It was on this day in 1489 a boy called ‘Joseph’ was born to a Christian family in the heart of Anatolia (Turkey). He would grow up to change the face of Europe forever, not as a Christian though, but as the greatest Muslim architect the world has ever seen.
Ko’ca Mimar Sinan Aga – to give him his Muslim name – was a soldier for two decades in the Ottoman empire’s military, before becoming its master architect for over fifty years.
Long hailed the pinnacle of Ottoman architectural style, Sinan’s work is celebrated across Turkey. However, many of his – some say 500 – works, have either been destroyed or remain forgotten in former Ottoman territories.
The Bender Fortress in tiny Moldova is one of those.
A military masterpiece, Sinan constructed the fort in his final year as a soldier whilst on a campaign for Sultan Suleiman I – ‘The Magnificent’ – who would also become his biggest fan and greatest patron.
A forgotten masterpiece
Sinan built the Bender Fortress shortly after Sultan Suleiman took the little town of Tighina in 1538, and renamed it Bender.
It was modelled on the Western European ‘bastion style’ and positioned high on a steep hill surrounded by what may have been intended as a moat, though it was never filled. The Bender Fortress served the Ottomans well over the next two centuries as the empire enjoyed its most powerful epoch, before it was taken by the Russians in the Russo-Turkish Wars of the 18th century .
Until very recently, the fort remained a training base for the Russian military, and only became accessible to the public in the past couple of years. Its importance to Ottoman and European Muslim history still not fully appreciated. This is made all the more difficult by its location in the Transnistria Republic; a semi autonomous, Soviet-sympathising state, within Moldova, recognised (reluctantly) only by Moldova.
In another world
There is something quite unnerving and ‘otherworldly’ about the fort’s location in the little town of Bender, a place where it seems there are more soldiers than people and a check point around every corner.
The grounds of the fort, on the edge of Bender, feel similarly hostile.
Fronted by a gate belonging on a Soviet-era prison, there are no legible signs, so visitors have to find their own way into the dank room where tickets are bought. There an aged clerk, warmed by an ancient gas stove, stamps the paper ticket before waving in the general direction of the fort – still a ten minute walk through land which, until very recently, had bullets freely flying around it.
The winding path is in the shadow of huge abandoned buildings, where shattered glass is kept from falling by a rusty fence. On the grey outer walls there are painted yellow marksmen surrounded by bullet holes, creating a scene from a post-apocalyptic movie set. It is quite an unwelcoming place – just like Transnistria, who it seems did not get the memo about the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Like the Sultan who ordered its construction, Bender Fortress is magnificent. Its beige baked bricks still look impregnable, nearly 500 years on, and the square turrets on each corner give it an aesthetic appeal.
Until 1882, above the main entrance a marble slab bore Sultan Suleiman’s imperial tugrah (insignia), with the Islamic date 945 AH (approx 1538). Today all the clues to the fort’s Muslim past are kept in the belly of one tower, which has been converted into a small museum.
Ottoman mannequins, retrieved imperial coins, swords, muscats, and a miniature model bring to life the Muslim era, whilst on the wall is painted an intriguing mural depicting its fall, complete with burning mosque.
Western Muslim Superstar
According to most theories, Sinan was born ‘Joseph’, to either Armenian, Greek or Albanian parents. Then, like so many promising young Christian boys, he was cruelly taken from his family under the Ottoman devsirme system. However, Joseph is said to have been conscripted into the Janissery Corps (elite Ottoman soldiers) in his early twenties, later than most devsirme, and by which time he may have already picked up a passion for building work as his father was most likely a Stonemason.
Converted to Islam as part of the devsirme system, Joseph was given the name ‘Sinan’ and served on a number of military campaigns, often applying his architectural skills along the way.
In 1539, shortly after building the Bender Fortress, Sinan was appointed to the Office of Architect of the Abode of Felicity. Thus began a period during which Sinan would seal his reputation as the greatest Muslim architect the world has ever seen, producing such masterpieces as the Sulemaniye Mosque in Istanbul and of course, his magnum opus, the Selimiye Mosque in Edirne, both in Turkey.
It is said when the Moghul Emperor Shah Jahan began planning his fabled Taj Mahal, he specifically requested architects trained by the great Sinan.
Sinan died aged 98 and is buried in the cemetery just outside the Sulemaniye Mosque in Istanbul, close to the grave of his greatest patron, Sultan Suleiman I – the Magnificent.