Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 3, 2006
Gülru Necipoğlu The Age of Sinan: Architectural Culture in the Ottoman Empire Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005. 480 pp.; 250 color ills.; 300 b/w ills. Cloth $99.50 (9780691123264)

In this masterly new book, Gülru Necipoğlu examines completely afresh the centrality of Sinan, chief imperial Ottoman architect between 1538 and 1588, in the creation of what she calls “architectural culture.” Based on a wide variety of primary sources—including some not previously considered from the point of view of architectural history—this is the first exhaustive study offering a wealth of insights into Sinan’s architecture within the context of its own intellectual, political, and religious milieus. The production value of the book is equally remarkable. It is richly illustrated with excellent photographs by Reha Günay, himself an authority on Sinan. Numerous plans and axonometric drawings superbly prepared by Arben N. Arapi also provide discerning hypothetical reconstructions of Sinan’s mosque complexes based on descriptions in original endowment deeds.

The Age of Sinan is a fundamental reconstruction and analysis of Ottoman cultural history focusing on religious architecture, which was integral to and profoundly altered by the unprecedented social, political, and aesthetic reforms during the reign of Süleyman I (r. 1526–66), and on the role of Sinan in the implementation and accomplishments of these reforms through his stylistic codification of the congregational and Friday mosque. Necipoğlu argues that Sinan “developed a stratified system of architectural representation, which relied on a standardised vocabulary of repetitive canonical forms to express the status hierarchies of his patrons and cultural prestige of the empire’s centre over its provinces” (20). Its concern is therefore with distinguishing the different typological schemes developed by Sinan for his monumental mosques with centralised domed baldachins. These are commonly divided by architectural historians into three main categories according to the ways in which their domes sit—i.e., on square, hexagonal, or octagonal support systems—a classification that is considerably expanded by Necipoğlu to give a fuller account of Sinan’s stylistic dexterity. The author traces the transitions from one type to another in order thereby to reflect systematically on the nature of sixteenth-century Ottoman imperialism, architectural patronage, and on the unwritten rules of “decorum.” The term decorum here refers to a concept of visual distinction, which aims to demonstrate how the typological differences among Sinan’s mosques came to represent social distances between his patrons.

Making extensive use of two late-sixteenth-century writers, panegyrist Talikizade on dynastic legitimacy and historian Mustafa Ali on etiquette, Necipoğlu shows that decorum was observed as a means to ascend the hierarchical ladder, which was itself an inevitable product of the period’s rising oligarchy. In the Ottoman Empire the social hierarchy was structured by one’s proximity to the reigning sultan, with position and power determined either by blood and marriage or by service in the imperial council. Necipoğlu’s point is that it was not a mere coincidence that most of Sinan’s patrons belonged to this upper stratum. The autocratic centralized system of the Ottoman state under Süleyman I functioned through the imposition of duties that encouraged the development of a connected web of visual signs among the oligarchic elite. The first manifestation of these was the official policy of enforcement of the Friday noon prayers—one of the pillars of orthodox Sunni Islam that the Ottomans came to identify themselves with—as a result of which the establishment of Friday mosques became obligatory, even outside large towns and cities. This policy generated a specific kind of urban life whereby the earlier multifunctional convent-masjid with guest-rooms, dervish lodges, and hospices were replaced by new complexes typically containing a visually dominating Friday mosque detached from any private prayer halls or guest rooms, a forecourt surrounded by a madrasa marked by its central classroom, and the patrons’ mausoleum. Other dependencies that made up the whole complex were thus conceived as independent structures. The primary goal of this transformation, Necipoğlu tells us, was for exercising control over communities with heterodox inclinations, stabilizing the congregation, and discouraging the popularity of a single imam, all of which were seen as threats to the centralized system. These changes made the new towering Friday mosque an obvious vehicle for imperial ambitions, Sunni imposition, and hierarchical positioning. Necipoğlu masterfully shows how such a climate indeed provided enabling conditions for a radical architecture in the hands of Sinan. Himself a perfect product of the system—brought to the palace as a levy who became a janissary in the elite Ottoman army—Sinan owed his fortunate appointment as the chief architect to the grand vizier Lutfi Pasha, and played a central role in “the bureaucratisation” of the corps of royal architects (155).

Behind this general thread of the book lies a series of very specific arguments about historiography, imperialism, self-fashioning, institutional and Islamic legal framework of architectural practice, gender and architectural patronage, as well as style. For instance, the book begins with an introductory account of the Sinan historiography, highlighting the issues that contribute to its methodological rigidity. In these works, Necipoğlu points out, superficial divides are created between Islamic and Western architectural histories, between universal and national paradigms, between secular and religious approaches, and between stylistic analysis and contextual frameworks. The methodological limitations of these paradigms, she contends, have led to a “reductionist” reading of Sinan’s architecture, often driven by a desire to claim him as a genius ahead of his time. By employing a simultaneously sociological and cross-cultural comparative methodology, Necipoğlu advocates a different and far-reaching approach to Sinan and produces not a singular portrait of a heroic architect but a collective portrait of his age whose contours were drawn by a whole host of socio-political factors. Yet Necipoğlu does not abandon the problematics of the epithet “genius.” In unearthing Sinan’s “intentions” in his autobiographies (dictated to the poet Sai, and existing in five different versions), she further complicates the machinery of myth-making that surrounded the life and works of the great architect. In these texts, which are utterly unprecedented, Necipoğlu sees that Sinan may well have aligned himself with Renaissance architects who wrote autobiographies and showed a fascination with the sixth-century Byzantine Church Hagia Sophia and with architectural discourses that placed a premium artistic value on the design and construction of religious monuments. By the same token, Sinan entered into a spirited visual dialogue with Hagia Sophia and listed his Friday mosques high above all other buildings. Furthermore, in the context of vibrant diplomatic and military relations between the Ottomans and Venice, Necipoğlu draws parallels and differences between Sinan’s architecture and that of his Italian contemporary, Palladio, whose carefully thought-out designs reflecting the personality and politics of the sponsoring patron were also hugely innovative by the standards of his day.

It is convincingly argued that the inclusions and exclusions of works from the various versions of the autobiographies distinguished Sinan and his patrons as a result of the distinctions (codifications) he himself made. This argument serves as an organizing principle for part 3 of the book, which begins with the highest level of patronage, the sultanic Friday mosques (mosques bearing sultans’ names), and ends with commissions from merchants. The aim is to show how every one of Sinan’s patrons placed themselves in his objective classification either by expressing or betraying their hierarchical position. Sinan’s autobiographies and contemporary discourses on imperial legitimacy make clear that the first level of codification begins with the choice of site. In the eyes of both Sinan and his patrons, mosque complexes in and near Istanbul exceeded all others in terms of prestige. The fact that the sultanic mosques in the provinces were never seen by sultans themselves and that Sinan was less concerned with their execution once he had provided the architectural plans makes this distinction rather obvious. The shape and materials used for the metropolitan mosques also reiterates the supremacy of Istanbul and its environs, where one finds grand domes, elaborate floor plans, double courtyards, multiple minarets with numerous balconies, double porticos, precious columns, innovative positions and size of windows, Iznik tiles, wall paintings, monumental tuluth inscriptions, carved marble minbars, and a variety of equally monumental dependencies, all of which are minutely analysed by Necipoğlu. One also sees that constructing in Istanbul and Edirne, the previous capital of the Ottomans, presented opportunities for Sinan to experiment with elaborate technologies.

Beyond this objective classification, Necipoğlu insists that the construction industry in the sixteenth century was a complex game of influences exercised by the ruling elite whose pinnacle was the sultan himself. For instance, a legal dispute concerning the site of the mosque complex of Sultan Süleyman’s daughter, Mihrümah Sultan, in Istanbul at Edirnekapi was resolved with the intervention of her father, who forbade the construction of another mosque previously granted to the grand vizier Kara Ahmed Pasha, thereby indicating that Mihrümah’s status as a daughter ranked above that of the grand vizier in obtaining a prominent site in Istanbul. However, although Sinan designed Mihrümah’s mosque while Süleyman was alive, with many features common to sultanic mosques such as a grand dome, elaborate double portico, and two minarets, because it was not finished until 1570 during her brother Selim II’s reign, she was prevented from having the double minarets. The final outcome of the mosque with a single minaret thus betrayed publicly her now lower status as a sister in relation to the daughter of the reigning sultan. This and many similar examples discussed by Necipoğlu go a long way to demonstrate that decorum shaped and codified Sinan’s architecture. Put differently, Friday mosques classified the Ottoman rulers, and in turn the rulers classified Friday mosques. Necipoğlu insists that far from being stable Sinan’s architectural codification was a highly deliberate, contextual, and fragile system of distinction that created differences between the Ottoman elite only as long as they mattered, and were understood by the society at large. This argument is extremely well illustrated by the inclusion of an epilogue dealing with later Friday mosque complexes designed and built by Sinan’s students. As Necipoğlu shows, the gradual decentralization of the empire in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries made these formal codifications redundant and led to the rapid decline in the number of Friday mosques after the classical period.

One of the achievements of Necipoğlu’s book is the analysis she offers concerning the social conditions of the production of Sinan’s architecture without reducing it or undermining its unique qualities. In fact her approach intensifies the aesthetic experience we have of Sinan’s architecture. Sinan’s penchant for formal experimentation, usually deemed “modern,” was in fact a tightly controlled selection process from a field of formal possibilities, which included Hagia Sophia as well as the fourteenth-century Üç Şerefeli Mosque in Edirne. Provincial mosques with their hybrid local palate or the revival of archaic forms, in mosques such as the Kilic Ali Pasha Mosque in Istanbul (1580–81), were all deliberate attempts at linking content to form, projecting the patrons’ status into the motif of the work. Sinan’s art was defined by collective judgment. Necipoğlu’s systematic citation of the commentaries on each mosque complex—ranging from contemporary European observers, to the seventeenth-century Ottoman traveller Evliya Celebi and the eighteenth-century writer Ayvansarayi—confirms their knowing focus on the content and form at the same time. If Sinan differed from other architects, it was because practice (authoring nearly eighty Friday mosque complexes!) and conviction determined his creative abilities toward new aesthetic visions. The rules of architecture set by Sinan formed a recipe for his successors, which is well demonstrated by Necipoğlu’s inclusion of a discussion of the works of Davud (1588–98) and Mehmed Aga (1606–22), both of whom clearly observed but did not conceptualise Ottoman architecture in the way Sinan did.

By examining in so many pathbreaking ways the ideological points of departure for architectural practice, Necipoğlu provides an invaluable foundation for a better understanding of not only the architect Sinan and his time but also the production of culture in general. Scholars will have a hard time replacing this work with something more convincing and complete in its documentation and argument. That said, The Age of Sinan is a book that succeeds in opening up and redirecting further research by its methodology cutting across many polarities and also by forcing us to see works of architecture under a new and challenging light.

Nebahat Avcioğlu
Columbia University Institute for Scholars, Reid Hall, Paris

Please send comments about this review to