An architect and a man of science who never stopped experimenting with new ideas up to the day he died, Sinan created an architecture whose values remain universal even today.
Sinan is an architect who managed to unite in a single person the entire Ottoman architectural tradition in a period when the Empire’s political power and artistic achievement were at their zenith. The vast majority, and the most distinguished, of the buildings he designed were built in the empire’s then capital, Istanbul. Like a contestant in an architectural competition, he created ever more innovative works and made a significant contribution to the city’s silhouette by situating them to the greatest possible advantage in the urban topography. Simultaneously, he transformed Istanbul into a virtual open-air museum of unique architectural masterpieces.
LIKE THE TWO POINTS OF A COMPASS
Sinan was born in the village of Ağırnas in the Ottoman ‘sancak’ or province of Kayseri at an unknown date (possibly between 1494 and 1499). While undergoing training as a boy for the Janissary Corps (the Ottoman military class), he already put in his request for the occupation of builder and went out of his way to work on construction sites so as to attract the attention of the master builders. He says that at such jobs he felt as ‘resolute as the fixed point of a compass’ although he also ‘aspired to traveling in other lands like the compass’s moving point’. That aspiration was fulfilled when, as a janissary during the reign of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent, he took part in the Ottoman campaigns to Belgrade (1521), Rhodes (1522), Mohacs (1526), Vienna (1529), Germany (1532), and Persia and Baghdad (1534-35) and, despite a shortage of tools and materials, built three galleys armed with rifles and cannons to cross Lake Van for reconnaissance purposes. As a result of the engineering feats in which he had demonstrated his prowess in previous wars, he was promoted to the rank of ‘Haseki’ (sergeant at arms). A bridge he threw up hastily over the Pruth during the Moldova campaign of 1538 earned him great recognition, and he became ‘Chief Architect’ of the Ottoman Empire the same year upon the death of the previous chief architect, Acem Alisi.
The various cultural monuments of East and West that he saw on the campaigns in which he took part, the problems he encountered that needed quick solution, the discipline he acquired in the military, and his familiarity with supervision and organization must have given Sinan experience and insight as well as developing his talents for design and management. Serving as chief architect for the lengthy span of fifty years, Sinan during this period not only designed 477 buildings but also supervised the construction and repair of his designs. When we examine the life of Sinan we encounter the story of a creator who was never satisfied with what he did but was forever thinking, investigating and innovating further.
ARCHITECT OF MOSQUES
Sinan is an architect who made significant contributions to the design of mosques as the key spaces of Ottoman architecture. Haseki (1539), the first mosque he built after being appointed Chief Architect, is a traditional space typical of its period and exhibiting no innovations of any kind. But the Mihrimah Mosque (1540?-48) at Üsküdar, on which Sinan started work immediately afterwards, represents a turning point with its semi-domes that surround the main dome on three sides; before it was finished he embarked on the Şehzade Mosque as well. Starting from a single-domed structure on a four-pillar base, Sinan enriched the space by the addition of semi-domes, gradually elevating the central space and incorporating the entire structure inside a pyramid. The Şehzade Mosque is the most advanced example of a central dome atop a square base with four semi-domes. The buttresses that support the four pillars of this mosque are masterfully employed as design elements on both the interior and the exterior. If on the other hand they had been used purely for support, they might have appeared rather clumsy. Sinan would use such buttresses later in the Süleymaniye and Selimiye mosques as well.
Following the Süleymaniye, Sinan undertook a number of experiments on a hexagonal scheme under the influence of the Üç Şerefeli or ‘Three-Balconied’ Mosque that he had seen at Edirne. We observe in these experiments that the scheme of a central symmetrical space which he had implemented heretofore is extended now across the width of the mosque. Another problem whose solution Sinan discerned is that of surmounting a rectangular space with domes and semi- domes on a hexagonal scheme. Despite his firm attachment to the hexagonal pattern, we observe that Sinan returned occasionally to the square plan. And each return is characterized by further innovations and new initiatives.
Sinan never abandoned his quest for the new. The Rüstem Paşa Mosque with its dome that sits on an octagonal base is the product of yet another new design. The scheme with which he experiments here reaches maturity in the Selimiye Mosque at Edirne. With this mosque, which is not only the most beloved work of Ottoman architecture but also Sinan’s own favorite, he truly achieved his desire to surpass the Haghia Sophia. Secure on its weight-bearing system, it stands simple and whole under a monumental dome, bearing no resemblance to the Haghia Sophia in terms of either its space or the weight-bearing capacity of its hexagonal and octagonal schemes. And with this octagonal scheme that is employed in the Selimiye to monumental effect, the Haghia Sophia ceases to be a benchmark.
DESIGNER AND MAN OF SCIENCE
Although architects did not occupy a very important place in government protocol during the Ottoman period, Sinan’s position is quite different. Sinan, who designed buildings not only for three different sultans but for a large number of men of state as well, is known to have been a beloved architect of high standing. Charged by Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent with bringing water to Istanbul, Sinan successfully completed this extremely difficult and technically challenging job, thereby earning the sultan’s appreciation, as is evidenced by the fact that he assigned Sinan the task of inaugurating a great mosque like Süleymaniye which he had had built in his own name.
“The large mosques, smaller mosques and other important structures, which I first designed on paper and then constructed, I wrote up and developed into a unique treatise of thirteen chapters and entitled, ‘An Account of the Imperial Buildings’”, says Sinan. “It is my hope that the friends of pure heart who will glance at it from now until the end of time will take a generous view of it when they realize the seriousness and striving of my efforts, and that they will remember me in their prayers with good will.” This treatise, in the nature of a memoir in which he describes his life and works, documents the human acts of an ordinary human being. But when we consider his works and compare his complex designs and their implementation, which demanded so much knowledge and effort, with those of the West, Sinan emerges as a born genius who completed a large number of flawless monuments within a very short time.
Sinan was not blindly bound to tradition. He was a designer and a man of science who was analytical and open to new ideas, and who drew the correct lessons and inspiration from what he saw, forging a synthesis in accordance with his own views. Sinan, who continued experimenting and investigating right up to the end of his life, who found new solutions for problems of topography, composition, space, volume and structure, and who produced a wide range of advanced and original buildings, is an enduring icon of Ottoman, indeed of Islamic, architecture.