Mimar Sinan – Sultan’s court architect and his famous buildings

Mimar Sinan, the chief architect of Istanbul.

Mimar Sinan

Abdulmennan oglu Sinaneddin Yusuf, also known as Hoja Mimar Sinan Agha, is world famous as Mimar Sinan. He was an Ottoman architect who designed many astonishing buildings, structures, and fortifications, some of which have survived to this day despite the centuries that have passed. Now they are architectural monuments under protection and attract tourists. But are they remarkable for something else besides their antiquity?


Although Islam prevailed in the Ottoman Empire, Mimar Sinan was born into a Christian family (some scholars say Armenian, others say Greek). Little information has survived on the childhood and youth of the future architect. It is known that his father was a bricklayer and carpenter, which influenced Mimar’s hobbies and career choice. There is no reliable information about his mother.

In 1512 Mimar was recruited to the corps of janissaries and sent to Istanbul (before that he lived in the village of Agirnas near the city of Kayseri), where he converted to Islam. He was enlisted under the devshirma, so it cannot be argued that the change of faith was voluntary.

The devshirrma was a type of tax in the Ottoman Empire calculated for residents of non-Muslim religions. From such families, boys were forcibly taken away and sent either for service or for further education with a bias toward Islam.

Mimar did not become a soldier, but began to study mathematics and carpentry. This training was not enough for him, so he tried to help his fellow architects, learning the craft little by little. His new knowledge was also useful in the military field: the young man could easily identify weaknesses in enemy fortresses, which facilitated attacks against them.

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Fragment of a miniature depicting Sinan the Architect at the beginning of construction of the Kanuni tomb with a zira, a measuring instrument used by architects.

Although Mimar participated in many military campaigns, his main interest was architecture and engineering, so he gave preference to designing and building various objects. One of his first notable projects was the bridge over the Prut River, which attracted the attention of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, which influenced his subsequent career.

The empire’s help in the construction business led Mimar to be appointed court architect, giving him the opportunity to do what he loved and put his knowledge into practice.

Mimar’s list of merits includes more than 300 structures, from bridges, aqueducts and baths to hospitals, mosques and mausoleums.

Mimar Sinan died in 1588, having lived a century.

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Selimiye Mosque (Selimiye camii) and the sculpture of Mimar Sinan in Edirne

The work

Mimar Sinan began as an amateur architect who had the opportunity to practice his craft. His first structures were unremarkable except for the quality and speed of his work and the convenience of the Ottoman army. He built bridges in the right places and small functional structures in army camps. At this time, his designs were not distinguished by grandeur or uniqueness, but merely meant to simplify military life and tactical tasks.

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mimar sinan

Portrait of the Architect

Because of his high speed of work and undoubted usefulness, Mimar was noticed by the higher authorities and appointed chief court architect, which gave him the right to demolish buildings, build new ones, and direct construction throughout the Ottoman Empire. At this time, he begins to experiment, giving preference not only to functionality, but also to appearance, technical strangeness and complexity, the desire to do something unconventional and unique.

Having gained a wealth of experience, Mimar opened a training center for architects to impart knowledge and skills to young engineers who sought to replicate the success of the teacher. He also created an entire agency with enormous influence that oversaw everything related to construction throughout the empire, from small bridges to major buildings.

Top 10 Architectural Works of Mimar Sinan

Mimar Sinan created both simple functional designs and complex unique ones. The former have not been fully preserved, but some of them are still used in practice. But many of the second group are recognized as architectural heritage and are properly protected, supported and restored as needed. They are striking in their beauty and grandeur, but most importantly in the fact that they were created before construction technology developed to modern levels.

Süleymaniye Mosque

view of suleimaniye

Sulaimaniye Mosque

Süleymaniye Mosque is considered to be the main work of Mimar Sinan (although not everyone agrees with this opinion, preferring other monuments). It was built during 7 years from 1550 to 1557. The architectural plan is based on the Byzantine-style Hagia Sophia temple, which Mimar sought to surpass. The mosque is distinguished by the harmony of all details and elements, the complexity of the profile of the columns and the unusual play of light, which is possible thanks to the 32 holes in the huge dome. It looks austere at first sight, but when you look at it more closely the complexity of the decoration, the fluidity of the lines and the lightness of the general perception becomes apparent.

Shehzade Mosque

Shehzadeh Mosque is slightly inferior in popularity to Süleymaniye Mosque. It is dedicated to Shehzade Mehmed (son of Sultan Suleiman the Great) and is planned as his tomb. Construction began in 1543, the year of the prince’s death.

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Shehzade Mosque

The decor of the mosque is both rich and austere with straight lines and symmetrical geometry predominating. The vaults are decorated with alternating light and dark wedge-shaped masonry. In the mosque one can visit the turbe (i.e. tomb) of Prince Shehzade Mehmed, as well as the relatives of the Sultan – Rustem Pasha and Mustafa Desteri Pasha

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The Mihrimah Mosque in Edirnekapı

The Mihrimah Sultan Mosque, Edirnekapı was supposedly built from 1567 to 1570 (no more accurate documentary evidence has survived) and is considered one of the largest buildings built by the Mimar. It is surrounded by a large courtyard with a large fountain in the center. The shape of the building is a cube topped by a hemisphere. It is supported by columns located on four sides. In the base of the dome there is a set of windows from which light illuminates the internal furnishings. Inside, the mosque is decorated with fanciful ornaments and intricate details, as well as stained-glass windows.

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View of the Mihrimah Sultan Mosque in Edirnekapı

At present the mosque is not preserved in its original form – it has been repeatedly destroyed during earthquakes. Its present state is the result of restorations in which great care has been taken to reproduce its original appearance.

Sokollu Mehmed Pasha Mosque in Kadirga

Sokollu Mehmed Pasha Mosque

Sokollu Mehmed Pasha Mosque

Sokollu Mehmed Pasha Mosque was built in 1571-1521. It is characterized by a large number of spherical domes of different sizes and visual complexity. The upper floor has an open colonnade and many small rooms, each with windows, a fireplace, and a closet for sleeping gear (now preserved to add color to the tourist site). On the walls you can read various inscriptions from different years and centuries.

Atik Walide Mosque

The construction of Atik Valide Mosque started in 1571 and was completed only by 1586. Such a long line is due to the fact that the work was divided into three stages: first the foundations and preparatory work were laid, then a second minaret was added (this was necessary due to the fact that the status of Nurbanu (Queen Mother, to whom the mosque is dedicated), and then construction continued until its completion. In between stages Mimar was present at other constructions – his obligatory personal presence was his hallmark.

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Atik Walide Mosque in Uskudar, Istanbul

From the outside the mosque looks austere and modest, but inside it is distinguished by the brightness and complexity of the patterns. It contains many galleries divided by arches and each gallery is decorated differently (tile is the predominant decoration material). Originally the building had only one floor but in the 19th century a second and a third were added because the building served as a military hospital and needed to be enlarged.

The aqueduct system

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The Maglova Aqueduct runs through the Alibey River in Istanbul

Almost all the aqueducts built in the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century were designed by Mimar Sinan or under his supervision. They are located not only in Istanbul, but throughout the former empire. Not all of them have survived to this day, but many still stand and are restored as needed. They are astonishing in their scale and technical complexity. It is amazing that irrigation and drainage systems can look so majestic. Some of them can still perform their original tasks, but remain primarily tourist sites.

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Hamam Chamberlitash

The Hamam Cemberlitas is a Turkish bath in the center of Istanbul, built in 1584. Externally it looks quite simple (the building was planned as a functional building) and is well preserved to this day. It is noteworthy that Çemberlitas works not only as a tourist attraction, but also as a very real hammam – taking into account modern needs and demands, it retains its historicity and the intention of the architect.


View of the two-domed hamam building from the side of Divan Yolu Street

Legend has it that one of the Ottoman sultans died here and wanted to have some fun in the bath with young virgins. After drinking too much wine, he ran after a flock of shy maidens, but slipped and fell, breaking his head. Despite the fact that there is no documentary evidence of such a case, the legend is still enthusiastically told to tourists.

The Mihrimah Sultan Mosque in Uskudar

The Mihrimah Sultan Mosque (also known as Iskele Mosque or Uskudar) was built between 1543 and 1548. It is quite massive and bulky and its dome is relatively flat. The mosque has several suspended curved arches that attract the eye. But the main feature is the openness of the interior and the bias towards the Byzantine style, a reflection of which is quite evident here.

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Mihrimah Sultan Mosque in Uskudar

There is an interesting legend that Mimar Sinan, building mosques named after his hopelessly beloved Mihrimah Sultan, chose places for their construction for a reason.

There is a hidden secret here.

If, on the evening of the vernal equinox (March 21, Mihrimah’s birthday), to find a place where both mosques (one in the European part of Istanbul, the other in the Asian part) will be visible. Then one can see the sun setting behind the minaret of the Mihrimah Sultan Mosque (the one with one minaret) and the moon rising behind the minarets of the Uskudar Mosque at the same time. So the architect glorified the name of his beloved. If you happen to be in Istanbul on this day, be sure to check it out!

The great architect Mimar Sinan outlived Mihrimah by 10 years, he lived to be 100 and his love was immortalized for ages…

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Jafar Madrassah

The Jafar Khoja Nikib Madrassah is a 50 hujrah that is neither opulent, complicated nor richly decorated. It is a rather simple and austere building, in which one can see what the madrasah looked like in the 16th century. The building was destroyed in the early twentieth century and rebuilt only in 1989, so it does not attract the attention of those who appreciate the true historicity.

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Jafferaa Madrasah

There is now a cultural center inside with creative workshops dedicated to Turkish art – it is more of an interactive tourist attraction than a static one.

Kılıç Ali Pasha Mosque

The Kılıç Ali Pasha Mosque (1578-1580 construction years) is part of an entire architectural complex which also includes a madrassa, a hamam, a turbe and a fountain.

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The Kılıç Ali Pasha Fountain and Mosque in Topkhan

The main dome of the mosque is of medium size and is located on extended granite piers and two lower half-domes. there are also several smaller domes – their combination gives the mosque an interesting look and sense of massiveness. The halls inside are decorated with a variety of intricate ornaments, and stained glass windows make the lighting inside unusual and fanciful.

Mimar Sinan is the only architect of the empire who, by redefining Ottoman architecture, raised it to a global level, Selcuk Mülayim writes for İslam Ansiklopedisi.

Beyond Istanbul

Despite the high concentration of preserved buildings in Istanbul, there are interesting sites outside the city as well. For example, the Selimiye Mosque in Edirne (1569-1575) was considered by Mimar himself as the pinnacle of his art and treated it with special reverence. Now the mosque is considered one of the most important Muslim monuments of culture and history.

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The Selimiye Mosque and the Sinan Monument in Edirne

The Visegard Bridge (1577), located in Bosnia, is recognized as a monument of medieval Turkish engineering. It is quite long, consisting of 11 spans, nevertheless it was built rather quickly and yet sturdily (preserved centuries later!).

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Mehmed Pasha Sokolović Bridge in Bosnia

Dozens of examples of Mimar Sinan’s heritage can be found in the former Ottoman Empire – bridges, aqueducts, mosques, hamams, and more that have historical value and are preserved with all their might. If a tourist’s route lies through the heritage sites of Mimar, it is recommended to take a short break from the main route and devote time to these sites – it will be difficult to regret it.

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White Tower, Thessaloniki

Legends related to Mimar Sinan

There is a legend about the design and construction of the Mihrimah Mosque, named after one of Sultan Suleiman’s daughters. According to it, Mimar was in love with Mihrimah, who was already married and could not reciprocate the architect’s feelings. But Mimar decided to perpetuate his feelings and put them into the design of a mosque dedicated to his beloved. One detail of this legend is noteworthy: supposedly 161 windows in the mosque are needed so that there is a lot of light inside – as much as Mihrimah brings to Sinan’s soul.

Interesting and little-known sights

The same legend also includes the story of the minarets: it is believed that there were originally planned two, but in the end Mimar left only one – Mihrimah’s husband died, so Mimar decided to leave a symbol of her loneliness.

Mimar Sinan Mausoleum

Mimar Sinan’s Mausoleum

Death and Legacy

After Mimar Sinan’s death, it is not only his architectural legacy and historical memory that has been preserved.

  • The octagonal water dispenser Sinan (located next to the architect’s grave) is also named after Sinan.
  • A photo of the architect and the Selimiye Mosque could be seen on the 1982-1995 10,000 lira banknotes.
  • There is Mimar Sinan Caddesi Street in Istanbul.
  • Mimar Sinan University of Fine Arts in Istanbul.
  • Istanbul has a mosque named after Mimar Sinan on the Asian side and a park of the same name nearby.
  • One of the craters on Mercury is named after Sinan.

Sinan built about 300 architectural structures such as mosques, schools, charity canteens, hospitals, aqueducts, bridges, caravanserais, palaces, baths, mausoleums and fountains during his life, most of which were built in Istanbul. His most famous buildings are the Shehzade Mosque, the Süleymaniye Mosque, and the Selimiye Mosque in Edirne.

Minmar Sinan: Russian Wikipedia article

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Interesting facts about the master and his buildings

Virtually no original drawings of Minmar Sinan have survived, but several of them were found in a strange way – during the restoration of the Shehzade Mosque and the Süleymaniye Mosque, vessels with drawings inside were found in the wall cavities. Whether it was an attempt to preserve them for posterity or something else is unknown, but the find educated historians, architects and engineers alike.

No description, even the most colorful and detailed, will convey the grandeur and delight that the works of Mimar Sinan evoke when you visit them in person. His legacy is an important part of the tourist program for those who want not just to visit Istanbul, but to enjoy its spirit, the life of the city, the richness of its history and its intertwining with modernity. It is not necessary to visit every preserved structure of Mimar Sinan, but it is worth paying attention to at least a few – any of them is bound to strike the imagination and cause disbelief that such a thing could be created in the 16th century, and by the talent of one man alone.

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