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Gulru Necipoglu: The Age of Sinan - Architectural Culture in the Ottoman Empire
Reaktion Books, 2005, ISBN 1 86189 244 6

Yasmin Shariff


GŁlru Necipoglu has been the Aga Khan Professor of Islamic Art and Architecture at Harvard University since 1993. Her book on Sinan is a complete contrast to the countless coffee table books with stunning photographs of domed mosques and pointed minarets. This publication is a serious scholarly work carried out for over a decade and brings together many significant original sources, both published and unpublished.

Born on 15 April 1489 to Greek Christian Anatolian parents Sinan was appointed as chief architect in the Ottoman court in 1539, a post that he held until he died almost half a century later in 1588.  Sinan built hundreds of structures including, mosques, tombs, schools, colleges, guest houses, hospitals as well as civil engineering structures such as bridges and water works.  He changed the cityscape of Istanbul and his masterpiece, the Suleymaniye mosque complex remains a striking symbol of the city.  Despite the ravages of time Sinanís buildings are still regarded as remarkable, fresh and innovative today. It is difficult to comprehend that these works were conceived over 400 years ago

Sinanís buildings have been brilliantly photographed by Reha Gunay  for the book and plans have been painstakingly prepared by Arben Arapi. Measured drawings for buildings where plans have not survived were prepared by students of the Istanbul Technical University. The informative maps are clearly drawn locating the main places, buildings and charitable foundations. The appendices of the book are of special interest. They list in chronological order the Friday mosques in Sinanís autobiographies, building costs and daily wages of individuals working in the Corps of Royal Architects.  There is also a list of water channel superintendents and chief royal architects (1566-1606).

The contemporary illustrations and maps featured in the book could make a study in themselves. Historic maps reveal the maritime activity and complex dense urban planning of Istanbul with its sophisticated water supply system. Miniatures give an insight into the status and organisation of architects and guilds of craftsmen particularly those illustrating the circumcision ceremony of Royal Architects at the Hippodrome c1582. A large scale model of the Suleymaniye mosque (over18ft high) is depicted on parade together with and other mobile floats of glaziers, masons, brick makers, carpenters and garden designers.

The written sources quoted by Necipoglu from contracts Sinan drew up with workers to produce high quality dome bricks for the Suleymaniya mosque and fixing the price of dressed masonry reveal a unique insight into the construction process of the Ottoman era. Many of the issues will be familiar to todayís architects ie quality of materials, funding, craftsmanship and completion dates. It is a wonder that Sinan retained his position given the large and complex nature of the projects he was responsible for and the fragile egoís of his royal clients.  The account of the building of his masterpiece the Suleymaniya  mosque is fascinating in its detail right up to its razor edge finish- the sultan had given the 68 year old royal architect an ultimatum that he had two months to complete his masterpiece or he would face the consequences! Sinan confirmed his pledge to his master that the project would be finished and the fact that it was is a testament to his superior management skills.

There is a paucity of material on the influences and cross cultural exchanges from the east which is surprising given the similarity with the Safavid and Mughal courts, the few passing references relate to the significance of Friday mosques. The caravanserais, souks, hammams and charitable institutions which share the same architectural language throughout the muslim world are not compared or discussed.  Instead Prof Necipogluís  focus is westwards to the Italian Renaissance. She describes how both Michelangelo and Leonardo were courted by the ruling sultan Beyazid II and points out the similarities between the Hagia Sophia and Bramanteís centralised design for St Peterís with hemispherical domes and two towers. Even after the modifications that followed after Michelangeloís death in 1564 Pietro della Valle, who visited Istanbul in 1614, remarked on the similarity  of the cityís royal mosques Ďwhich are truly beautiful to look atí and Michelangeloís dome for the new church of St Peterís. Necipoglu uncovers links with Sir Christopher Wren who, in 1680, states he followed the dome building techniques of Hagia Sophia for St Paulís cathedral. It is known that Wren consulted merchant friends about dome construction methods used in Istanbul.

The structure of Sinanís mosques is analysed in a series of beautifully drawn comparative plans. Axonometrics help unravel the complexities of the mosque complexes with their plethora of schools, hospitals and other benevolent buildings. Occasionally there is the infuriating reference to Turkish terms that has not been adequately translated and the book lacks a glossary Ė arasta for instance is a terms used for a row of shops whose income is for the benefit of a foundation.

Prof Necipogluís most valuable contribution is that in addition to consulting archival documents she has made extensive use of unpublished waqfiyyas or endowment deeds. Her consultation of waqqifas, brings a greater understanding of Sinanís clients, their endowments and the cultural forces that shaped his buildings. She highlights the significance of the patronage of royal women who commissioned some of Sinanís most significant works including health centres, hammans and poor kitchens which often complimented Friday mosques.

Her attempt to reconstruct the urban setting of Sinanís mosques is limited but useful and if there is a one area that could be strengthened perhaps it is Sinan as urban designer. North points and plans indicating the wider urban context would greatly enhance our understanding and appreciation of Sinanís masterly masterplanning.

The effort that has gone into the research and compilation of this publication is remarkable. It provides a reliable base of information and makes it an essential text  for anyone with a serious interest in architecture.

(Review published in the Architectural Review November 2005)


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