Istanbul Sokollu Mehmet Pasha Mosque Interior With Blue Iznik Tiles Ottoman Architecture Mimar Sinan

A Guide to Sinan’s Ottoman Masterpieces in Istanbul 

Why is one of the greatest architects of all time so little known outside Turkey? It might be that Mimar Sinan’s buildings are nearly impossible to understand from pictures. Or that his work doesn’t fit into the traditional categories of “Eastern” or “Western”. And with dozens of structures to his name in Istanbul’s Old City alone, most visitors don’t know where to start. 

It’s difficult to overstate the magnitude of Sinan’s accomplishments. Even for someone who lived to age 99, his output was staggering: contemporary sources credit him with 343 to 477 buildings, with around 200 surviving today. Besides mosque complexes with some of the largest domes in the world, he also designed bridges, aqueducts, fortresses, and palaces. As Chief Architect during the Ottoman Empire’s peak, he worked on every level, from planning neighborhoods to overseeing water systems, fire regulations, and the maintenance of all public buildings. His creations expressed Ottoman identity so perfectly that it’s impossible to imagine it without him.

Istanbul Şehzade Mosque Interior Dome With Striped Arches Sinan Architecture
Şehzade Mosque

We’ve curated a list of Sinan’s most spectacular works. Those with limited time can focus on the centrally-located monuments in the Old City. Visitors with more than a day or two can explore the sites in other neighborhoods. (See our Google map.)

Old City – Eminönü, Sultanahmet, and Around:

Süleymaniye Complex, Rüstem Paşa Mosque

Topkapı Palace, Hürrem Sultan Hamam, Sokollu Mehmed Paşa Mosque

Mehmet Şehzade Complex

Karaköy: Kılıç Ali Paşa Mosque

Edirnekapı: Mihrimah Sultan Complex (1570)

Üsküdar: Mihrimah Sultan Complex (1548), Şemsi Ahmed Paşa Complex, Atik Valide Complex

Further Reading

Mimar Sinan 

Sinan grew up in a small village, likely in Cappadocia. The stonemason’s son joined the Janissaries as a conscript sometime in his teens. During military campaigns he studied buildings from Baghdad to Vienna while restoring and renovating old mosques in his spare time. His work impressed the young sultan Suleyman, who appointed Sinan Chief Architect of the Ottoman Empire in 1539. 

By amassing a team of thousands of apprentices, artisans, and laborers, Sinan could complete monumental projects in just a few years. He involved himself in every conceivable part of a project. His technical innovations ranged from designing wall pockets for better acoustics to pioneering lead cushioning for seismic safety. 

Mihrümah Sultan Mosque Complex Edirnekapı Istanbul Exterior Courtyard View Framed By Arches Fountain Small Domes Mimar Sinan Architect
Courtyard and ablution fountain of the Mihrimah Sultan Complex in Edirnekapı

Sinan was, among other things, a natural city planner. He thought about his buildings in terms of their appearance and function in the neighborhood. His mosques were never designed in isolation but rather as part of a larger complex which formed the core of a community. These complexes usually had a theological school, shops, baths, and soup kitchens. Gardens surrounding the mosques were designed for people to walk or repose. 

Süleymaniye Complex

Suleymaniye Mosque Istanbul By Mimar Sinan Ottoman Architecture Exterior Facade And Domes View From Courtyard

The Sultan wanted a mosque complex which would surpass all others in beauty and enlightenment. Sinan’s design for the Süleymaniye announced a fully-fledged Ottoman architecture which could hold its own against the Hagia Sophia. Designed to preside over the city from all vantages, the mosque crowns its hilltop. With multiple levels stacked on top of each other, the complex appears to cascade down the slope. 

View Of Istanbul Skyline And Bosphorus From Suleymaniye Mosque Domes Cascading Down Hill

Sinan’s team scoured the empire for materials; some of the larger pieces famously came from the Hippodrome. Iznik tiles, with their innovative production and uniquely Ottoman patterns, make their first appearance here. In order to underscore the symbolism of a sober ruler, Sinan kept the ornamentation relatively restrained and restricted it primarily to transition zones.

Suleymaniye Mosque Interior Dome Striped Arches Windows Ottoman Architecture Mimar Sian Istanbul

Enormous in both scale and variety of buildings, the Süleymaniye complex once housed five madrasas, a hospital, hospice, elementary school, guest housing, kitchens, baths, and numerous shops. Later, Sinan added mausoleums for Suleyman and his wife Roxelana. A triangular plot just below the mosque still contains the architect’s own tomb next to his now-demolished home. Ever humble, Sinan chose a stone turban based on his early years as a Janissary rather than the style worn by architects. 

Rustem Paşa Mosque

In the thick of the old spice market, an unobtrusive set of stairs leads to a secret world. In an unusual configuration, the mosque memorializing Grand Vizier Rustem Pasa sits right on top of a block of shops – and it features enough visual stimulation to distract from the surrounding chaos. The tiny courtyard features tiled wall panels with plant motifs to create an illusory garden. Inside is a riot of color and light, with over 80 patterns of tile coating nearly every surface. 

Rüstem Paşa Mosque Istanbul Interior Blue Tile Round Light Fixture Striped Arches Ottoman Architect Sinan
Over 80 patterns of Iznik tile include 41 different tulip designs.

The city of Iznik was just hitting its golden age of tile production, with innovations such as deep red underglaze and a fresh, uniquely Ottoman series of patterns. In this mosque Sinan let the tiles take center stage. He wisely restrained the rest of the building to the same palette: everything harmonizes with the glowing white, cobalt, turquoise, and red.

Enter via a flight of stairs at the corner of Makheme Sk. and Hasırcılar Cd. Inside the mosque, don’t miss the upstairs gallery.

Topkapı Palace

Istanbul Topkapi Palace Kitchen Designed By Mimar Sinan Brick And Green Tile Round Hood Over Cooking Area
The confectionary kitchen

Sinan redesigned the palace’s kitchen wing after a major fire in 1574. Two sections display a renowned collection of decorative objects and servingware. The third part contains the confectionary kitchen, with domes in various shapes for conducting the heated air efficiently.

Istanbul Topkapi Palace Privy Chamber Of Murad III By Mimar Sinan Interior Dome Ottoman Tile And Stained Glass
Salon of Murad III

Sadly most of Sinan’s contributions to the harem were altered over the years, but the Salon of Murad III has been restored to its full glory. Often called the most beautiful room in Topkapı, it’s a tantalizing glimpse of what he could do in palaces. One of the most famous details is a marble-inlay wall fountain which created a pleasant burbling noise – and hindered eavesdropping.

Hürrem Sultan Hamam

At the junction of the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, and Hippodrome sits an attractive but comparatively unassuming building. Sinan’s 1556 bathhouse was commissioned by Haseki Hürrem Sultan (a.k.a. Roxelana), the controversial wife of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent. In founding a hamam to enrich the Hagia Sophia, Roxelana left her mark at the very epicenter of the city. 

Hurrem Sultan Hammam Sixteenth Century Bath Complex Istanbul Exterior Facade Domes By Sinan Ottoman Architecture

Built on the site of the ancient Baths of Zeuxippus, the new hamam connected Ottoman life with the city’s past. Unlike most bathhouses, which restricted men and women to different days, this one features two sets of rooms. Sinan arranged them in an unusual configuration with male and female sides mirroring one another.  

After functioning as a prison, warehouse, and a carpet store, the Hürrem Sultan Hamam was finally restored to its original use in the early 2000’s. Today the bathhouse is popular but quite expensive; see the website for information.

Sokollu Mehmet Paşa

For the mosque commissioned in 1571 by the Grand Vizier and his wife, Sinan made superb use of a cramped, sloping site. Multiple levels establish different zones while maintaining an open feel and creating an ever-changing sequence of views as one moves through the complex. In order to add grandeur to the tiny space Sinan paved the courtyard in marble, a convention normally reserved for sultanic projects.

Sokollu Mehmed Pasha Mosque Interior Iznik Tiles And Dome Istanbul Mimar Sinan Ottoman Architecture

Many consider the petite Sokollu Mehmed Paşa to be Sinan’s best interior, with “the finest single wall of tile ever created by Iznik”. The ornamentation is lavish but never excessive, and sensitive restoration preserved the original paintings in several places. The entire building serves as a jewel box for precious fragments from the Ka’ba stone in Mecca. In spite of its location just below the Hippodrome, the mosque sees surprisingly little traffic.

Mehmet Şehzade Complex

The culmination of what Sinan called his “apprentice” phase, the Şehzade Mosque marks the turning point from the eclectic tendencies of earlier Ottoman architecture to a unique classical style. Where mosque architecture had concentrated primarily on the interior, Sinan included extensive carvings on the outside as well. He also introduced domed arcades at the base, concealing heavy buttressing and emphasizing the overall pyramidal shape. 

Istanbul Şehzade Mosque Exterior And Fountain View From Courtyard Arches And Domes Ottoman Architecture Mimar Sinan

Inside, Sinan’s spaces feature a transitional mix of ornamentation. Previously, the Ottoman style favored complexity over clarity: for instance calligraphy might include overlapping or reversed lettering. The Sehzade complex is the last time Sinan would include any scripts other than the monumental and easily-legible thuluth style. 

Dedicated to Mehmet Şehzade, the beloved eldest son of Suleyman and Roxelana, the complex also includes a funerary garden with several mausoleums. The earliest is that of Şehzade himself, complete with a “throne” over the sarcophagus to symbolize his status as the heir apparent. It also features older, Persian-style tiles with purples and yellows instead of the white and deep red used in Iznik production. The latter can be found in some of the complex’s later tombs.

Karaköy

Kılıç Ali Paşa Mosque

Just down the hill from the thronged Galata Tower and obscured by skyscrapers, we found one of Sinan’s loveliest mosques empty on a May morning. Designed for a famous pirate-turned-admiral, the mosque once sat in view of the sea. 

Kılıç Ali Paşa Mosque Interior Central Space With Light Fixture And Medallions Karaköy Istanbul By Mimar Sinan Ottoman Architecture

For non-royal commissions, Sinan used pre-existing monuments as a model: in this case, the Hagia Sophia. The project was an opportunity for the architect to update the original which he had recently restored. For the Ottomans, it was a political statement: the ancient basilica, revered for over a thousand years as a symbol of Byzantine architectural prowess, could now be improved upon by one of their own. Sinan’s structure is noticeably brighter than its predecessor because he concentrated the primary dome’s weight onto relatively small supports. Eliminating the need for heavy walls allowed him to open up the interior and add an abundance of windows. Light streams in through patterned screens, reflecting off glossy tiles and making the marble glow. 

Edirnekapı

Mihrimah Sultan Complex 

Suleyman and Roxelana’s sole daughter commissioned multiple structures from Sinan, two of which bear her name today. The one in Edirnekapı (near the Theodosian Walls) shows him hitting the peak of his abilities.

Mihrümah Sultan Mosque Complex Edirnekapı Istanbul Interior Windows And Dome Stained Glass Decorative Patterns Sinan Architecture
Even compared to Sinan’s other work, the mosque in Edirnekapı has a very low percentage of supporting mass.

With its radical structural system, the mosque of Mihrimah Sultan in Edirnekapı was an important precursor to Sinan’s ultimate masterpiece, the Selimiye in Edirne. In a feat of engineering, Sinan transferred all of the dome’s weight to four corner towers. Because they can’t be seen from the inside, the massive dome appears to float. And without the need for buttressing, all four walls could be opened up to bring in light. 

Üsküdar

Issues of rank made it difficult for royal women to commission work within the old city walls, but they made up for it with projects in Üsküdar. The Asian suburb was a popular location for both private palaces and pious foundations. While the former have largely disappeared, the district still contains several major mosque complexes by Sinan.

Mihrimah Sultan complex (Iskele Camii)

The first of Sinan’s designs for Mihrimah Sultan lies near the Bosphorus in Üsküdar. Before the shoreline was built up, its position on the water’s edge inspired the nickname Iskele Camii, or Jetty Mosque. The architect played on the location by borrowing forms from shoreline pavilions such as a raised garden terrace along the water, deep eaves and stone benches.

Iskele Mosque Mihrümah Sultan Complex Üsküdar Istanbul Interior Dome With Striped Arches Mimar Sinan Architecture

Princess Mihrimah’s complex was built at the same time as the one honoring her brother Mehmet Şehzade, roughly 1543-48. Even this early in his career, Sinan already demonstrated the ability to express subtle distinctions of rank in his architecture. For instance, both complexes conveyed the family’s preeminence over previous royals by including two minarets instead of one – but in the princely complex, they are taller. 

Şemsi Ahmet Paşa Complex

Even relatively minor commissions show Sinan’s gift for fitting his buildings into the landscape. From a distance, the minaret joins the district’s other spires to form a garland of stone along the shore. An L-shaped plan, laid on a diagonal, gives the Şemsi Ahmet Paşa privacy without sacrificing views. Instead of a traditional courtyard with walls all around, he left the water side open.

Atik Valide Complex

Further inland in Üsküdar, one of Sinan’s more interesting projects shows how his designs could adapt to political changes. The Atik Valide Complex was completed in three phases to reflect the growing power of its patron, the Valide Sultan (Queen Mother) of Murad III. When her son ascended the throne, she more or less took control of the government – and demanded architectural features normally reserved for sultans. Although it was too late to enlarge the dome in her mosque, Sinan (or perhaps one of his apprentices) appended smaller domes to either side. Because the design was changed over time, some scholars find the interior less unified than Sinan’s other work, but it does include celebrated tilework.

Atik Valide Mosque Complex Interior View Multiple Domes Red And White Striped Arches Üsküdar Istanbul Mimar Sinan

In his more complex projects, Sinan used both position and materials to create a hierarchy between different types of buildings. Like the Süleymaniye, the Atik Valide sprawls down a hillside. More commercial structures such as shops and a bathhouse stand at the base, and were built using rubble and mortar. The next level up includes schools and guest lodging, with walls in alternating bands of stone and brick. At the apex stands the holy mosque of pure stone, capped by a shimmering lead dome.

Further Reading

Our other posts include A Guide to Istanbul’s Iconic Architecture and A Guide to the Istanbul’s Three Monumental Cisterns.

For more on Sinan and Ottoman architecture, Gülru Necipolğu’s brilliant and exhaustive The Age of Sinan: Architectural Culture in the Ottoman Empire is the definitive source.

Elif Shafak’s novel The Architect’s Apprentice paints a vivid picture of life in the Ottoman court as told from the point of view of Sinan’s apprentice.