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The imperfectionist

In most people’s minds, Mimar Sinan is a name that probably does not merit equation with Michelangelo as perhaps one of the world’s greatest architects. This in itself is something of a tragedy, for the great Ottoman left an indelible stamp on the field of architecture and civil engineering.

Sinan served as chief royal architect to three sultans in the 16th century, most importantly to the greatest, Suleiman the Magnificent, over the course of a long, productive career that coincided with the zenith of Ottoman rule. Sinan’s harmonious mosques, graceful bridges and cavernous caravanserais still dot the landscapes of the erstwhile empire: from Anatolia, the Balkans and the Levant to North Africa. Till today the skyline of Istanbul bears his mark more than any other person’s.

In her latest book, The Architect’s Apprentice, author Elif Shafak seems to have set herself the task of bringing the life and times of this somewhat forgotten historical figure to a global audience. In an afterword to the book, Shafak notes how the idea of the book came to her during her daily commute in Istanbul. A miniature depicting the architect at work, his apprentices, and an elephant in the background aiding the construction of a building, sowed the seeds for the characters.

The Architect’s Apprentice: Penguin, 464 pages, 599.
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The Architect’s Apprentice: Penguin, 464 pages, 599.

As the Ottoman army marches to new territories, Sinan goes with them, organizing engineering corps for the military. In this work, an elephant—Chota—is of help and Jahan, initially engaged for battle, becomes entwined in architecture. This is loose historical fiction—Shafak is more concerned with telling an interesting story than adhering to dates and timelines—but one that is impactful in making the reader care about the time, place and people being written about.

The world Shafak creates is rich in characterization, texture and Orientalist detail. The story, epic in sweep, if also occasionally unwieldy and forced, seemingly pays homage to the tradition of One Thousand And One Nights and other Middle-Eastern and South Asian texts. The cast of characters is rich—not just sultans and sultanas, but gypsies, soldiers, viziers, dragomans, sorceresses, cross-dressers, even Michelangelo himself, play a role. Of all the humans, it is Sinan who is the most intriguing in his expansive humanity, wisdom and artistry.

Here is a man who dedicated his life to the pursuit of architectural perfection but was nonetheless humble enough to mark all his creations with invisible defects, for only God could achieve perfection. Despite the obvious work she has put into detailing the exotic cast and story, Shafak is at her best when describing the architectural details of Sinan’s creations, be it the stunning domes and pencil-thin minarets of his mosques, the arches of his bridges, or the tiles he used in his “sage-green, sapphire-blue and a red as dark as yesterday’s blood".

In an interview to The Guardian, Shafak notes that “the main historical narrative in Turkey does not talk about human beings and the very few individuals we mention are sultans. How did so-called ordinary men and women feel through the centuries when Turkey was going through these changes? I’m interested in sexual minorities, ethnic minorities, and I’m interested in silences. Animals of course we never mention, women we rarely mention. For me there is always a desire to bring back stories and subjects that have been forgotten or pushed to the sides." In this, The Architect’s Apprentice succeeds, imagining through Jahan, Chota and Sinan and his projects, the stories behind the historical headlines of one of the world’s greatest empires.

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