Monday, February 15, 2010

Sinan, the Unknown Architect

The BBC Saturday had an article on one of history's finest and most influential architects, a contemporary with Michelangelo and Bramante, whose works probably influenced Palladio, and yet, he remains largely unknown in the West; the great Ottoman architect Sinan.

Sinan more than any other architect created the city of Istanbul/Constantinople that we have today.

Istanbul from the Bosporus

In his long lifetime (he lived to be 100), he designed over 300 works throughout the wide dominions of the Ottoman Empire, and his influence can be seen in buildings from the Balkans to Egypt.

Sinan began his career as an architect very late in life, at the age of 50. He spent most of his life in the Janisarie corps as a military engineer. He was born the son of a Christian stone mason in central Anatolia and conscripted into the Janiseries at a very young age. As was the practice of the time, he was forcibly converted to Islam, and pressed into military service while still a very young boy. He spent most of his life in military service designing and building fortifications and siege works. When he was about the age of 50, the court of the Ottoman Sultanate began commissioning works of civil engineering from him such as bridges, aqueducts, and roads.

Uzunkemer Aqueduct, 1563

They began commissioning public buildings such as bathhouses, caravanseries (public inns for caravans), hospitals, madrasas (religious colleges), and mosques. His talent for such construction, and the elegance of his designs, came to the attention of the sultans. Sinan worked for a number of them, most famously for the greatest of all the Ottoman Sultans, Suleiman (known in the West as "the Conqueror" and in the Muslim world as "the Lawgiver").

In 1453, the city of Constantinople fell to the Ottoman armies, ending the Byzantine Empire and finally ending the last surviving vestige of the ancient Roman Empire. The conquering Sultan Mehmet II claimed the Roman imperial title of Augustus. He then visited the largest and most important of all churches in the East, Hagia Sophia. He began to pray in that church, and instantly transformed it into a mosque.

Hagia Sophia from the west

Hagia Sophia interior

The most important church in the Byzantine Empire and in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, seat of Emperor and bishops that determined orthodoxy for much of the world's Christians, became the most important mosque in the Ottoman Empire and a seat of Muslim religious orthodoxy.
The conquering Ottomans were already accomplished architects, but Hagia Sophia overwhelmed them. They had nothing to compare in size and complexity to that great church. The Great Church would remain an unmet challenge to Ottoman architects until Sinan.
Sinan loved the Great Church and studied it very carefully. Almost all of his greatest mosques are homages to its greatness and variations on its design. Sinan designed and built 3 of the 4 minarets that now adorn Hagia Sophia. The first is a slightly shorter minaret made of brick added by Mehmet II shortly after the church became a mosque.

The Sezhahde Cami was the first large mosque that Sinan built for Suleiman. Suleiman returned from one of his many campaigns in the Balkans to learn that his favorite son, Crown Prince Mehmet, had died at age 22. The mosque was to be his memorial.

Sezhade Cami exterior

Sezhade Cami interior

This is Sinan's first variation on Hagia Sophia on a scale approaching that of the Great Church. Sinan simplifies the church's design and turns it into a more centralized plan; a dome sitting upon 4 massive arches supported by 4 half domes. What Sinan admired most about Hagia Sophia was not its darkness and mystery, but its rational sequence of form from circle to square to rectangle and back to more circles. Sinan would transform Hagia Sophia's dark mysticism into bright clarity of form, with an added sense of harmonious proportion that he learned from the writings of Western architects, especially Alberti, and applies here so beautifully.
Sinan considered this building to be his best work. He took the prototype of the Great Church and gave it a grace of proportion and inevitability of form that the original did not have.

Sinan's largest and most famous mosque is the Suleimaniye Cami, the great mosque of Suleiman that crowns a hill overlooking the Bosporus. This was to be Suleiman's own memorial, a huge mosque that follows Hagia Sophia closely in design.

The Suleimaniye Cami from the Bosporus

The prayer hall of the Suleimaniye from the sahn, or courtyard of the mosque.

The mosque is only the centerpiece of a large complex that included madrasas, inns for travelers, a hospital, a public kitchen, and cemetery containing the Sultan's mausoleum and Sinan's own modest tomb.

One of the Four Madrasas attached to Suleiman's mosque.

This mosque follows Hagia Sophia most closely of all of Sinan's mosques. I would imagine that Sinan was following instructions from the Sultan himself, since the greatest ambition of his reign was to conquer Rome and to build a road from Constantinople to Rome. The Ottoman armies came close, taking Otranto in southern Italy, but did not succeed in that ambition. His march up the Danube was not stopped until his armies reached Vienna. His other disappointed ambition was the conquest of Persia. His armies were defeated by the Safavid rulers of Persia.
The great mosque that Sinan built for him reflects those ambitions, to take the mantle of Rome and to enforce Sunni Muslim orthodoxy upon the Shiite Muslims of Persia.

interior of the Suleimaniye

The interior of the mosque follows the prototype of Hagia Sophia very closely, probably reflecting the Sultan's wishes. The huge tympana on the sides are carried by 4 large porphyry columns recycled from earlier Byzantine buildings, and may have been Roman columns before that. Legend says that they are from the Church of the Apostles which in turn took them from a temple to the deified Emperor Hadrian. What mattered to the Sultan was that they played a role in identifying him with his distant Byzantine predecessors in Constantinople, and his more distant predecessors in Rome.

dome and vaults of Hagia Sophia

dome and vaults of the Suleimaniye

While the Suleimaniye follows the design of Hagia Sophia closely, there are significant differences that we can see when we compare the 2 interiors. Sinan gets rid of the two floors of galleries in Hagia Sophia and simplifies drastically the floor plan. Where large forms like the dome, arches, and semi-domes all flow together with their differences minimized in Hagia Sophia, Sinan emphasizes the transitions with large prominent arches. Whereas Hagia Sophia's interior is dark and full of mystery, the Suleimaniye is light, clear, and open.

Most critics and historians believe that Sinan's greatest work is his last imperial mosque, the great mosque built in Edirne for Suleiman's successor, Sultan Selim II. Sinan was in his 80s when he designed and built this mosque.

The Selimiye Cami, Edirne

Selimiye prayer hall from the sahn

dome of the Selimiye Cami

Sinan returns to the radial symmetry of the Sezhade Cami with a large dome sitting upon an octagon of arches, alternating between tympana and semi-domes. The Selimiye Cami is probably Sinan's most complex and sophisticated variation upon Hagia Sophia.

There are a couple of other works by Sinan that I really love that are less well known.
Such as the Mihrimah mosque in Istanbul, a large dome supported on 4 massive tympana.

The Mirhimah Cami, Istanbul

interior of the Mihrimah Cami

There is also the Mosque Sinan designed as a memorial for Sokollu Mehmet Pasha, a Serbian convert to Islam who served as Vizier or prime minister for the Ottoman Sultans.
The mosque is built into a hillside and entered by a steep subterranean stairway that arrives in the sahn of the mosque.

The Sokollu Mehmet Pasha mosque from the entrance staircase.

The design of the mosque is one of Sinan's most daring, a large dome resting upon a hexagon.

dome of the Sokollu Mosque.

The mosque is famous for the high quality of the Iznik tilework that adorns the qibla wall around the mihrab pointing the direction of Mecca, and on the pendentives between the arches supporting the dome.

qibla wall and mihrab of the Sokollu Mosque

tilework from the Sokollu Mosque

For all of their dependence on the prototype of a great Christian church, Sinan's mosques remain distinctly Muslim. His designs are about a sequence of transitions from shape to shape, from circle to square to hexagon to octagon. We see similar sequences in Islamic pattern, which is why his architecture harmonizes so beautifully with later tilework and stencil-work decoration. So much Islamic pattern and architecture is about forms radiating out from a single point becoming more complex and they move outward, multiplying and subdividing themselves. This is a metaphor for Islam's vision of the one God, and His infinite creative potential.


Rick+ said...

     I love it when you do posts about architecture, Doug! I've only travelled outside the United States once, but I feel like I've taken a Grand Tour by the time I finish reading your articles.

JCF said...

Is one of these the "Blue Mosque"? (That's the one I always hear compared to Hagia Sophia---I believe it's close by?)

Counterlight said...

The Blue Mosque was built by one of Sinan's students for Sultan Ahmed, who I think was Selim's successor. It is modeled on Sinan's Sezhade mosque.

susan s. said...

Thanks! I learn so much here!

June Butler said...

The interiors of Sinan's mosques are gorgeous. The tile work is exquisite. I like the great Suleiman mosque and the Selimiye Cami best. The exteriors of all the mosques, except for my two favorites, which seem more unified, are complicated and give me a feeling of eye-sensory overload, probably because I'm ignorant about the architecture of mosques.

This is, indeed, a learning post. Thanks, Counterlight.

Paul said...

We had to postpone our trip to Turkey. Glad I saw this post before we go at a later date. Nice reference with great illustrations. Thanks, prof!

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

Wonderful and fascinating!

John Yohalem said...

Ahmet was Selim's fourth successor in direct line. Fifty years had passed and taste had declined.

Suleiman is not known as "the Conqueror" in the West but as "the Magnificent." "The Conqueror" is the sobriquet of Mehmet II in all tongues (Fatih Mehmet in Turkish).

In all these mosques one has the sense that the message is of one-ness. I admire them but, just as I find Palladio a little depressing after the joyous creativity of Jacopo della Quercia and the architects of Renaissance Italy, I find Sinan rather a bore after the asymmetric, often confusing richness and complication of the Seljuk traditions out of which the Ottoman grew, the mosques of Bursa, of the Three Balconies in Edirne, of the cities on the southwest coast. Invention is always more full of life than achieved perfection. (IMHO)

cneale said...

Subject to John Y's corrections this is OK as far as it goes. To develop your subject of geometry perhaps you should look at the hexagon in square mosques: do these also present a resolution of 'ad quadratum'/'ad triangulum'?