The Age of Sinan

Architectural Culture in the Ottoman Empire

By Gülru Necipoğlu
Published by Reaktion Books

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Book Review | Cornucopia 34

Sinan the Magnificent

By Tim Stanley


The sixteenth century was without doubt the high point in Turkish history. In the 1510s the state formed by earlier Ottoman sultans in Anatolia and the Balkans burst out of these bounds, seizing territories on every front and forcing the world to recognise it as a great power. The empire’s resources increased by leaps and bounds, and under Süleyman the Magnificent (1520-66) the new wealth began to be spent on ambitious architectural projects that radically changed the appearance of Istanbul, the capital, and other cities.

To do architecture well, though, you need a good architect, and, as Professor Necipoglu shows in her extraordinary new book, architects of any kind were in short supply at the Ottoman court in 1539, when the chief architect, Acem Alisi, died. So the grand vizier, Lutfi Pasha, turned to an outsider. The man in question was a Janissary officer called Sinan Suba?õ, who had trained as a carpenter and then proved himself in the field by working on a grand scale. He was an excellent organiser, with the ability to build large siege-engines and erect long bridges to a high standard and on time.

Sinan held the post of chief architect for fifty years, until his death in 1588. His achievements in that time were truly impressive. He refined the way his subordinates operated, turning his workforce into a remarkably effective means of delivering huge projects. He was responsible for the design and, in many cases, the construction of an enormous number of buildings, including a seemingly unending sequence of Friday mosques. These, he tells us, gave him the greatest pride.

Sinan generally covered his mosques with a single large dome, retaining the format inherited from his predecessors. But he showed greater mastery of the mechanics involved. He built sounder foundations and varied the support systems, allowing new and more elegant solutions to old structural problems. One result was that, although he made his domes larger, he was able to make them look as though they rested on very little. For he filled the walls below them with windows, so that they flooded the interior with light and distracted the eye from massive masonry with gracious arcading.

Sinan was also a successful self-publicist, dictating several versions of an authorised account of his own life to an assistant, and these have remained a key source on his work and his attitudes to it. Gülru Necipoglu’s new book, The Age of Sinan, might be taken as a continuation of this tradition of biography, like several before it. Yet it is not.

Yes, the word SINAN is written in letters two centimetres high on the dust jacket, dwarfing the rest of the title. And yes, Sinan’s personal history and his brilliance as an organiser, engineer, architect and propagandist form a key part of the narrative. But the book contains a great deal more. As its subtitle proclaims, the author set out to depict the whole architectural culture of the Ottoman Empire in Sinan’s time, and not just this one great architect’s role in it.

An illuminating point is Necipoglu’s reaction to the debate over Sinan’s ethnic origin. Basically the question is: was he Greek or was he Armenian? Preoccupation with this issue is, we are told, “a largely misguided and anachronistic exercise”. Why? Because Sinan cared so little about it that he didn’t bother to tell us. In his own writings, he is always a good Muslim, making buildings for a good Muslim ruler.

Islam forms a very significant part of the cultural context of Sinan’s work, which reflected a complex web of connected political, social, economic and aesthetic factors. This cultural context has, though, been underplayed in much previous writing on Ottoman architecture. Instead Sinan has been portrayed as a figure working within a self-contained world. Sometimes his buildings appear merely as the emanations of his brilliant mind: with limitless resources at his disposal, he was able to realise every subtle variation that occurred to him. Sometimes his work is seen as the sublime but inevitable culmination of the work of previous generations of Ottoman architects, who shared with Sinan an inborn need to construct a perfect domed hall of immense size. There is an element of truth in all these interpretations. However, they are only partial truths, and they are missing the glue to hold them together.

Necipoglu has now gone a long way to putting this right, providing a remarkable work of synthesis, devoted primarily to Sinan’s major mosques. It forms an enormous volume of 592 pages, with 546 illustrations and five maps. In it she has compiled and reordered all the useful observations made previously; she has re-examined the standard sources, viewing them critically but without obvious prejudice; and she has added an immense amount of information gleaned from the buildings themselves, from archival documents, and from a wide range of narrative sources. The results can be enlightening.

The book is divided into three parts. The first surveys the process of architectural patronage. For example, who had the money? Well, primarily the sultan, and, after him, his relatives and his leading servants. By Sinan’s time, the latter were almost entirely men of servile origin who had been allowed to marry into the sultan’s family. But, despite their power, they were subject to a variety of rules. One set came from the Shari’ah, defining the circumstances in which a mosque could be built. Others were less tangible.

A useful concept that Necipoglu introduces in this section is that of architectural ‘decorum’. This was an informal, and slowly shifting, body of opinion that acted rather like building regulations. It determined what type of mosque or house a person might build according to his or her social rank. It has long been known, for example, that only a sultan was allowed to build a mosque with a courtyard. It had also been clear that some high-ranking patrons circumvented this principle by having U-shaped medreses built in front of their mosques to create a substitute courtyard. What was less clear is that these examples fitted into a complex of rules that had to be negotiated by all Sinan’s patrons.

In this section, too, Necipoglu examines the aesthetic traditions to which Sinan and his patrons had access. These, she suggests, were more varied than we may have presumed. Through his service on campaign, for example, Sinan would have been able to see a great many historical monuments in Iraq and Iran, such as the tomb of the Mongol ruler Oljaytu in Sultaniyyah. At the same time, the number of Western diplomatic and other residents in Istanbul meant that he may have been able to learn about architecture in Europe secondhand. In any case, the availability of imported prints and printed books in Istanbul meant that Sinan would have been able to keep abreast of contemporary developments in Italy if he so wished.

While the first part of the book deals with issues of patronage, the second part is a closely argued discussion of Sinan’s biography and of the administrative framework within which he worked. In other words, it describes how the patron’s wishes were put into effect. The third part describes the result. It consists of studies of more than sixty of his buildings, arranged hierarchically rather than regionally or chronologically, with those commissioned by the most important patrons (the sultans) first. As the relative grandeur of the buildings reflects the status of the people who commissioned them, this arrangement is also in tune with contemporary views of architectural “decorum”.

The third part of the book is, in fact, a massive work of reference in its own right. Many of the buildings are covered in a page or so, but no fewer than nineteen pages are devoted to the Selimiye in Edirne, which is illustrated in a ground plan, an isometric projection, two photographs from the air, eight external photographs taken at ground level, a drawing of the north façade by Sedat Çetintas, and thirteen photographs of the interior. On one level, we have to be grateful for coverage on this scale, but on another it contributes to the enormous size and weight of The Age of Sinan, which may hinder its use by ordinary mortals.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

GULRU NECIPOGLU is the Aga Khan Professor of Islamic Art and Architecture in the Department of History of Art and Architecture at Harvard University. She is the editor of Muqarnas: An Annual on the Visual Culture of the Islamic World, and author of Architecture, Ceremonial, and Power (1991) and The Topkapi Scroll: Geometry and Ornament in Islamic Architecture (1995).

ABOUT THE REVIEWER

TIM STANLEY is Senior Curator for the Middle Easter Collections in the Asian Department of the V&A. His book, Palace and Mosque: Islamic Art from the Middle East, accompanied a travelling exhibition of artefacts from the V&A.

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