Armenians in Architecture: Mimar

Koca Mi’mâr Sinân Âğâ  was born around 1489/1490 and lived until July 17, 1588. He was the chief Ottoman architect and civil engineer for sultans Suleiman the Magnificent, Selim II, and Murad III. He was responsible for the construction of more than three hundred major structures and other more modest projects, such as his Islamic primary schools (sibyan mektebs). His apprentices would later design the Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Istanbul and help design the Taj Mahal in theMughal Empire.

The son of a stonemason, he received a technical education and became a military engineer. He rose rapidly through the ranks to become first an officer and finally a Janissary commander, with the honorific title of ağa. He refined his architectural and engineering skills while on campaign with the Janissaries, becoming expert at constructing fortifications of all kinds, as well as military infrastructure projects, such as roads, bridges and aqueducts. At about the age of fifty, he was appointed as chief royal architect, applying the technical skills he had acquired in the army to the “creation of fine religious buildings” and civic structures of all kinds. He remained in post for almost fifty years.

His masterpiece is the Selimiye Mosque in Edirne, although his most famous work is the Suleiman Mosque in Istanbul. He headed an extensive governmental department and trained many assistants who, in turn, distinguished themselves, including Sedefkar Mehmed Agha, architect of the Sultan Ahmed Mosque. He is considered the greatest architect of the classical period of Ottoman architecture, and has been compared to Michelangelo, his contemporary in the West. Michelangelo and his plans for St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome were well-known in Istanbul, since Leonardo da Vinci and he had been invited, in 1502 and 1505 respectively, by the Sublime Porte to submit plans for a bridge spanning the Golden Horn.

According to contemporary biographer, Mustafa Sâi Çelebi, Sinan was born in 1489 (c. 1490 according to the Encyclopædia Britannica and 1491 according to the Dictionary of Islamic Architecture) with the name Joseph. He was born either an Armenian or a Greek in a small town called Aghurnas (present-day Mimarsinanköy) near the city of Kayseriin Anatolia (as stated in an order by Sultan Selim II). One argument that lends credence to his Armenian background is a letter he wrote to Selim II in 1573, asking the Sultan to spare his relatives from the general exile of Kayseri’s Armenian community to the island of Cyprus. The scholars who support the thesis of his Greek background have identified his father as a stonemason and carpenter by the name of Christos, a common Greek name meaning “the anointed one”. It is also probable that he had both Greek and Armenian relatives (from his paternal and maternal families) since both ethnic groups had large communities in the Kayseri area during that period. All that is certain is that they were of the Eastern Orthodox Christian faith, since the Ottoman archives of that epoch recorded only religion information about the population. The concept of ethnicity was irrelevant to the religion-based Ottoman Millet system.

Sinan (Joseph) grew up helping his father in his work, and by the time that he was conscripted would have had a good grounding in the practicalities of building work. There are three brief records in the library of the Topkapı Palace, dictated by Sinan to his friend Mustafa Sâi Çelebi. In these manuscripts, Sinan divulges some details of his youth and military career. His father is mentioned as “Abdülmenan” or “Abdullāh”, meaning Servant of God and areanonyms for the Christian fathers of Muslim converts.

He died in 1588 and is buried in a tomb in Istanbul, a türbe of his own design, in the cemetery just outside the walls of theSüleymaniye Mosque to the north, across a street named Mimar Sinan Caddesi in his honour. He was buried near the tombs of his greatest patrons: Sultan Süleyman and the Sultana Haseki Hürrem, Suleiman’s wife.

His name is also given to:

  • a crater on the planet Mercury.
  • A Turkish state university, the Mimar Sinan University of Fine Arts in Istanbul.

Sinan’s portrait was depicted on the reverse of the Turkish 10,000 lira banknotes of 1982-1995.

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