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Istanbul: visiting mosques from the 1500s

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The NY Times Travel section has an article today about a series of visits to mosques designed by Sinan, an architect and chief engineer for Suleyman the Magnificent.



In a career that began when he was 40 and spanned five decades, Sinan built some 300 structures across Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Since most Western visitors to Turkey have never heard of Sinan, guides often compare him to his contemporary, Michelangelo. But given the scope, scale and sheer quantity of his buildings, that’s something of an insult to Sinan. Michelangelo made spectacular contributions to a few buildings in Rome and Florence. Sinan has hundreds of monumental structures still in daily use, from Belgrade to Mecca. You might say that Sinan was the world’s first “starchitect.”


The holy grail of my pilgrimage was in Edirne, a former capital of the Ottoman Empire near the Turkish border with Bulgaria and Greece, where Sinan’s Selimiye Mosque, with its four elegantly slender minarets, crowns the city’s center. Sinan considered Selimiye his masterpiece, and in 2011 Unesco agreed with him, declaring the entire mosque complex, known in Turkish as a kulliye and featuring schools, almshouses, hospitals, baths and a covered bazaar, a World Heritage Site.


Sinan was “the Euclid of his day,” said Dogan Kuban, author of more than 70 books on Islamic architecture. “At St. Peter’s in Rome, your eye is drawn to the dome itself,” he said in a recent conversation. “Sinan’s shallow domes, however, with their abstract painted decoration, seem to magically float overhead. Instead of the structure, you contemplate the space.”


To better understand what I’d be looking at in Edirne, I asked the bespoke travel agency Sea Song Tours in Istanbul to provide me with a three-day crash course in Sinan. By visiting more than a dozen of his buildings in Istanbul, I might better understand how his experimentation with complex geometric compositions transformed thick stone walls into columns, arches, domes and half-domes — and things called spandrels and squinches — as he made the vertical transition from the mosques’ square floors to their round ceilings.


My guide, the aptly named Sinan Yalcin, brilliantly zeroed in on the salient details of each building in 20- to 30-minute visits as we zigzagged through Istanbul, crossing back and forth from Europe to Asia by car and boat. Though we moved quickly, ate cheaply and fast in local lunch spots, and nearly froze standing shoeless in vast stone structures in mid-March, it was perhaps the most luxurious trip I’ve ever taken — 72 hours dedicated to one architectural marvel after another.


The first stop was Sehzade Mosque in Edirnekapi, built early in Sinan’s career. When it was finished in 1548, the architect recognized that he still had something to learn. On the mosque’s exterior lateral walls, Sinan cleverly organized the buttresses that support the weight of the dome into orderly colonnades. To create symmetry, he placed doors in the center of those colonnades. But inside the mosque, the doors meant worshipers now came and went from the middle of the room rather than from the back. “A sacred space meant for prayer and contemplation became a passageway,” Sinan the guide explained. “It was a mistake he would never repeat.”


Nearby is Sinan’s most important mosque in Istanbul. Commissioned by Suleyman for his own tomb and completed in 1558, the Suleymaniye Mosque sits atop the most prominent hill above the Golden Horn, and remains among the most visible monuments in the city. Sinan artfully modulated the height of the four minarets, enhancing the illusion that the mosque floats above the city. Recently reopened after a three-year restoration, the vast complex gleams. Still, its monumentality left me a little cold.




This latter point was made as we admired the Selim II tombs situated between Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque, where stylized turbans made of white cloth adorn the caskets containing the bodies of men of the sultan’s family. Next door, the newly restored Hurrem baths, commissioned by Suleyman’s beloved Slavic wife Roxelana, have just reopened.


After a fabulously no-fuss lunch of kofte (spiced ground meat patties) and red beans at a local lunch counter, we walked 10 minutes to Sokollu Pasha Mosque, also famous for its gorgeous Iznik tiles. The approach offers a dramatic and ever-expanding view of the sweeping roof that shelters the ablutions fountain in the foreground and the seemingly infinite repetition of domes and arches of the mosque itself. In the middle of the afternoon we were the only visitors.






To arrange a custom tour of Sinan’s mosques, contact Sea Song Tours; (90-212) 292 8555; seasong.com. Tours, with guide and driver in Istanbul, start at $265 per person per day.

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