day and night for seven years. In all, 28,000 purses of gold were spent on the project. The famous German architect and historian Professor Ernst Dier said of it: ‘...the Selimiye is above all architectural monuments in the world from the point of view of size, height, unity and brightness.’ Another European commentator expressed his admiration in these words: ‘This is not a man-made building rather it is a place for divine worship descended from heaven.’

Frank Lloyd Wright, one of the best-known architects of our time wrote in his book: ‘Two architects have come on earth. The first one is the Ottoman architect Sinan and the other one is myself. Sinan was a contemporary of both Italian Michelangelo and British Christopher Wren. While the cracks on the dome.., built by Michelangelo are being repaired by iron hoops by the blacksmiths of Rome. Sinan’s temples will stand until Doomsday.’

Sinan served four Sultans and was profoundly admired and appreciated by all of them. He had 77 properties, 40 of which were shops, inns, Turkish baths. Before he died, he established and funded a waqf (charity trust) and specified in his will that the house he resided in be made into a school, with six akche a day (old currency) to be allocated for the teachers of that school, and that orphans and widows be given clothes, and wood and coal for heating. Only a small percentage of the income of the trust was given to his family in accordance with the will. He also wished that one-thirtieth of the Qur’an be recited for his soul’s sake and one akche be given for this. As we learn from the biographies written of him, he was a very generous man. Every day and evening, some twenty to thirty people used to come and eat at his expense.

We should also record that he gave away not only his personal wealth for charitable purposes for the benefit of his fellow-men, he also passed on all his knowledge to hundreds of architects and thousands of master-craftsmen.