“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.
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.
The Ottoman royal architecture has always been influenced by one example, one blueprint: The Aya Sofia in Constantinople. Being the greatest church of Christendom before the construction of Saint Peters Basilica in Rome, its gigantic dome which seems to be held from smaller domes but is actually set on a square main hall has set an example of perfect symmetry, balance and harmony.
Ottoman mosques henceforth used the Aya Sofia as sort of a blueprint for the construction of their mosques but it was Sinan who brought this architectural form to perfection. While his oeuvre includes bridges, baths, mausoleums, mescits, palaces, kitchens, schools and far more, there are three masterpieces that capture his exceptional style. Historians consider them as symbolic milestones of his career, the first one being the Sehzade Camii which is seen as his “work of apprenticeship”. The Sehzade Mosque was built by orders of Sultan Suleyman in order to commemorate his son, Prince Mehmet who died early. It is a complex containing türbe for Prince Mehmet and Rüstem Pasha, a tabhane (hostel) and a madrasa (a theological school). It is the first monumental building under Sinan’s supervision and shows the sort of dome cascade of a main dome, supported by half domes and a third row of domes, which is later becoming Sinan’s trademark of sorts.
The second masterpiece – the “work of journeymanship – is the complex that was built for Sultan Suleyman himself, the Suleymaniye camii. Being built on the hill overlooking the golden horn, the mosque offers a beautiful on Pera, “the other side” of Istanbul still dominates the skyline of ancient Constantinople today. Without going into too much detail about architectural and engineering intricacies, it is definitely worth going there with some time for just contemplating the sheer size and glory it transmits.
Exploring the Suleymaniye complex, it gives you a very good idea of the concept of such complexes and their agenda in the Ottoman Empire. It was not only a place to go for prayer in the mosque, but such complexes were designed to suffice for every aspect of life: Suleymaniye complex contains a primary school with dormitories for children who were in need of care, a medical school, two medresses (colleges) for advanced studies, a pharmacy and a hospital, as well as something they call “catering facilities”, so let’s say kitchens, shops and of course a hamam. Complexes like this were built for charitable reasons and they formed centers of urban life within the mahalle or semt. Other than the well preserved minor buildings, the complex of course also distinguishes itself with the mosque. Legend has it that Sinan built the foundation of the mosque and then disappeared for five years and did not resume the construction. After five years, when answering the indignant Sultan’s interrogation where he had been, Sinan said that the mosque was so big and voluminous, that the fundament had to settle for five years in the soil in order to start the ground building – and here again we come across the phantasy of Turkish story-telling. It is an outstanding example of Sinan’s eye for perfect symmetry and the ability to let a 50m high dome still seem lofty and light. On the inside, rather than with abundance of tiles and colors like the blue mosque, Suleymaniye camii intrigues more with simplicity and an (invisible to the eye) special window system that Sinan installed in order to trap the soot of the candles in the huge chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. The soot would stay within a screen of the windows, was collected and then used as ink for the calligraphers – Sinan seems to have been a trailblazer for sustainability.
But even though this was and remains today a true gem of Ottoman architecture at its finest, Sinan considers his true and most perfect masterpiece the Selimiye mosque, which is unfortunately not in Istanbul, but in Edirne, the former capital of the Ottoman Empire. I did not get the chance to travel to Edirne myself but apparently, the Selimiye Külliyesi alone makes it worthwhile. Once being commissioned by Selim II, it is an UNESCO World heritage site since 2011 and it is considered the only domed structure that truly rivals with the Aya Sofia; a goal that Sinan always strived to accomplish. Being similar to Suleymaniye camii in some parts, the Selimiye mosque takes no use of half domes or other supporting annexes and the four minarets are one of the tallest ever build (71m or for the Americans: 230ft). Sinan was about eighty when he finished working on the Selimiye mosque.
It is said that Sinan died with the age of around hundred. While his age cannot be pinned down absolutely accurately, hundred seems quite a good number for a man who was always a fan of symmetry and completion. He is buried on the property of the Suleymaniye külliyesi, close to one of his most generous patrons. He served as imperial chief of architecture under the reign of 4 Sultans: Sultan Selim I (who appointed him chief of architecture), Suleyman, Selim II and Murad III. A defined number of works cannot be precisely told but are estimated at close to 500. While some of them were destroyed due to earthquakes and fires, his three masterpieces still stand the test of time to date. In his never repeating but still clearly recognizable style, Sinan really was one of the multifaceted geniuses ahead of his time.