The beginning of the Ottoman Empire was in 1299, and it grew steadily, putting an end to the Byzantine Empire in 1453 and reaching its maximum size by the end of the 16th century.
The Empire included a diversity of cultures, which were preserved locally, while its general character remained eastern and Ottoman. After its conquest, Istanbul became the artistic and cultural centre of the empire, diffusing its influence across its different provinces in proportion to the relations it maintained with them.
Eastern influences, especially those that accompanied artists brought back from the campaigns waged in the East by Sultan Selim I and his successor Suleyman the Magnificent -called Kanuni (Law-Giver) by his own people -were integrated into the vast and mature Ottoman culture, as had previously been the case with Byzantine architecture. The most brilliant period of Ottoman civilisation existed throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, during which the most famous names produced the highest achievements in the fields of science, administration and art. This was due in great part to the empire’s economic power, but also to a well organised and stable administration, the reign of justice and fairness, as well as a rational world view.
In Sinan’s time, the Islamic institution of the vakif or waqf, a kind of pious charitable foundation, was highly developed. It is through the establishment of such foundations and in a spirit of charity that sultans and members of their families, including their mothers, wives, daughters and sons-in-law, as well as viziers (ministers), and pashas (generals) have contributed many public works with other rich individuals following their example. We can say that practically all architectural works of that time were achieved through vakifs, but it was still the State which provided the revenues of the donors. Indeed many important State resources were entrusted to prominent people through the institution of the “mulk”. And this made it possible for viziers such as Rustem Pasha and Sokollu Mehmet Pasha and princesses of the Imperial Harem, such as Hurrem Sultan and Mihrimah Sultan (placed after a woman’s name the word Sultan means Princess), to order numerous vakif projects.
The reign of Kanuni Sultan Suleyman was a most active period in terms of public works, and Sinan was most lucky to act as chief architect at a time when resources were so abundant. The vakif system not only permitted the erection of such works, it also ensured their maintenance, which made it possible for them to survive until this day. Maintenance resources were provided through the revenues of shops, commercial buildings and kervansarays (hostels for merchants and travellers), hamams (public baths), bedestens (high-vaulted bazaars selling precious products) or mills, all built next to the donated monument. The administration of these revenues was entrusted to the vakifs. The establishment of vakifs was always encouraged, and many facilities were provided for that purpose. The founder of the vakif could specify how it was to be used through its administrative statutes or vakfiye. Such freedom of choice brought a significant plurality to Ottoman social and cultural life. As for other works which were directly undertaken by the State, they consisted of military establishments, roads and bridges, as well as palaces or similar buildings.
Ottoman Sultans of the 16th century acted not only as protectors of the arts but were also directly involved in their administration, establishing workshops specialised in every kind of craft. Artists and artisans of the Palace (the Ehl-i Hiref), ranging from painters to calligraphers, from carpenters to jewellers, were trained in these establishments, where they were then able to contribute to the art of the Empire in an atmosphere of harmony. The wages earned by these artists were higher than those of civil servants working at the Palace. This explains why architectural works were built with such care.