Every great architect is – necessarily – a great poet. He must be a great original interpreter of his time, his day, his age,” proclaimed the famed 20th-century American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The ever-humble Mr. Wright also maintained that there were only two architects in the history of the world worth talking about: himself and Mimar Sinan.
Mimar Sinan (or Sinan the Architect) is undoubtedly one of the most extraordinary architects of all time. He lived during the Golden Age of the Ottoman Empire, when vast wealth and power led to rapid growth and buildings being commissioned for the rich and notable across the Empire, especially in Istanbul. From the beginning of his architectural career in 1539 until his death nearly 50 years later, Sinan changed the practice of architecture in the Ottoman Empire and altered the appearance of Istanbul, contributing many of the buildings that remain part of the iconic skyline we see today.
It is not known exactly when Sinan was born, though 1489 is commonly accepted as the year. Nor is it clear who his family was. Both questions have triggered quite a lot of debate over the years. At the time of Sinan’s birth, the Ottoman Empire did not collect information about ethnicity, only religion, so we know that his parents were of the Eastern Orthodox faith. There has been much discussion about whether he was Greek, Armenian, or even Albanian, but we will likely never know the truth. In his lifetime, Sinan commissioned three biographies but never mentioned his ethnic heritage in any of them. He only stated that he considered himself a proud Muslim and son of the Ottoman Empire, thus suggesting that any other questions of ethnicity were not important to him.
Sinan grew up in the town of Agirnas, near Kayseri in central Anatolia. His father was a carpenter, and Sinan worked with him until he was conscripted into the Janissary Corps in 1512. He was sent to Istanbul, where he converted to Islam shortly after. He learned more about carpentry and mathematics, and quickly impressed his superiors. His intelligence and ambition soon led to promotions and advanced studies with architects. He traveled with the military and participated in campaigns in Rhodes, Belgrade, Austria, Baghdad, Corfu, Moldavia, Cairo, and Persia. He saw many different styles of buildings and learned much about architecture during these travels. Observing the demolition of enemy targets, for example, taught him important lessons about building structure and stability. Throughout all of these campaigns he continued to impress his superiors with his talents. In 1539, Grand Vizier Çelebi Lütfi Pasha appointed him the “Architect of the Abode of Felicity”, a very important job that entailed supervising the flow of supplies across the Empire as well as the design and construction of public works. Sinan remained in this top job until his death in 1588, although over the years the name changed to “Architect of the Empire”. Under that new title, Sinan became the head of an elaborate and efficient government department that trained a corps of court architects, as well as their assistants and students.
At the beginning of Sinan’s career, Ottoman architecture was very practical. Architects tended to repeat the same designs and motifs over and over, so there was very little variation amongst their constructions. Sinan changed this. His army experience had given him a realistic approach to architecture, rather than the theoretical approach of his predecessors. In this way, he was similar to some great Western architects, such as Italian Renaissance master Brunelleschi or Sinan’s contemporary, Michelangelo. During his long career, Sinan transformed the established architectural practices, elaborating on old traditions with new variations and innovations as he worked towards his goal of perfection.
In his biography, Sinan divided his career into three stages. He began with his apprenticeship period, which lasted from 1539 to the mid-1550s. This period is typified by the Şehzade Mosque in Istanbul. Throughout his career, Sinan was obsessed with the idea of a large central dome. For the Şehzade Mosque, Sinan designed a large dome that was surrounded by four equal half domes, something very different from traditional Ottoman mosque architecture. The Şehzade Mosque complex is thought by many to be Sinan’s first masterpiece. The simple design of this mosque hinted at Sinan’s future experimentations with different geometrical spaces and the way he would refine and pioneer new structural systems.
This was followed by Sinan’s qualification period, from the mid-1550s to 1570, which is typified by the Süleymaniye Mosque complex in Istanbul. It was commissioned by Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent when he was at the height of his powers and money was no object. The Sultan wanted his imperial mosque to be the grandest in the city, and picked a slope overlooking the Golden Horn as the perfect place from which it would overlook Istanbul. (The Süleymaniye Mosque has remained the largest mosque in Istanbul up to the present day, but, ironically, the Mimar Sinan Mosque that is currently being built in Ataşehir is set to steal that title away.) In this work, which Sinan was able to complete in just seven years, he once again added innovations to the dome design. During this period, Sinan also began adding more and more windows to his designs, flooding the prayer halls with light and experimenting with hexagonal and octagonal floor plans.
Sinan’s self-proclaimed master period lasted from 1570 until his death in 1588, and no one who has visited the Selimiye Mosque in the city of Edirne can have any doubt that this is truly his masterpiece. Sinan focused on unifying the mosque’s interior spaces and eliminating any unnecessary structures within. It was here that he was able to finally achieve his goal: a dome that was larger than that of the Haghia Sophia (even if only by 0.5 meters). The octagonal central dome is supported by eight simple elephantine pillars of marble and granite, while the many windows flood the interior with light. The seemingly weightless, light-filled centralized dome is what makes this mosque Sinan’s triumph, but the subsidiary design details, such as the slender minarets and intricate wall tiles and treatments, make it a thing of exquisite beauty. Sinan continued to work for more than ten years after this, but he could never improve on the perfection he had achieved with the Selimiye Mosque.
Aside from the beautiful buildings he’s left us with, one of Sinan’s greatest legacies was training his corps of architects so thoroughly that they went on to build some of the most beautiful structures in the world, such as the Sultan Ahmet Mosque (also known as the Blue Mosque) in Istanbul and the Taj Mahal in India. But no matter how capable or clever his trainees were, none ever came close to equaling Sinan’s accomplishments.
While not all of Sinan’s many innovations were as sensational as his domes, they remain of interest even today. One significant advancement developed by Sinan was in the area of earthquake engineering. He often built the foundations of buildings and then waited years to see how they settled before building on top of them. He also added drainage systems under buildings to protect the foundations from being damaged by moisture. The fact that Sinan’s buildings continue to stand after centuries of earthquakes while most of those around them have crumbled to pieces proves how successful he was. Sinan also pioneered some early environmental designs. For example, the many oil lamps and candles used in mosques generated a lot of smoke. Sinan used aerodynamics to pull the smoke out of the main room into a filter chamber, where the soot was collected and then used for making ink.
One final and enduring story that has developedaround Mimar Sinan is a fantastic tale of love. It is believed by many that Sinan was desperately in love with Sultan Süleyman’s daughter, Mihrimah, and proof of his love can be seen in the two mosques he built in her name in Istanbul. The first one was built in Üsküdar in 1548. (It is also known as the İskele Mosque, as it is right by the iskele, or quay.) The second was built in Edirnekapı in 1565. This second mosque is interesting because it has a single minaret, even though Mihrimah, as daughter of the Sultan, was entitled to two minarets. When the spring equinox occurs, if you have a clear view of both mosques, you will see the sun setting behind the single minaret of the Mihrimah Mosque while the moon rises simultaneously between the twin minarets of the Iskele Mosque. Many romantics will tell you that this was the ultimate love tribute to a woman whose name meant sun and moon in Persian, and whose birthday was March 21. Unfortunately, historians uniformly deny any affair, unrequited or otherwise, between Sinan and Mihrimah. That she was one of Sinan’s greatest patrons and the daughter of the Sultan makes it more likely that the genius design and placement of the mosques was simply a sign of his great respect and admiration for her. Which means this love story is nothing more than an enchanting legend, inspired by this fascinating city and one of its most incredible and beloved residents.