Anatolia, linking Asia and Europe, has a long and distinguished record as a centre of civilization – from one of the world’s first towns (Catal Huyuk), through the successive periods of Hittites and Trojans, Ionians and Lydians, Romans and Byzantines.
Suleiman the Magnificent: AD 1520-1566
The heyday of the Ottoman empire is the long reign of Suleiman I, great-grandson of Mehmed II. His Christian enemies know him even during his lifetime as ‘the Magnificent’, recognizing his conquests on land and the Turkish might at sea (which enables Muslim corsairs, under Turkish patronage, to dominate the Mediterranean and seize the Barbary coast). At the same time magnificence is reflected in the buildings added to Istanbul and Edirne by Suleiman and his architect, Sinan.
Within Turkey the epithet for Suleiman is Kanuni, ‘the Lawmaker’, in recognition of his efforts to turn his growing empire into a just and well-administered domain.
Sinan: 16th century AD
The career of Sinan, Turkey’s most distinguished architect, provides an intriguing example of the blend of cultures in this great Muslim empire which has displaced a very ancient Christian one.
Sinan is born in 1489, son of a Christian stonemason in one of the Turkish provinces. As a young man he is taken, as part of the human tax imposed on the Christian communities, to serve the sultan as a janissary. He prospers in his new profession, rising to high rank in the army. He becomes particularly well known for the military bridges and fortifications which he constructs.
From about 1535, when Sinan is in his late forties, his career changes direction. The sultan, Suleiman I, puts him to work on civil projects. In the remaining years of a long life, Sinan is astonishingly productive. His buildings are said to include 79 mosques, 34 palaces, 33 public baths, 19 tombs, 62 schools and 12 caravanserais.
Whatever the truth about such broad claims, the more important fact is that Sinan’s best buildings are masterpieces. Three in particular stand out. Two are in Istanbul – the Sehzade mosque (completed in 1548) and the mosque of Suleiman I (1550-57). The mosque of Sultan Selim in Edirne (the Ottoman capital before the capture of Constantinople) is completed in 1575.
Each of these mosques is the centrepiece of a broader religious institution. The outstanding example is the complex of Suleiman I in Istanbul. In addition to the mosque itself, with its courtyard for worship, Sinan’s buildings here include schools, hostels, kitchens, a hospital, shops, a wrestling ground and a Turkish bath.
In each complex of this kind the central architectural feature is a great dome above the internal part of the mosque. Unlike the domes of India or Persia, Sinan’s do not have a high profile when seen from outside. Instead they emerge gently from an embracing cluster of smaller domes and half domes.
This treatment of a cluster of domes reveals another link between Christianity and Islam in Turkey. The dominant building of Istanbul, situated close to the sultan’s Topkapi palace, is the great mosque which was once the central church of the Byzantine empire – Santa Sophia.
This ancient Christian building is Sinan’s inspiration. His adaptation of it sets the pattern for Turkish mosques, as is seen today in Santa Sophia’s younger neighbour. Between 1609 and 1616 a superb mosque in Sinan’s style is built beside Santa Sophia, almost as a twin. It is the mosque of Sultan Ahmet, designed by Mehmed Aga and now widely known, from the tiles of its interior, as the Blue Mosque.
Pampered heirs: 17th century AD
In both Turkey and Persia a major change is made in royal protocol during the first half of the 17th century. The development is the same in each place, and it has a profound effect on future sultans and shahs.
In Turkey it has been an official policy of state for each new sultan, on achieving power, to kill his brothers and nephews. Without a system of primogeniture, the crown goes to the strongest among the candidates within the ruling family. Once a winner has emerged, this drastic measure is a way of ensuring an untroubled reign. The sultan Mehmed III, winning power in 1595, murders his unusually large family of nineteen brothers.
In Persia this principle of violence is not enshrined in law, but in practice the result is similarly brutal. Shah Abbas, ruling in the early 17th century, blinds and imprisons his deposed father, his two brothers and one of his sons.
Shah Abbas in Persia and his contemporary, Ahmed I, in Turkey independently put in place a more merciful system. Abbas decrees that in future all royal princes will live in the harem, out of harm’s way, until such time as the ruling shah dies. Ahmed’s solution in Turkey is similar, but each prince here is to have a pavilion of his own in a walled garden (the merciful Ahmed was five, in 1595, when his father killed his nineteen uncles).
The result is the same in both empires. Less royal blood is shed but the standard of leadership declines. Sultans and shahs, previously on the battlefield from their teens, learning the harsh ways of the world, now emerge in a state of sheltered ignorance to take up the responsibilities of power. The politics of the harem impinge upon, and sometimes even replace in importance, the politics of the real world.
In Persia the Safavids retain the throne for a century after this change. In Turkey the royal line survives three times as long, to the end of the Ottoman empire. But the heyday of each dynasty has passed.
Threat from the north: 17th century AD
From the establishment of the Ottoman empire, in the 15th century, Turkey has confronted a large imperial power to the west (Austria) and another to the east (Persia). From the 17th century there is pressure also from the north.
During the early 17th century the Russian empire expands at astonishing speed eastwards through Asia. Now, in the last decade of the century, a Russian emperor becomes determined to win access to both the Baltic and the Black Sea. Of the two, Peter the Great focuses first on the Black Sea region – where the local Tatar khan has the Turkish emperor in Istanbul as his overlord.