Sinan: the Greatest Architect and Civil Engineer of the Ottoman Empire

Sinan, born around 1490 in Ağırnaz, Turkey, was an Ottoman architect and civil engineer famed for designing and building a number of famous buildings of the classical Ottoman era, particularly magnificent mosques and palaces, whose designs would later have tremendous influence on architecture not just in Turkey but across the world.

Sinan’s most crowning achievements came in three of his masterpieces – the Şehzade Mosque and the Mosque of Süleyman the Magnificent, both of which are in Istanbul, and the Selim Mosque in Edirne.

Revered as the greatest architect and civil engineer of the Ottoman Empire, Sinan served as the royal architect of the Ottoman Empire for close to five decades. In that period he trained many corps of architects, assistants and deputies, and master builder, including Sedfkar Mehmed Agha and Mimar Hayruddin.

Quick Facts about Sinan

Ottoman architect Sinan

Sinan was one of the greatest architects and engineers of the classical Ottoman period. His illustrious career, which spanned about fifty years, saw him construct over 400 structures throughout the Ottoman Empire.

Born: c. 1490

Place of birth: Ağırnaz, Turkey

Died: July 17, 1588, Istanbul, Turkey

Buried at: Mimar Sinan Tomb, Istanbul, Turkey

Most famous for: building Şehzade Mosque, Süleymaniye Mosque, and the Selimiye Mosque (the Mosque of Selim), Mihrimah Mosque,

Also called: Mimar Sinan (“Architect Sinan”), Mimar Koca Sinan (“Great Architect Sinan”), Koca Mi’mâr Sinân Âğâ, (“Sinan Agha the Grand Architect” or “Grand Sinan”)

Ottoman Sultans served under: Suleiman the Magnificent, Selim II, and Murad III

Birth and early life

Born around the early 1490s, about four decades after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, Sinan hailed from either Greek or Armenian Christian background. He grew up in a town called Ağırnas, which is near present-day Kayseri in Central Anatolia.

According to a manuscript in the library of Topkapi Palace, Sinan’s father was called Abdülmennan. It’s been said that Muslim converts referred to their non-Muslim fathers as Abdülmennan, which in Arabic means “Servant of God” or “Servant of the Generous and Merciful One”.

Sinan was introduced to craftsmanship and basic principles of building while working with his father, who was a stone mason and carpenter.

Did you know: In constructing many of his masterpieces, including the Süleymaniye Mosque, Mimar Sinan took immense inspiration from the design of the Hagia Sophia, a 6th century CE patriarchal cathedral of the Byzantine Empire?

Located near present-day Kayseri in Central Anatolia, Turkey, Ağırnas was the birthplace of Mimar Sinan, the famous Ottoman era architect who served three Ottoman sultans, including Suleiman the Magnificent. | Image: Sinan House in Ağırnas, Turkey

Sinan’s origin

Sinan’s family origin has been the subject of debate for close to half a millennium. Many claims put him as having either an Armenian or Cappadocian Greek origin. On the other hand, there have been some accounts that stated that he was an Albanian or a Christian Turk.

In the Encyclopædia Britannica, Sinan is described as having either Armenian or Greek origin. The former gets a bit of credence due to a 1573 decree by Sultan Selim II, in which Sinan’s relatives are said to hail from Kayseri’s Armenian communities.

However, his passion for the Hagia Sophia has made some historians to claim that he was of Cappadocian Greek origin. Those who make that claim say that Sinan hailed from an orthodox Christian region of Greek-speaking inhabitants.

Supporters of his Armenian or Albanian origin state that in an invitation from the Mughal Emperor Babur, Sinan was described as the “Albanian genius”.

Devshirme – “Blood Tax” of the Ottoman Empire

In his early 20s, Sinan entered the Ottoman military under a scheme called Devshirme (also known as “blood tax” or “child levy”), the forceful recruitment of soldiers from Balkan Christian subjects in the Ottoman Empire. Sinan, like many of the devshirme recruits, were forced to convert to Islam and then sent to Constantinople, where they underwent civil or military training.

Sinan received formal education to become an officer of the Janissary Corps. Following his conversion to Islam, he was given the Islamic name Sinan, which means spearhead.

His six-year training in the devshirme system saw him work as an apprentice for a number of leading royal architects and officials of the Ottoman Empire, including the Grand Vizier Pargali Ibrahim Pasha.

Time as a Janissary Officer of the Ottoman Empire

As a Janissary officer, he received military training, which allowed him to partake in a military campaign in the final few years of Sultan Selim I’s reign.

Sinan served in the Household Cavalry of the Ottoman military at the Battle of Mohács in August 1526. Taking place near Mohács in the Kingdom of Hungary, a 50-100 thousand Ottoman force, who were led by Suleiman the Magnificent, secured victory over Louis II, King of Hungry, Croatia, and Bohemia (1516-1526). Shortly after the battle, Sinan received a promotion to the Royal Guard, where he took command of the infantry Cadet Corps.

A decade after Mohács, he was involved in the 1535 Baghdad campaign, serving as a commanding officer of the Royal Guard. He also had spells in Moldavia and Apulia.

Early architecture career

Mimar Sinan

Sinan, the 16th-century grand architect and builder of the Ottoman Empire, is famed for designing and building more than 400 structures in his very illustrious career. Two of his three greatest works – the Şehzade Mosque and Süleymaniye Mosque – are credited with transforming architecture in the city of Istanbul and beyond. | Portrait: Possibly Mimar Sinan (left) at the tomb of Suleiman the Magnificent, 1566

Sinan’s passion in architecture was heightened during his early years as a master of archery in the Ottoman army. He studied structures of building, hoping to find vulnerable spots in their structures that he could aim his guns at during battles.

In no time, he had built himself a reputation in the Royal Guard as a capable civil engineer and architect. Shortly after Cairo capitulated to the Ottoman Empire, Sinan was made the chief architect and then tasked to demolish buildings that violated the city’s building regulations.

Bridges and defense structures

Sinan distinguished himself brilliantly as an architect during Ottoman’s military campaign in eastern Europe. He was involved in the construction of many infrastructural projects, including Ottoman defense fortifications and bridges. He famously built a bridge over the Danube, Europe’s second longest river**.

Mimar Sinan was tasked by the Ottoman leadership to convert churches in seized territories into mosques. He proved himself useful again when during the Ottoman campaign in Persia in 1535, he built a number of ships and artillery for the army.

**Measuring at about 2,850 km (1,700 mi) long, Danube is considered Europe’s second-longest river, after Volga in Russia. With its source in Germany, the Danube goes through 10 European countries, making it the river with that passes through the most number of countries.

Chief architect of the Ottoman Empire

Sinan was the chief architect for Ottoman sultans Suleiman the Magnificent (reign – 1520-1566), Selim (reign – 1566-1574), and Murad III (reign – 1574-1595) | Ottoman Sultans that Sinan served under (L-R): Suleiman the Magnificent (reign – 1520-1566), Selim (reign – 1566-1574), and Murad III (reign – 1574-1595)

He was then promoted to the rank of Janissary Ağa, the equivalent of Sergeant-at-Arms in the Royal Guard. In 1539, he was appointed by then-Grand Vizier Chelebi Lütfi Pasha to work at the office of Architect of the Abode of Felicity. In that position, his job involved the supervision of construction projects throughout the Ottoman Empire. He was also tasked with designing and building public infrastructures, such as aqueducts, roads, and bridges in the empire.

He was so good at his job that his office became a full-fledged government department, where he trained many master builders, corps of architects, assistants and deputies.

Having served in the army for so many years, he always approached his designs and constructions from a more practical angle rather than from a theoretical perspective.

Mimar Sinan stayed as the chief architect of the Ottoman Empire for almost half a century, serving under Suleiman the Magnificent, Selim II, and Murad III. His first major commission for the royal family was the Haseki Sultan Complex for Hürrem Sultan, the wife of Suleiman the Magnificent.

Mimar Sinan designed and built the Haseki Sultan Complex (also known as Hürrem Sultan Complex) is a 16th-century Ottoman imperial mosque complex is located in the Fatih district of Istanbul, Turkey.  The mosques was completed in 1538/7. Image: Haseki Hürrem Sultan Külliyesi (completed between 1538 and 1551)

Sinan’s innovative style and crowning achievements

Sinan tried to improve upon traditional domed architecture, moving into the use of single-domed and multiple-domed structures with clear, unified space. He sought to achieve rational harmony between the exterior pyramidal composition of semi-domes and the interior space. Image: The dome of Mihrimah Sultan Mosque, Edirnekapı

When he first began his architecture career as the chief architect of the Ottoman Empire, he is said to have started with very pragmatic buildings, with a number of repetitions of old types and rudimentary plans. There were hardly too many novel ideas in his design work.

However, that all changed over time. Sinan began experimenting and incorporating many groundbreaking concepts into his designs. He would go beyond traditional Ottoman designs and explore to his fullest. His quest for novelty was also aided by the fact that he had the opportunity of study foreign designs during his military career. Sinan incorporated many of the designs he saw in conquered cities of Europe and the Middle East into his designs.

Improved upon the old form of architecture by spotting their weaknesses and making them better. His first hexagonal mosque was built in 1554 for the Grand Vizier Kara Ahmet Pasha in Istanbul. Other hexagonal mosques were the Sokollu Mehmed Pasha Mosque at Kadirga in 1571/72 and the Atik Valide Mosque at Uskudar, Istanbul.

Sinan tried to improve upon traditional domed architecture, moving into the use of single-domed and multiple-domed structures with clear, unified space. He sought to achieve rational harmony between the exterior pyramidal composition of semi-domes and the interior space.

No architect during the classical architecture era could best him. And after his death, innovation in the industry saw a sharp decline, as many architects resorted to old Ottoman architecture.

The three greatest works by Sinan

In his almost 50 years as the chief architect of the Ottoman Empire, he designed and built many buildings across the empire. Of all those structures, three buildings of his are considered his greatest masterpieces. The three were Şehzade Mosque, Süleymaniye Mosque, both in Istanbul, and the Selimiye Mosque in Edirne.

Şehzade Mosque

Şehzade Mosque

Located in the Fatih district of Istanbul, Turkey, the Şehzade Mosque is a 16th-century Ottoman mosque (completed in 1548) built as a memorial to  Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent’s deceased son and heir Şehzade Mehmed. The chief architect of the project Mimar Sinan described the mosque as his most beloved work. The Şehzade Mosque with its square base, large central dome and four half domes.

Completed in 1548, the Şehzade Mosque is located in Istanbul. It was built in honor of Şehzade Mehmed (1522-1543), the deceased heir and son of Suleiman the Magnificent and Hürrem Sultan. Şehzade was the governor of Manisa (1542-1543) when he tragically passed away due to a smallpox infection he had on 31 October 1543. He died on November 7, 1543, aged 22. His death was a huge loss to his parents, particularly his father, who ordered a befitting monument be erected in his honor. That monument came in the form of the Şehzade Mosque, Mimar Sinan’s first masterpiece.

Using a square base and a large central dome, the Şehzade Mosque has four half domes and an adjoining complex. The four massive octagonal fluted piers and the four turrets, which serve as stabilizing anchors, are just some of the splendid things about the mosque. In constructing the mosque, Sinan took quite a lot of inspiration from mosques such the Fatih Pasha Mosque in diyabakir and the Piri Pasha Mosque in Haskoy. In turn, the Şehzade Mosque had a tremendous influence on one of Sinan’s prodigy Sedefkar Mehmed Agha during the construction of the Sultan Ahmed Mosque.

Süleymaniye Mosque

Süleymaniye Mosque

The Süleymaniye Mosque was built in honor of Ottoman Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent, the longest-reigning sultan of the Ottoman Empire. Mimar Sinan, the chief architect of the project, is said to have completed the mosque at the age of 70. | Süleymaniye Mosque (L-R) Interior looking towards the mihrab, – North facade with the forecourt and the central fountain

Wanting to commemorate his reputation as one of the greatest rulers of his era, Suleiman the Magnificent tasked his royal architect Mimar Sinan to build an imperial mosque. The sultan made sure Sinan had at his disposal all the resources needed to build the mosque, which was situated on one of the hills of Istanbul which faced the Golden Horn, a primary inlet of the Bosphorus in Istanbul.

Surrounding the Süleymaniye Mosque is a complex that includes a hospital, an asylum, a hamam (a steam bath), four colleges, a soup kitchen and an inn (caravanserai) for travelers.

With construction starting around 1500, it took Mimar Sinan and his team of builders and architects from his department about seven years to complete the Süleymaniye Mosque. Sinan became the first builder to use half cubic roofs for a mosque. The idea to use that design came from the Hagia Sophia.

The diameter of the Süleymaniye Mosque’s dome was more than the 31 m (102 ft) used in constructing his next masterpiece, the Selimiye Mosque. It is said that he interpreted the circle of the dome to mean the perfect God.

The Selimiye Mosque

Selimiye Mosque

Completed in 1575, the Selimiye Mosque is described in Sinan’s autobiography “Tezkiretü’l Bünyan” as his greatest masterpiece.

Completed when Sinan was in his prime age of 80, the Selimiye Mosque in Edirne has been described as the epitome of classical Ottoman architecture. Inspired by the designs of the Hagia Sophia, Mimar Sinan used very elegant interiors. He also removed some subsidiary spaces beyond the supporting piers of the central dome. Sinan was said to have sought out to build something larger than the dome of Hagia Sophia. In reality, when measured from its base, the dome is higher than the Hagia Sophia. However, when measured from the ground level, the dome of the Selimiye Mosque is lower than the Hagia Sophia.

The Selimiye Mosque in Edirne, Istanbul, can boast of an octagonal central dome about 31 m wide and 42 m high. It has eight large piers of marble and granite, which combines brilliantly with its four minarets that measure about 83 m high. The four minarets at the corners are considered the tallest in the Muslim world.

Death

Sinan died on July 17, 1588 in Constantinople. He was in his late 90s at the time of his death. He designed the tomb in which he was buried in. Sinan’s tomb is located north of the Suleymaniye Mosque, on  Mimar Sinan Caddesi. The tomb is near tombs of Sultan Suleyman I and Sultana Haseki Hürrem.

More Mimar Sinan facts

Sinan’s first major building was the Hüsrev Pasha Mosque and its double medresse in Aleppo, Syria. He built the latter in the winter of 1536/7 for the governor of Aleppo. A year later, he built a defensive tower in  Vlorë, south Albania.

Examples of some of the great minds that studied under Sinan include Sedefkar Mehmed Agha, the architect who designed the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (“the Blue Mosque”) in Istanbul, and Mimar Hayruddin, designer of the Stari Most (Mostar Bridge) in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina

The list of his works is contained in the Tazkirat-al-Abniya.

There is a crater on planet Mercury named after Mimar Sinan.

In 1882, the Mimar Sinan University of Fine Arts in Fındıklı neighborhood of Beyoğlu, İstanbul, Turkey, was founded by Osman Hamdi Bey, an art historian and archaeologist.

Other major works by Sinan

Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge

Built by Ottoman imperial architect Sinan, the Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge  is a historic bridge in Višegrad, over the Drina River in eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina. The bridge, which was completed in 1577, is UNESCO World Heritage in 2007.

A pioneer of smaller domes, buttresses, tall and slender minarets, Mimar Sinan’s buildings were praised for their size, elegance and power. All in all, it’s been said that was involved in the construction of over 400 structures, including over 90 large mosques (camii), 50 smaller mosques (mescit), 34 palaces (saray), 33 public baths (hamam), 16 public kitchens (imaret), 19 tombs (türbe), 55 schools, 3 hospitals, 16 poorhouses, 7 religious schools (Qur’an schools or madrasahs), 18 caravansaries (kervansarayhan), 6 aqueducts, and 8 bridges.

Mihrimah Sultan Mosque, Edirnekapı

Designed by Mimar Sinan, the Mihrimah Sultan Mosque, a 16th-century Ottoman mosque, is located in the Edirnekapı neighborhood near the Byzantine land walls of Istanbul, Turkey. It was commissioned by Mihrimah Sultan, the daughter of Suleiman the Magnificent.

Some of the names of his famous works are:

  • He constructed a mausoleum for the Grand Admiral Hayreddin Barbarossa in Beşiktaş, Istanbul.
  • The Mihrimah Sultan Mosque (completed in 1548) in Uskudar, Istanbul – a mosque built for Mihrimah Sultan, the only daughter of Suleiman and Hurrem, and wife of the Grand Vizier Rüstem Pasha – with medreses (college), soup kitchen (imaret), a Qur’an school (sibyan mekteb).
  • Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge (completed in 1577) in Višegrad across the Drina River in the east of Bosnia and Herzegovina – now UNESCO World Heritage Site.
  • Mosque for Grand Vizier Pargali Ibrahim Pasha and a mausoleum at Silivrikapi, Constantinople (finished in 1551)
  • A large inn (han) in the Galata district of Istanbul – finished in 1550
  • The  Taṣ Han at Erzurum – built between 1544 and 1561
  • The Sinan Pasha Mosque at Besiktas – built between 1553 and 1555 – for the Grand Admiral Sinan Pasha (Sinanuddin Yusuf Pasha).
  • Haseki Hürrem Sultan Hamami (bath)– completed in 1556.
  • The Mihrimah Mosque at Edirnekapi (Edirne Gate) – built on the Sixth Hill, the highest of the seven hills of Constantinople. Built between 1562 and 1565, the mosque has a central dome of about 37 m (121 ft) high and 20 m (66 ft) wide.
  • Banya Bashi Mosque in Sofia, Bulgaria – built in 1566.
  • The Kirkcesme water supply system in Istanbul – built in the 1560s, the system measured about 55 km and had about 35 aqueduct bridges.
  • Zal Mahmud Pasha Mosque – built between 1560 and 1566 – on the hillside beyond Ayvansaray in Istanbul.
  • Osman Shah Mosque, Trikala, Greece.
Osman Shah Mosque, Trikala, Greece

The Osman Shah Mosque, also known as Kursum Mosque, is a 16th-century Ottoman mosque in the city of Trikala in Greece.

Famous Mausoleums built by Mimar Sinan

  • The Mausoleum of Şehzade Mehmed
  • The Rüstem Paşa mausoleum
  • The mausoleum of Süleyman the Magnificent – uses an octagonal body and flat dome
  • The Selim II Mausoleum
  • Sinan’s Mausoleum – near the Süleymaniye complex

Bridges

  • The Büyükçekmece Bridge –about 635 m (2,083 ft) long
  • The Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge over Drina river in Bosnia and Herzegovina
  • Ailivri Bridge
  • The Old Bridge in Svilengrad on the Maritsa
  • The Lüleburgaz (Sokullu Mehmet Pasha) Bridge on the Lüleburgaz River
  • The Sinanlı Bridge over the river Ergene

Some of the famous architects that studied under Mimar Sinan are Sedefkar Mehmed Agha, architect of the Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Istanbul, and Mimar Hayruddin, architect of the Stari Most (Mostar Bridge) in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

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