“And this is why no bird will ever shit on this mosque.”
Turkish people like stories; well to be fair, probably everyone does. But still, for me it seems the phantastic stories of the Turkish people are ceaseless in their buds and blossoms. And of course, who wouldn’t pin one or two stories to the man who is known under such a range of exotic names like the greatest architect of the Ottoman empire; the Euclid of his time; Michelangelo of the Ottomans?! One of the stories takes us to the little picturesque Semsi Pasha Camii in Üsküdar which Sinan built exactly at a spot of a very specific microclimate. Apparently there are two winds crossing right over this mosque (and apparently they’ve been crossing for almost 4 centuries since the construction. Proof for Sinan’s far-sightedness?!), making it impossible for birds to fly over the mosque’s dome and hence making the contamination of the dome with bird’s feces impossible! Some say, it’s a sad day for the birds, others say it’s a stroke of a constructional genius. Again others say they just saw a bird sitting on the dome yesterday.
5 Centuries Later 4 Seasons in Istanbul from Sinan’s Minarets
But enough of the storytelling, here come the hard scientific facts! Who was this man, whose architectural works form the skyline of the ancient as well as the modern Istanbul? There is no official biographical data available but historians quite agree that Sinan was born in a village near Kayseri, Cappadocia sometime between 1490 and 1515. One might think that the chief architect of the Ottoman Empire, who would be forever connected to the most accomplished and intricate buildings which he build in the name of the Sultan would be a full-hearted Muslim (at least I did), since he devoted all of his passion towards not only the earthly Sultans but mainly to places of worshipping Allah and his religion. However, he was born into an Armenian or Greek family as a Christian and was converted to Islam due to the back then very popular method of “devsirme”. You see, this was a widespread tradition in which a delegation of the Janissaries, the Ottoman imperial army, would visit different areas and cities in the Empire and ‘pick’ young Christian boys which showed promise on the prospect of a career in the army. They then would be taken to Constantinople, where they were converted to Islam and were to start a career within the army.
It was a procedure to ensure that the Sultan’s army consisted of young, vital men who showed intelligence and were capable of achieving and fulfilling great positions in the Empire’s political apparatus. The impact of the devsirme is judged differently by historians, from only being applied to very few villages and only a few boys being taken to Constantinople to devastating consequences for some areas where whole generations were basically swiped out. Anyhow, one can imagine how this must have been for the boys themselves: taken away from their families and villages and being forced to practice a religion which is not their own in a surrounding they do not know. Contemplating all this, I found the life of Sinan very contradicting concerning this aspect: How could Sinan, who experienced this kind of uprooting and was subject to this forced conversion to Islam himself, devote himself to exactly the man and the Empire which were responsible for this in the first place? How did the Sultan sort of win him over? What happened that he stayed faithful to this Empire and its Emperors?
Well, one thing is sure and that is that we cannot ask him unfortunately. Of course it is possible that the devsirme wasn’t as traumatizing as I think them to be (but the boys were between 8 and 14 years old! EIGHT!) Or the prospect of the career ladder they were going to climb let them forget about it.
Because even though those boys were somewhat enslaved to the Sultan, they also had really all possibilities to enter the highest ranks of the imperial government after they succeeded their education. So it happened to Sinan: Within the palace school he was educated in carpentry and engineering and soon joined several campaigns of Sultan Suleyman I in Egypt, Belgrade and Rhodes where he for example was responsible for building bridges so the army forces were able to cross rivers. It is important to remark the far and numerous travels that he made due to the many campaigns he attended, as the variety of architectural styles he encountered will affect his own style. Sinan soon came to attention to his officers and superiors and was first promoted to be chief technician; with the age of fifty, he became the head of the office of royal architects, hence chief architect of the Ottoman Empire.
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