Washington State University
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Mimar Sinan: Master Builder of the 16th Century Ottoman Mosque

Prepared by Henry Matthews for Arch 324, History of Architecture from the Renaissance to the Nineteenth Century.
Please e-mail any questions or comments to:Henry Matthews

Historical context

While Italian architects from Brunelleschi to Michelangelo contributed to the evolution of large domed churches, a parallel and equally momentous development took place to the southeast in the Ottoman Empire. Mimar Sinan, the Chief of Architects to the Sultans from 1538 to 1588, experimented boldly with domed structure and interior space in a vast array of mosques. On one hand, the architects of the Italian Renaissance conceived their designs in response to the demands of Christianity, and to the architectural theory of humanist scholars. On the other, Sinan, observing traditional principles, oversaw a great metamorphosis of the mosque in the service of Islam. More than any other Ottoman architect he set the course for the design of religious structures for centuries to come. Both architectural traditions, Italian and Ottoman, received influences from the Roman Empire, but western and eastern architects interpreted the Roman and Byzantine legacy in entirely separate ways. Naturally the buildings that they erected differed in terms of structure, space, symbolism and ornament.

Sinan’s mosques and buildings of other types offer enormous scope for study because he and his assistants completed so many of them. While no Italian architect built more than a few domed structures, Sinan is credited with over a hundred, including twenty-five in Istanbul alone. His works are spread from the Balkans, through Anatolia to Damascus, Syria and even Jerusalem. If we examine a select group of these, we will see that he not only experimented vigorously with alternative schemes, but also continued to refine his designs. Although his early mosques built around 1540 show mastery of his profession, he was able to progress over the next twenty years towards a peak in the creation of the Selimiye mosque at Edirne. Since he held the position of Chief of Architects for fifty years his opportunities were unparalleled in architectural history.

The Life of Sinan

Sinan was born a Christian, probably Greek, in a village near Kayseri in central Anatolia at the turn of the sixteenth century. In about 1512 he was enrolled in the Janissary Corps, an elite wing of the Ottoman army whose members were all taken from Christian families converted to Islam and trained to fight for the Sultan. Sinan was taught the trade of carpentry, at which he clearly excelled. He participated in many military campaigns ranging from Central Europe to Iran and Iraq and received regular promotions. In his role of military engineer he oversaw the building of fortifications, ships and bridges, making his reputation most decisively when he constructed a bridge over the River Pruth in Moldavia in just a few days. During his extensive travels for military purposes he must have seen fine examples of the architecture of several civilizations, and taken note of their qualities. On the basis of his exceptional talents and flair for organization, he was appointed chief architect to the Sultan in 1538. From then until his death at the age of at least ninety he was responsible, with the assistance of a corps of architects for the design and construction of over four hundred buildings. While he cannot personally have designed all of them or visited them during construction, there can be little doubt that he exercised full authority over a significant number of exceptional buildings, a few of which will be analyzed here.

The Mosque

The followers of Muhammad who after his death in 632 AD spread the faith of Islam along the southern shores of the Mediterranean to Spain and through the Middle East as far as the Indus had few needs in their places of worship. While the Christian church, with its elaborate liturgy, required buildings for the celebration of Mass, the Islamic place of prayer demanded no particular building shape or form. In Christian churches the apse or choir, for the priests and monks, was separated from the nave and transepts for the lay people. The altar, always at the east end, was the focus of the service, and provision was made for processions and other rituals. In the Islamic religion there were no priests. Apart from readings from the Koran and Friday sermons on moral, political and social issues, the sole activity in the Mosque was personal prayer. This required a space protected from sun and rain where the faithful could pray together. The only other specific needs were a mihrab, a niche in the wall on the side facing towards Mecca to which the prayers were directed, the mimber or raised platform for the delivery of sermons, and a place for ablutions. The minaret, from which the muezzin calls the faithful to prayer five times a day, became an essential element of the mosque from early times. An important consideration in the design of mosques is the prohibition of images representing humans or animals, which was regarded as idolatry. While Christian churches were ornamented with sculpture, painting and stained glass on religious themes, Islamic religious buildings were enriched only with abstract decorations and calligraphy.

Pre-Ottoman Mosques

The first Muslims, coming from a nomadic life in Arabia had virtually no architectural traditions of their own, but the lands that they and their converts conquered were rich in art and architecture. The Greco-Roman sophistication of cities that fell to Islamic warriors offered inspiration for a new architecture fulfilling their own religious and social needs. They adopted various Roman and Christian building types and adapted them freely to serve their own purposes. The longitudinal basilica, leading towards the altar in the apse had proved to be ideal for Christian worship. For Islamic mosques, similar aisled halls were built and further aisles were sometimes added to make a larger space. Columns from existing Roman buildings were often used. The axis of the interior was not emphasized, and it could, if desired, be turned ninety degrees. Large courtyards, providing a peaceful transition from the city streets or the openness of the desert, as well as extra space for worshippers, were often added. To give shade, the courtyards were usually surrounded with arcades. An example of an early mosque is the one built at Kufa in Iraq in 637. Here a five aisled hall stands on one side of a courtyard, surrounded on the others with two rows of columns supporting a roof. The concept is extremely simple, a broad expanse of horizontal space interrupted only by slender columns. A more complex design, with the same horizontality is found in the Mosque at Cordoba, Spain begun in 786 [2].

Domed spaces, following another Roman type, also served as mosques, but several centuries passed before they became common. The foremost early example is the Dome of the Rock at Jerusalem, (completed 691) closely modeled after Early Christian Martyria [1]. Covering the rock where, according to Muslim belief, Abraham sacrificed Isaac and from which Muhammad ascended to heaven, it serves a unique purpose. Generally the aisled hall prevailed, but occasionally domes appeared, to emphasize the entrance or the area around the Mihrab. Eventually the dome was to emerge as an essential feature in Ottoman architecture.

The Ottoman Mosque Before Sinan

The dynasty of sultans founded by Osman (1288-1324?) ruled over a great empire that, at its peak in the sixteenth century stretched eastwards from the Balkans through the Middle-East to the shores of the Caspian Sea, south to the Persian Gulf and west along the coast of North Africa to include Egypt and Algeria. From 1333 until the fall of Constantinople in 1453 their capital was at Bursa. Sultans and other high officials considered it his duty to build mosques and by the fifteenth century they were making them part of larger complexes known as külliyes. These typically included religious schools (medreses), hospitals, hospices, and kitchens to feed the poor. The first Ottoman mosques were Small Square structures covered with hemispherical domes and surrounded by plain stone walls. No windows penetrated these domes; the only openings were small ones in the walls The Alaettin Mosque at Bursa, which is only 8.2 meters square, represents this type. But soon they were to build on a larger scale and to add further domes of the same size adjacent to each other. The Ulu Cami (Great Mosque) at Bursa (1396 - 1400) [#3 - 4] was planned on a four by five bay grid with twelve supporting piers and twenty equal domes on pendentives. The interior offers long vistas on horizontal axes, illuminated by the small openings in the domes. The concept of creating a more vertical and centralized space appears in the Üç Serefeli Mosque at Edirne (1437 - 1447.) [#5 - 6] A central dome is flanked by four smaller domes, arranged in pairs at both ends of a long interior. This design begins the transition towards the higher, single domed mosques that were to dominate Ottoman architecture in the time of Sinan. In a scheme somewhat similar to Hagia Sophia, the Sultan Beyazit II Mosque in Istanbul (ca. 1500) [#7 - 8] carries the same theme further.

The images presented on this web site show a selection of Sinan's mosques that demonstrate his experimentation with space and structure from his Sehzade Mosque of 1543 [#9 - 16] to his masterpiece the Selimiye Mosque at Edirne, begun in 1568 [#31 - 40] You will be able to see square and octagonal plans, with and without semidomes in the manner of Hagia Sophia. The influence of Hagia Sophia is evident in the Sehzade and Süleymaniye mosques, but Sinan tended to mimimize the structural supports, thus opening up the interior space. In the octagonal Selimiye Mosque he achieved an unprecedented spatial unity.

I am grateful to professor Reha Günay for permission to reproduce pictures # 21, 27 and 28 from his book Sinan: the Architect and his Works. Drawings in #9, 10, 19, 20, 31 and 32 are reproduced from Die Baukunst Konstantinopels by Cornelius Gurlitt, Wasmuth, Stuttgart, 1972. Other photographs are by Henry Matthews, Washington State University, School of Architecture © 1999 and 2000


  • Godfrey Goodwin, A History of Ottoman Architecture, Thames and Hudson, London, 1971 and Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore 1971.

The following monographs on Sinan are not easy to obtain from booksellers. Therefore ordering information is included. They are reviewed by Henry Matthews in The Art Book, Blackwells, Oxford, September 2000

  • Günay Reha, Sinan: the Architect and his Works, 1998, ISBN O-941469-00-X Yapi-Endüstri Yayinlari, Cumhüriet Cad. 329, Harbiye 80230, Istanbul, Turkey. Tel. (0212) 230 29 19. Fax (0212) 248 48 14

  • Kuban, Dogan, Sinan's Art and Selimiye, 1997, ISBN 975-7438-67-7 The economic and Social History Foundation, Barbaros Bulvari, Yildiz Sareyi Arabacilar Dairesi, 80700, Besiktas, Istanbul. Tel (0212) 227 37 33 Fax ((0212) 227 37 32

  • Kuran, Aptullah, Sinan: The Grand Old Master of Ottoman Architecture, 1987, ISBN 975-7306-30-4, ADA Press, Istanbul and Institute of Turkish Studies Inc. PO Box 571033, Washington DC 20057-1033. Tel. (202) 687-0295. Fax (202) 687-3780



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