Mimar Sinan, the Architect of the Ottoman Empire Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Mimar Sinan, the Architect of the Ottoman Empire

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Mimar Sinan (c1494 - 1588) was the Chief Imperial Architect of the Ottoman Empire at a time when the Empire was at its most successful. The title Mimar means 'architect'. Because he was the chief, his name is associated with most of the major architectural projects of the time. It's not clear, though, how many of them he designed and how many were done by juniors working for him - no architectural drawing has ever been found signed by Sinan. Nevertheless, many fine buildings both in Istanbul and in other parts of the former Empire are credited directly to Sinan. He is mostly associated with the design of mosques, as they are the most obvious and flamboyant of his constructions, but he also worked on bridges, aqueducts, hospitals, religious schools, guest houses and even tombs.

Life Story

Sinan was born sometime between 1494 and 1499, in the town of Ağirnas in the centre of Anatolia, the Asian part of what is now Turkey. He was born to a Christian family and bore the name Joseph. His father's name was Abdülmennam, but there's no record of him having any surname; surnames only became common in Turkey in the 20th Century.

The Ottoman Empire was a Muslim empire which tolerated other religions. People were free to practise any religion they liked, but there was a sharp distinction between the treatment of Muslims and non-Muslims. Muslims were required to serve in the army for a period, and could own land. Non-Muslims were not allowed into the army, could not own land, and had to pay higher taxes. Under a system known as devşirme, the sons of many poor Christians were taken from their parents and brought up as Muslims, being trained in the army once they reached adolescence. They became 'Janissaries', an elite army corps. This was to provide a group at the centre of the army which was loyal only to the Sultan and the Empire, preventing rich Muslim families from gaining too much control of the army1. The devşirme system was much disliked by the Christians, but the Janissaries could become very important people in the running of the Empire, even on occasion reaching the post of Grand Vizier, the second-in-command of the Empire, so sometimes families would offer up their children to become Janissaries voluntarily.

Sinan was between 14 and 18 years old when he was taken from his family to be a Janissary. He converted to Islam and took the name Sinan at this time. He was given an education and started to work as a carpenter and on building sites, learning the trade of a builder. He was keen to learn and to see the world. He participated as a soldier in a number of campaigns, gradually rising through the ranks and specialising in military engineering. In one campaign in 1534, he built three armed galleys which crossed Lake Van on a reconnaissance mission. As a result of this and other achievements, he was promoted to officer level.

In 1539, Sinan was appointed to the position of Chief Imperial Architect following the death of the previous holder of the post. This meant leaving the army. He was sad to go, but looked forward to the challenges of designing public buildings such as mosques. He went on to live a very long and productive life - he was already at least 30 when he was appointed to the post, and he worked as Chief Architect for another 50 years, serving under three different sultans. He amassed a considerable amount of wealth along the way.

There's no official portrait of the master architect, but a painting of the funeral of Sultan Süleyman, his most eminent patron, shows a figure in the background supervising the preparation of the burial site and carrying a measuring stick. This is thought to be Sinan. He has a large white turban and dark blue, flowing robes. He has a long, grey beard with streaks of black at either side of his mouth.

Sinan died in 1588, and was laid to rest in a small tomb which he designed for himself just outside the Süleymaniye Mosque Complex. In contrast to his works for others, it is plain and unassuming.

Major Works

Sinan is said to have designed, built or restored 477 different buildings and works during his lifetime. Now, four centuries later, about 200 of them still exist in good condition. Many of these are in Istanbul and it is hard to walk around the city without coming across a beautiful building designed by the master. We present here a selection of these works:

Süleymaniye Mosque and Complex

In 1550, Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent commissioned Sinan to build the biggest mosque in Istanbul. This was not just to be a mosque but a whole complex of buildings, including religious schools, guesthouses for travellers visiting the mosque, soup kitchens and a hospital. The site chosen was one of the most impressive in the city, on top of a hill looking down on the Golden Horn.

Sinan chose to base his design for the mosque directly on Hagia Sophia, the giant Roman church which had stood at the centre of the city since the 6th Century. It was the biggest church in the world for over a thousand years, and had been converted to a mosque when the city was conquered by the Ottomans in 1453. Its design is based on a square with a pillar at each corner and giant arches joining the pillars. The dome sits on top of the arches and is joined to them by pendentives, roughly triangular sections of a sphere which transfer the weight of the dome onto the arches. The square is extended at two ends by cylindrical apses roofed with half-domes. The other two sides of the square are filled in with a flat wall full of windows. At the base of these walls are doorways into other areas on either side of the church.

Hagia Sophia was designed as an Eastern Orthodox Christian church. Such churches rely on screens and walls to mark out separate spaces. As you enter the building you pass through a number of rooms, each one holier and more removed from the outside world. The holiest place, the altar, is reserved for the priest and is screened off from the public. Mosques operate on a different principle. The building itself is not considered holy; it is just a quiet and convenient place to pray together. So Muslim architects try and remove the internal walls as much as possible.

Sinan kept most of the basic design of Hagia Sophia in his design of the Süleymaniye Mosque, on a slightly smaller scale. There are the same four pillars, four arches and dome, the same apses on either end and the same side walls, but he opened up the side walls with lesser arches to make the spaces to each side more connected with the central space and therefore available for prayer. This also provides a lot more light into the mosque. By decorating the inside with a colour scheme which is mainly white, the mosque is very bright inside.

The result was completed in 1558 and is a joy to behold - the interior is spacious and bright, with beautiful calligraphic panels and geometric designs. From the outside the mosque is built from plain grey stone rather than the usual striped grey and pink look of most Byzantine buildings. There are a profusion of small domes of different sizes covering the outer, lower parts of the mosque, leading to a generally pyramidal look to the whole.

The mosque is surrounded by a complex of other buildings serving all the functions listed above. These are as much as possible designed identically, with low buildings each with a central courtyard surrounded by a covered colonnade and everything topped with lots of tiny domes. There's a magnificent tomb for the sultan, and a small unassuming one for the architect himself.

Rüstem Pasha Mosque

This small mosque is a gem. Situated in the area just to the west of the Spice Market on the south side of the Golden Horn, it's within a few hundred metres of the most tourist-infested areas of Istanbul but is surprisingly quiet and peaceful.

The mosque was commissioned by Rüstem Pasha, the Grand Vizier of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent. Rüstem was a Croatian who advanced through the military to the position of second-in-command of the Empire, marrying Mihrimah Sultan2, the daughter of Süleyman and Hürrem Sultan (also known as Roxelana). Rüstem was phenomenally rich, and like most wealthy Muslims he used his wealth to build mosques, schools and charitable institutions. Such mosques normally had shops or warehouses attached, and rental income from these provided for the upkeep of the mosque.

Rüstem Pasha Mosque was built during 1561-63. Because it was located in a busy and crowded part of the city, it was designed with the shops and warehouses underneath it. Entrance to the mosque is via a staircase which brings you up to a small open plaza on top of the shops. There's a columned portico and the main door of the mosque. The mosque itself is basically rectangular with one minaret. Normally only mosques dedicated to a sultan can have more than one minaret. Inside, the building is based around an octagon, with eight pillars, eight arches and a dome. The decoration inside went overboard on ceramic tiles from Iznik with geometric and floral patterns. There's barely a square metre of wall or ceiling that isn't covered in these beautiful blue, white and red tiles.

The Selimiye Mosque, Edirne

Edirne (Adrianople) had been the capital of the Ottoman Empire before the conquest of Constantinople in 1453. Sinan's mosque in Edirne was commissioned by Sultan Selim II and was built in 1569-74/5. Unfortunately, the sultan did not live to see its opening. While the mosque appears to have been completed around the time the sultan died in December 1574, it was not officially opened until 14 March, 1575.

It is the building that Sinan considered his greatest masterpiece. All his life he had lived in the figurative shadow of the Great Church, Hagia Sophia. The Romans who had built it a thousand years before had created something which he could only aspire to. Sinan's constructions were without a doubt more beautiful than Hagia Sophia, but not as big. With the mosque in Edirne, he finally created something comparable to the Great Church. Emperor Justinian is rumoured to have said 'Solomon, I have surpassed you' when Hagia Sophia was completed. In a similar vein, Sinan noted in his memoirs 'I have succeeded in building a dome six cubits wider and four cubits deeper than that of Hagia Sophia'. We can forgive this slight exaggeration - the dome in the Selimiye Mosque is in fact not quite as wide as that in the Roman masterpiece, although it is deeper.

As in Rüstem Pasha Mosque, this building is designed around an octagon, but on a much grander scale - the dome is over 31m in diameter and the mosque is huge. It was designed to be as much as possible a single space inside, and it was Sinan's intention that the mihrab, the ceremonial prayer niche indicating the direction of Mecca, would be visible from every point within the mosque. While the overall size of the mosque is less than the Süleymaniye Mosque, the wider dome covers a much greater proportion of the floor area, making the total space more impressive.

The mosque has four very tall minarets, each 84m in height. There is also a courtyard in front of the mosque surrounded by a roofed colonnade. This is a common feature of mosques and acts as an overflow area for when the mosque is very full.

The design of the mosque includes many clever features:

  • The use of eight rather than the usual four pillars to support the dome allows the pillars to be much narrower and no external buttressing is needed, leaving room for more windows. This is one of the brightest of the large mosques.

  • The arches inside the mosque and in the courtyard are painted in a striking red and cream striped pattern. This is echoed in the exterior doorways where blocks of red and cream stone are used to produce the same effect over all the doorways.

  • The minarets each have three balconies. In two of the minarets, these balconies are served by a triple-spiral arrangement in which three separate staircases wind up inside the minaret independently without meeting each other.

  • The ablutions fountain in the centre of the courtyard is without the customary canopy, which makes the courtyard feel more open.

The Tomb of Selim II

Ottoman tombs (türbe) are unlike tombs in the Western world. They are elaborately decorated inside, and often outside as well, and are carpeted inside so that visitors can remove their shoes and pray as is normal practice in mosques. The coffins themselves are on the floor in the middle of the tomb, covered in green felt.

Sinan was commissioned by Sultan Selim II to build a tomb for him, and the tomb was completed three years after the death of the sultan. It was built in the grounds of Hagia Sophia. It is a tall octagonal building with a dome, and uses the same sort of arched supports as in Sinan's many mosques. The walls inside are covered in tiles with geometric, calligraphic and floral patterns. The ceiling is elaborately decorated in abstract patterns using the malakâri technique in which wet plaster is shaped with a trowel and painted. There is an elaborate roofed portico at the entrance. The tomb is the final resting place not only of the sultan himself but also of many members of his family, making a grand total of 42 coffins on display. Each coffin has a statue of a headdress - a turban or hat - which indicates the deceased person's status.

The Mehmed Pasha Sokolovitch Bridge

Sinan built a few bridges in his time. The most famous is the Mehmed Pasha Sokolovitch Bridge across the Drina River in Vishegrad, Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is a real beauty which combines curves with straight lines and angles. There are 11 arches which are almost semicircular with just a hint of an Ottoman point at the top of each. The buttresses have triangular sections reminiscent of a Turkish tower roof, and the top of the bridge rises in a straight line from each side to form an angle at the centre. The bridge is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the UNESCO summary says:

The unique elegance of proportion and monumental nobility of the property as a whole bear witness to the greatness of this style of architecture.

The Mağlova Aqueduct

Since Roman times, Istanbul had relied on aqueducts to bring water to the city, as it is not built on a river. In 1555-63, Sinan rebuilt the main Kirkçeşme water system, which carries water for 55km to the city. There are 33 aqueducts along the watercourse, and five of them are known to have been designed by Sinan. The most impressive of these is the Mağlova Aqueduct.

Situated about 30km to the northwest of Istanbul, this aqueduct carries the watercourse across the valley of the Alibey River. Since the aqueduct was built the valley has been flooded and is now the Alibey Reservoir, so the base of the aqueduct is now in the reservoir. Sinan's aqueduct is 260m long and 36m high. It is fairly traditional in design, but the unusual triangular buttresses give it a strange, eastern flavour.

Haseki Hürrem Sultan Hamamı (Turkish Baths)

This Hamam or Turkish bath house, built directly in front of Hagia Sophia, was commissioned by Hürrem Sultan, the wife of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent. She was also known as Roxelana. The Baths are symmetrical, being divided down the middle into a male section and a female section. In each section there is a large building which houses the cool rooms and changing areas, and a smaller building which is the hot room. Each of these four buildings is covered in a dome.


The students of Sinan went on to design some outstanding buildings of their own:

  • The Sultan Ahmet Mosque, known to tourists as the Blue Mosque, was designed by Sinan's student Sedefhar Mehmet Aga. It is similar in design to the Süleymaniye, but achieves an even greater open space in the centre by using four giant free-standing pillars. Receiving five million visitors each year, this is reckoned to be the most visited mosque in the world.
  • The Stari Most (Old Bridge) of Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina was designed by Mimar Hayruddin, a student of Sinan. It stood for more than 400 years until destroyed in the Croat-Bosniak War of 1993. The current bridge is a reconstruction of the original.

Further Reading

  • The Architect's Apprentice: A Novel, Elif Shafak - an elephant tamer in the Sultan's menagerie meets with Sinan and becomes one of his apprentices. This is a great introduction to Istanbul in the time of the architect.
  • Sinan: the Architect and His Works, Reha Gunay - a detailed photographic study of Sinan's major works.
1In later centuries, the Janissaries became a group loyal only to themselves, extorting money from the people with Mafia-like protection schemes. In 1826, they tried to take control of the Empire from Sultan Mahmud II. He united the people against them, the institution was disbanded and all the Janissaries were executed.2The title 'Sultan' after a woman's name indicates 'princess'.

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