• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

Sinan Contested: The Legacy of Hagia Sophia

The Roman ingredients of Ottoman architecture (codified during Sinan’s tenure as the royal architect, 1539-88) have historically been traduced by nationalism in Turkey and orientalism in the West, which have conspired to consign the Eastern Roman idiom (which evolved into the domed central-plan mosque) to the dustbin.

S. Kostof’s A History of Architecture (1985) – which proved unafraid to compare Sinan to his Italian contemporaries – was the exception that proved the rule. In general, Western textbooks pitched the Turk as picking up the baton of Islamic architecture (furthering or bastardising Arab, Persian or Egyptian trends) just as Byzantine greybeards hit the guillotine. No matter which particular strand was picked, Islamic architecture was essentialised into a non-historical style; an idea in which the Islamic world happily colluded as it created the architectural equivalent of a Qur’an; a permanently fixed, static and perfect order lowered from on high.

Turkish complicity in this scheme was probably due to the fact that when a Roman element was admitted into the narrative, it inevitably appeared to dwarf its competition. F. Hart (1976), for instance, gently mocked the Ottomans when he wrote that they:

“Confined themselves to provoking innumerable replicas of Justinian’s masterpiece in large, medium and small sizes.”[1]

Indeed, earlier, C. Texier (1862) had dug the knife in further when he’d asserted that:

“For a long time it has been said that the Ottomans do not have an architecture particular to their nation: being tribes with tents, they remained strangers to the arts of construction, and their public edifices are the works of foreigners… No other type provides better proof of this than their religious monuments.”[2]

With such huge egos and claims at stake, Sinan quickly became the main bone of contention in a great tug of war. Yet the architect was a man about whom remarkably little could be said. Indeed, the only certainties cited within his lifetime were that he’d been a janissary cadet who’d converted to Islam and trained as a carpenter at the school of novices in Constantinople. Not that this dearth of information stopped an avalanche of claims (often based on forged evidence) that bestowed Turkish, Greek (with a father named “Christo”)[3] or Armenian heritage (some scholars such as Diez argued all three positions at some point in their lives) upon him,

Indeed, events climaxed in 1935 with Sinan’s body being exhumed from his tomb so that his skull could be measured. Rather grimly the architect Bedri Ucar proudly announced that it was “purely Turkish.”[4] No doubt this rigmarole was encouraged by the Germans who’d decided to cast the Turks as their Aryan cousins (despite Iranians being the obvious choice). Starting with J. Strygowski, a number had promoted the Turkish arts as an (Aryan) cultural force to counter what they saw as the “humanist bias” in favour of the Greco-Roman south against the northern Turko-Germanic axis – the latter being so superior that the former had felt compelled to enviously dismiss them as “barbarians.”[5]

Movements like this helped figures such as Celal Esad Arseven (whose Constantinople de Byzance a Stamboul [1909] was the earliest book by a Turk on the Byzantine and Ottoman monuments of the city) assert that Ottoman architecture as an extension of Seljuk and Turkic origins. As a totemic figure, Sinan became another victim of the narrative. He had his background reframed around a narrative that envisaged his youth spent around the Seljuk monuments of Kayseri and Konya too. Indeed, one novelist even went so far as to insist that Mt Erciyes was reproduced by the pyramidal massing of the Suleymaniye mosque.[6]

With spirits high, the Turks insisted that instead of Ottoman architecture being little more than a postscript on Hagia Sophia (“an incentive to further effort” in the polite words of a Swiss architect)[7], it was Hagia Sophia that presented little more than a simplistic prelude to Turkish architectural genius. In the words of the aforementioned Arseven (d. 1971), the Turks did not “imitate Hagia Sophia,” they “corrected and improved its errors.”[8] And though he may have been of Christian origin, he could not have achieved what he did without his Ottoman assistants who he directed in the manner of an “orchestra conductor.”[9]

[1] Hartt, Art: A History of Painting, Sculpture & Architecture (1976), 1:280, 288. The revised fourth edition of Hartt’s survey omits the quoted passage and explains that the “Ottoman Turks” were not “overwhelmed” by Hagia Sophia because their “architectural code” was firmly established when they conquered Constantinople. Sinan is now identified as a “genius”.

[2] C. Texier, Asie Mineure: Description geographique, historique et archeologique (1862), 125.

[3] Aga-Oglu, “Herkunft und Tod Sinan, Belvedere 46 (1926).

[4] Bedri Ucar, “Buyuk Turk Mimari Koca Sinan,” Mimarlik 1. 3 (1944), 4.

[5] Strzygowski, Altai-Iran und Volkerwanderung (1917). He regarded the migrations of the Turks of the “Altaic sphere” and the Scythians of the “Aryan sphere” as the mechanism of artistic dissemination from north to south.

[6] The author was Afet Inan. A trip to Ağırnas prompted her to write this childhood biography of Sinan “in the manner of a historical novel”. See Inan, Mimar Koca Sinan (1956).

[7] E. Egli, Sinan: Der Baumeister osmanischer Glanzzeit (1954).

[8] Arseven, Turk Sanati Tariki, 2:767.

[9] Ibid. 1:216, 335-36; 2:760-70.