Sinan The Architect

The information we have on the life and personality of Sinan is rather limited. We have no work or theoretical exposition written by him. If there have been sketches or plans drawn by him anonymously, as was the practice at the time, they have not reached US. Sinan was born a Christian in the village of Agirnas, in the province of Kayseri. We do not know the precise date of his birth, but it must have been place sometime between 1494 and 1499. He was recruited in 1512 or 1513 by the “devsirme” to be enrolled in the janissary Corps. It was the first time a child was recruited for that purpose in the area of Kayseri. At the time he was recruited, Sinan must have been between fourteen and eighteen years old. In the devsirme system, some of the recruited Christian children became janissaries while others were sent to the palace after receiving some education, to serve in various State offices. As with the other children, Sinan must have first been sent to work on a farm outside Istanbul so that he could become familiarised with the language, religion and customs. He was later sent to the Acemi Ocagi, a sort of palace school, where he practised carpentry and worked on building sites. Under the reign of Kanuni Sultan Suleyman, he participated as a janissary in the Belgrade and the Rhodes campaigns, in 1521 and 1522, after which he was given the rank of” Atlisekban. He was promoted to the rank of “Yayabasi” after the battle of Mohacs, and later to that of” Kapiyayabasi”.  He participated in the German campaign of 1529-32 as a” Zemberekcibasi”,  as well as that of  Iran and Bagdad (the Irakeyn campaign) in 1534-35. He built three fully equipped and armed galleys for the crossing of  Lake Van. As a result of this and his other achievements as an engineer in previous campaigns, he was promoted to the rank of “Haseki” in the sultan’s bodyguards. After the puglia and Korfu campaigns (1537), he won wide recognition for the bridge he built in a very short time during the Moldavian campaign. During this campaign, the chief architect Acem Alisi died, upon which Sadrazam (Prime Minister) Lutfi Pasha appointed Sinan, then a “Subasi” (Superintendent), to the post of “Mimarbasi” (Chief Architect). Sinan’s previous successes in civil works played an important role in this promotion. When recalling this event, Sinan says he was sad to leave the army but happy to have the opportunity to accomplish other important things such as building mosques.

Sinan was already of a mature age when he became chief architect. He had seen monuments and works of different cultures during the campaigns he participated in, both in the west and in the east. He had been faced with problems that needed rapid solutions, and the army had given him discipline, self-control and organisational skills. The learning and experience thus acquired must have helped him develop his design skills and administrative talents. Sinan’s extensive career as chief architect lasted for some fifty years.

According to the documents which list his works, he designed, supervised, built or restored as many as 400 buildings. But if we consider the fact that he was in charge of the Imperial Body of Architects and the hugeness of the Ottoman territory, it becomes difficult to believe that all these works were directly produced by Sinan personally. However, with the exception of those built towards the end of his life, the buildings erected in Istanbul can be assumed to be his. Moreover most of Sinan’s smaller buildings have not reached us in their original condition, but the works Sinan realised in Istanbul are enough to demonstrate his enormous contribution to Turkish architecture.

Architects do not seem to have held an important place in the Ottoman State protocol. At a time when the empire was so powerful, Sinan designed buildings for three successive sultans, as well as numerous palace notables, a sure sign that he enjoyed a great popularity and was much appreciated as an architect. The fact that Kanuni Sultan Suleyman would have asked Sinan to lead the opening procession of  the Suleymaniye Mosque although he had had it built in his own name, is another unmistakable indication of such appreciation and esteem. According to the charter of the vakif  he founded in 1563, Sinan was able to acquire a fortune including 18 mansions, 38 shops, 9 houses, as well as land, mills, small mosques and schools. In 1583 he made his pilgrimage to Mecca, and had his life story and a list of his works written down by a poet friend. According to the inscription on his tomb, which is situated next to the Suleymaniye Mosque, Sinan died in 1588.

As an architect, Sinan obviously had a perfect understanding of the topographical and built environment of Istanbul, the city he contributed so many works to, and he was able to make the most of this knowledge. It is probably not wrong to’suppose that he must have visited and studied Saint Sophia very often.

At that time, Istanbul offered the spectacle of a developed city, expanded and adorned with hundreds of new buildings, which some of the most powerful Ottoman Emperors, such as, Fatih Sultan Mehmet and Kanuni Sultan Suleyman, as well as their relatives and high-ranking state officials, had had built next to remaining Byzantine buildings. All the revenues of the Empire flowed to the city, all the best artisans and artists gathered there. Sinan was at the head of an organisation responsible for construction activities throughout the vast territories of the Empire, with numerous buildings being erected in places ranging from Bosnia to Bagdad, from Crimea to the Yemen. Sinan had had the opportunity of travelling through many countries, visiting, studying and closely analysing much of the architecture. Besides his sense of space, he had thus acquired wide knowledge on structural support systems. That he should have designed the Sehzade Mosque only two years after being named chief architect is a sign not only of his architectural talent, but also of his wide experience and fine perceptive qualities. To the very end of his life, Sinan constantly studied, experimented and sought new answers to problems of topography, space, mass and supporting structure. In doing so, he provided diverse and highly elaborate solutions, which make him the great master of Ottoman, and even Islamic architecture.

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