See study by A. Stratton (1972).
Koca Mi‘mār Sinān Āġā (Ottoman Turkish: خوجه معمار سنان آغا) (April 15, 1489 - April 09, 1588) was the chief Ottoman architect and civil engineer for sultans Suleiman I, Selim II and Murad III. He was, during a period of fifty years, responsible for the construction or the supervision of every major building in the Ottoman Empire. More than three hundred structures are credited to his name, exclusive of his more modest projects, such as his Koran schools (sibyan mektebs).
His masterpiece is the Selimiye Mosque in Edirne, although his most famous work is the Suleiman Mosque in Istanbul. He had under him an extensive governmental department and trained many assistants who, in turn, distinguished themselves, including Sedefhar Mehmet Ağa, architect of the Sultan Ahmed Mosque. He is considered the greatest architect of the classical period, and is often compared to Michelangelo, his contemporary in the West. The stature of Michelangelo and his plans for St. Peter's Basilica in Rome were well-known in Istanbul, since he (and also Leonardo da Vinci) received an invitation to build a bridge over the Golden Horn by the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II in 1502.
Sinan was born a Christian in Anatolia in a small town called Ağırnas near the city of Kayseri, either of Greek or Armenian origin. In 1512, he was conscripted into Ottoman service via the Devşirme system. He went to Istanbul as a recruit to the Janissary Corps, and was circumcised as he was converted to Islam. Since he was over twenty-one years old, he was not admitted to the Imperial Enderun College in the Topkapı Palace but was sent instead to an auxiliary school. Some records claim that he might have served the Grand Vizier İbrahim Paşa as a novice of the Ibrahim Pasha School. Possibly, he was given the Islamic name Sinan there. He initially learned carpentry and mathematics but through his intellectual qualities and ambitions, he soon assisted the leading architects and got his training as an architect.
Three years later he became a skilled architect and engineer. During this time, he was also trained as a cadet (acemioğlan) over six years before being admitted to the brotherhood of Janissaries. He possibly joined Selim I in his last military campaign, Rhodes according to some sources, but when the Sultan died, this project ended. Two years later he witnessed the conquest of Belgrade. He was present, as a member of the Household Cavalry, in the Battle of Mohács, led by the new sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. He was promoted to captain of the Royal Guard and then given command of the Infantry Cadet Corps. He was later stationed in Austria, where he commanded the 62nd Orta of the Rifle Corps. He became a master of archery, while at the same time, as an architect, learning the weak points of structures when gunning them down. In 1535 he participated in the Baghdad campaign as a commanding officer of the Royal Guard. In 1537 he went on expedition to Corfu and Apulia and finally to Moldavia. In 1539, Sinan personally intervened on the behalf of Kayseri Armenians who had been ordered by Ottoman Sultan Selim II to be exiled to Cyprus. Sinan wrote a petition to Selim to belay the order, and the Sultan agreed to offer the Kayseri Armenians a general pardon.
During all these campaigns he had proved to be a trained engineer and an able architect. When the Ottoman army captured Cairo, Sinan was promoted to chief architect and was given the privilege of tearing down any buildings in the captured city that were not according to the city plan. During the campaign in the East, he assisted in the building of defences and bridges, such as a bridge across the Danube. He converted churches into mosques. During the Persian campaign in 1535 he built ships for the army and the artillery to cross Lake Van. For this he was given the title Haseki'i, Sergeant-at-Arms in the body guard of the Sultan, a rank equivalent to that of the Janissary Ağa.
When Çelebi Lütfi Pasha became Grand Vizier in 1539, he appointed Sinan, who had previously served under his command, Architect of the Abode of Felicity (another name for Istanbul). This was the start of a remarkable career. It was his task to supervise the constructions and the flow of supplies within the Ottoman empire. He was also responsible for the design and construction of public works, such as roads, waterworks and bridges. Through the years he transformed his office into that of Architect of the Empire, an elaborate government department, with greater powers than his supervising minister. He became the head of a whole Corps of Court Architects, training a team of assistants, deputies and pupils.
At the start of Sinan's career, Ottoman architecture was highly pragmatic. Buildings were repetitions of former types and were based on rudimentary plans. They were more an assembly of parts than a conception as a whole. An architect could sketch a plan for a new building and an assistant or foreman knew what to do, because novel ideas were avoided. Moreover, architects used an extravagant margin of safety in their designs, resulting in a wasteful use of material and labour. Sinan would gradually change all this. He was to transform established architectural practices, amplifying and transforming the traditions by adding innovations, trying to approach perfection.
His first attempt to build an important monument was the Hüsrev Pasha mosque and its double medresse in Aleppo, Syria. It was built in the winter of 1536-1537 between two army campaigns for his commander-in-chief and the governor of Aleppo. It was built in haste and this is demonstrated in the coarseness of execution and the crude decoration.
His first major commission as the royal architect was the construction of a modest Haseki Hürrem complex for Roxelana (Hürem Sultan), the wife of the sultan, Süleyman the Magnificent. He had to follow the plans drawn by his predecessors. Sinan retained the traditional arrangement of the available space without any innovations. Nevertheless it was already better built than the Aleppo mosque and it shows a certain elegance. However, it has suffered from many restorations.
In 1541, he started the construction of the mausoleum (türbe) of the Grand Admiral Hayreddin Barbarossa. It stands on the shore of Beşiktaş on the European part of Istanbul, at the site where his fleet used to assemble. Oddly enough, the admiral is not buried there, but in his türbe next to the Iskele mosque. This mausoleum has been severely neglected since then.
Mihrimah Sultana, the only daughter of Süleyman and wife of the Grand Vizier Rüstem Pasha gave Sinan the commission to build a mosque with medrese (college), an imaret (soup kitchen) and a sibyan mekteb (Qur'an school) in Üsküdar. The imaret no longer exists. This Iskele Mosque (or Jetty mosque) already shows several hallmarks of Sinan's mature style : a spacious, high-vaulted basement, slender minarets, single-domed baldacchino, flanked by three semi-domes ending in three exedrae and a broad double portico. The construction was finished in 1548. The construction of a double portico was not a first in Ottoman architecture, but it set a trend for country mosques and mosques of viziers in particular. Rüstem Pasha and Mihrimah required them later in their three mosques in Istanbul and in the Rüstem Pasha Mosque in Tekirdağ. The inner portico traditionally have stalactite capitals while the outer portico has capitals with chevron patterns (baklava).
When sultan Süleyman the Magnificent returned from another Balkan campaign, he received news that his heir to the throne Ṣehzade Mehmet had died at the age of twenty-two. In November 1543, not long after Sinan had started the construction of the Iskele Mosque, the sultan ordered Sinan to build a new major mosque with an adjoining complex in memory of his favourite son. This Şehzade Mosque would become larger and more ambitious than his previous ones. Architectural historians consider this mosque as Sinan's first masterpiece. Obsessed by the concept of a large central dome, Sinan turned to the plans of mosques such as the Fatih Pasha Mosque in Diyarbakır or the Piri Pasha Mosque in Hasköy. He must have visited both mosques during his Persian campaign. Sinan built a mosque with a central dome, this time with four equal half-domes. This superstructure is supported by four massive, but still elegant free-standing, octagonal, fluted piers and four piers incorporated in each lateral wall. In the corners, above roof level, four turrets serve as stabilizing anchors. This coherent concept already is markedly different from the additive plans of traditional Ottoman architecture. Sedefhar Mehmet Ağa would later copy the concept of fluted piers in his Sultan Ahmed Mosque in an attempt to lighten their appearance. Sinan, however, rejected this solution in his next mosques.
While he was fully occupied with the construction of the Süleymaniye, Sinan (or better the subordinates of his office under his supervision) drew the plans and gave definite instructions for many other constructions. However, it is highly improbable that he supervised the construction of any of the provincial assignments .
The next Grand Vizier Rüstem Pasha gave Sinan several more commissions. In 1550 Sinan built a large inn (han) in the Galata district of Istanbul. About ten years later another han in Edirne, and between 1544 and 1561 the Taṣ Han at Erzerum. He designed a caravanserai in Eregli and an octogal madrasah in Istanbul.
Between 1553 and 1555, Sinan built a mosque at Beşiktaş, a smaller version of the Üç Ṣerefeli mosque at Edirne, for the Grand Admiral Sinan Pasha. This proves again that Sinan had thoroughly studied the work of other architects, especially as he was responsible for the upkeep of these buildings. He copied the old form, pondered over the weaknesses in the construction and tried to solve this with his own solution. In 1554 Sinan used the form of the Sinan Pasha mosque again for the construction of the mosque for the next Grand Vizier Kara Ahmed Pasha in Istanbul, his first hexagonal mosque. By applying this hexagonal form, Sinan could reduce the side domes to half-domes and set them in the corners at an angle of 45 degrees. Clearly, Sinan must have appreciated this form, since he repeated it later in mosques such as the Sokollu Mehmed Pasha Mosque at Kadırga and the Atık Valide Mosque at Űskűdar.
In 1559 he built the Cafer Ağa madrasah below the forecourt of the Hagia Sophia. In the same year he began the construction of a small mosque for İskender Pasha at Kanlıka, beside the Bosphorus. This was one of the many minor and routine commissions the office of Sinan received over the years.
In 1561, when Rüstem Pasha died, Sinan began the construction of the Rüstem Pasha Mosque, as a memorial supervised by his widow Mihrimah Sultana. It is situated just below the Süleymaniye. This time the central form is octagonal, modelled on the monastery church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, with four small semi-domes set in the corners. In the same year, Sinan built a funeral monument (türbe) for Rüstem Pasha in the garden of the Şehzade Mosque, decorated with the finest tiles Iznik could produce. Mihrimah Sultana, having doubled her wealth after the death of her husband, now wanted a mosque of her own. Sinan built for her the Mihrimah Camii at Edirnekapı (Edirne Gate), on the highest of the seven hills of Istanbul. He raised the mosque on a vaulted platform, accentuating its hilltop site. There is some speculation concerning the dates, until recently this was supposed to be between 1540 and 1540, but now it is generally accepted to be between 1562 and 1565. Sinan, concerned with grandeur, built a mosque on one of his most imaginative designs, using new support systems and lateral spaces to increase the area available for windows. He built a central dome 37 m high and 20 m wide, supported by pendentives, on a square base with two lateral galleries, each with three cupolas. At each corner of this square stands a gigantic pier, connected with immense arches each with 15 large windows and four circular ones, flooding the interior with light. The style of this revolutionary building was as close to the Gothic style as Ottoman structure permits.
Between 1560 and 1566 Sinan built a mosque in Istanbul for Zal Mahmut Pasha on a hillside beyond Ayvansaray. Sinan certainly conceived the plans and partly supervised the construction, but left the building of lesser areas to less than competent hands, since Sinan and his most able assistants were about to begin his masterpiece, the Selimiye Mosque in Edirne. On the outside, the mosque rises high, with its east wall pierced by four tiers of windows. This gives the mosque an aspect of a palace or even a block of apartments. Inside, there are three broad galleries making the interior look compact. The heaviness of this structure makes the dome look unexpectedly lofty. These galleries look like a preliminary try-out for the galleries of the Selimiye Mosque.
According to his autobiography “Tezkiretü’l Bünyan”, his masterpiece is the Selimiye Mosque in Edirne. Breaking free of the handicaps of traditional Ottoman architecture, this mosque marks the climax of Sinan's work and of all classical Ottoman architecture. While it was being built, the architect's saying "You can never build a dome larger than the dome of Hagia Sophia and particularly as Muslims" was his main motivation. When it was completed, Sinan claimed that it had the largest dome in the world, leaving Hagia Sophia behind. In fact, the dome height from the ground level was lower and the diameter barely larger (0.5 meters, approximately 2 feet) than the millennium-older Hagia Sophia. However, measured from its base the dome of Selimiye is higher. Sinan was more than 80 years old when the building was finished. In this mosque he finally realized his aim of creating the optimum, completely unified, domed interior : a triumph of space that dominates the interior. This time he used an octagonal central dome (31.28 m wide and 42 m high), supported by eight elephantine piers of marble and granite. These supports lack any capitals but have squinches or consoles at their summit, leading to the optical effect that the arches seem to grow integrally out of the piers. By placing the lateral galleries far away, he increased the three-dimensional effect. The many windows in the screen walls flood the interior with light. The buttressing semi-domes are set in the four corners of the square under the dome. The weight and the internal tensions are hidden, producing an airy and elegant effect rarely seen under a central dome. The four minarets (83 m high) at the corners of the prayer hall are the tallest in the Muslim world, accentuating the vertical posture of this mosque that already dominates the city.
When Sinan died, the classical Ottoman architecture had reached its climax. No successor was gifted enough to better the design of the Selimiye mosque and to develop it any further. His students retreated to earlier models, such as the Şehzade mosque. Invention faded away and a decline set in...
Some of his works:
His name is also given to: