When we think of the Ottoman Empire, it immediately and almost inevitably sparks our imagination. It evokes an orientalist fantasy that is populated by great sultans, that is full of exotic scents and that is accompanied by the sound of the muezzin’s call for Islamic prayer.
But there is much more to it. At its height, the great Ottoman Empire (ca. 1299–1922) spread from Anatolia and the Caucasus across North Africa and into Syria, Arabia, and Iraq. It united many disparate parts of the Islamic and Eastern Christian world, integrating Byzantine, Mamluk, and Persian traditions – ultimately forming a distinct Ottoman artistic vocabulary.
In order to understand how art and architecture of the Ottoman empire emerged and developed, we need to have a closer look at its history. Starting with the conquest of Constantinople, moving on to the Golden Age under the reign of Süleyman “The Magnificent” – during which the celebrated architect Mimar Sinan achieved his greatest works – and finally concluding with the Tulip Period of Sultan Ahmet III.
Constantinople: Capital of The Ottoman Empire
In the 15th century, Mehmet II – more famously known as Mehmet “The Conqueror” – established the new capital of the Ottomans in former Byzantine Constantinople and renamed it to Istanbul. Upon his arrival, he integrated Turkic and Perso-Islamic traditions with Byzantine and western European artistic repertoires.
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The Hagia Sofia
One of the greatest examples of how the East met the West in Constantinople was the transformation of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque. The church was built in 537 AC by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I and for almost 1000 years, the building was the biggest cathedral in the world. It is believed that Mehmet II went directly to the Hagia Sophia after entering Constantinople to do his first Islamic prayer. The domed church was then converted into a mosque and four minarets were added to the building. Until the construction of the Blue Mosque a few hundred meters away in the 17th century, Hagia Sophia served as the main mosque in Istanbul. In 1934, however, the Hagia Sophia was turned into a museum by Turkey’s first president Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. The building was enlisted as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and thus, the preservation of its complex and multilayered cultural, historical and religious value could be ensured, including the Byzantine frescoes that had been plastered before. Only recently, the status of the Hagia Sophia as a museum has been annulled and is now a mosque once again.
The Topkapi Palaces
Although the Hagia Sophia has ever since been at the center of Istanbul’s “East meets West” narrative, there are more examples of how Mehmet’s conquest had a huge impact on the Ottomans’ understanding of art and architecture. Throughout his reign, Ottoman, Iranian, and European artists and scholars arrived at his court, making Mehmet II one of the greatest Renaissance patrons of his time. He commissioned two palaces: the Old and the New, later Topkapi palaces.
The palaces served as the main residence and administrative headquarters of the Ottoman sultans. The buildings of Topkapi are complex and rather comprise a fortified royal city. The palaces include four large courts, an imperial treasury, and of course, the infamous harem, which literally means “forbidden” or “private.” Many European artists were fascinated by the idea of this secret area that housed as many as 300 concubines and to which no outsider could have access to. Thus, when we think of the Topkapi palaces, we see an image that has vastly been created by western artists who fantasized about life in the harem. Hence, stories of libidinous sultans, ambitious courtiers, beautiful concubines, and scheming eunuchs have been conveyed, to a large extent, by western painters such as Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. These stories rarely captured the reality of life at the Ottoman court. Ingres, after all, never visited the Near East.
Even though the Topkapi palaces are undoubtedly one of the biggest achievements of the Ottomans, it was not until 100 years later that the Ottoman empire would witness its zenith of art, architecture, and culture.
The Golden Age of Art And Architecture During The Ottoman Empire
The reign of Süleyman (r. 1520–66, popularly known as “the Magnificent” or “the Lawmaker”), is often regarded as a “Golden Age” for the Ottoman empire, defined by geographic expansion, trade, and economic growth. Continued military success even gave the Ottomans the status of a world power.
This, of course, also impacted the empire’s cultural and artistic activity. During this important period, developments occurred in every artistic field, especially in architecture, calligraphy, manuscript painting, textiles, and ceramics. Ottoman visual culture had an impact on the different regions of its empire. Although there were local variations, the legacy of the sixteenth-century Ottoman artistic tradition can still be seen almost everywhere from the Balkans to the Caucasus, from Algeria to Baghdad, and from Crimea to Yemen. Some of the signature elements of this period are hemispherical domes, slender pencil-shaped minarets, and enclosed courts with domed porticoes.
Among the most outstanding cultural achievements of this period, however, were the mosques and religious complexes built by Mimar Sinan (ca. 1500–1588), one of the most celebrated Islamic architects. Hundreds of public buildings were designed and constructed by him throughout the Ottoman empire, contributing to the dissemination of Ottoman culture throughout the whole empire.
Mimar Sinan: The Great Islamic Architect
Mimar Sinan is considered to be the greatest architect of the classical period of Ottoman architecture. He has been compared to Michelangelo, his contemporary in the West. He was responsible for the construction of more than 300 major structures and other more modest projects. Various sources state that Mimar Sinan’s oeuvre includes 92 mosques; 52 small mosques (mescit); 55 schools of theology (medrese); 7 schools for Quran reciters (darülkurra); 20 mausoleums (türbe); 17 public kitchens (imaret); 3 hospitals (darüşşifa); 6 aqueducts; 10 bridges; 20 caravanserais; 36 palaces and mansions; 8 vaults; and 48 baths, including the Cemberlitas Hamami which is commonly hailed as one of the most beautiful.
This extraordinary accomplishment was only possible due to Mimar Sinan’s prestigious position as chief architect of the palace which he held for nearly 50 years. He was the overseer of all construction work of the Ottoman empire, working with a large team of assistants consisting of other architects and master builders.
Before him, Ottoman architecture was highly pragmatic. Buildings were repetitions of former types and were based on rudimentary plans. Sinan would gradually change this and find his own artistic voice. He revolutionized the established architectural practices by amplifying and transforming the traditions. He was keen to find innovative ways and to constantly try to approach perfection in his buildings.
The development and maturing stages of Mimar Sinan’s career can be illustrated by three major works. The first two are located in Istanbul: the Şehzade Mosque, which was built during his apprenticeship period and the Süleymaniye Mosque, named after Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent, which is the work of Sinan’s qualification stage. The Selimiye Mosque in Edirne is the product of Sinan’s master stage and is regarded as one of the highest achievements of architecture in the whole Islamic world. While conventional mosques were limited by a segmented interior, Sinan’s effort at Edirne was a structure that made it possible to see the mihrab from any location within the mosque. The mosque commissioned by Sultan Selim II is enlisted as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The legacy of Mimar Sinan didn’t end after his death. Numerous apprentices of his would later design buildings of great importance themselves, such as the Sultan Ahmet Mosque, also known as the “Blue Mosque”, in Istanbul and the Stari Most bridge in Mostar in Bosnia Herzegovina – both of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
The Tulip Age of The Ottoman Empire
In the period following Süleyman’s death, architectural and artistic activity resumed under patrons from the imperial family and the ruling elite. However, in the 17th century, a weakening Ottoman economy began to affect the arts. The sultans were forced to reduce the number of artists they employed at the court to ten from the high of over 120 in the time of Süleyman the Magnificent. Nonetheless, numerous outstanding artistic works have been accomplished during this period, the Mosque of Ahmet I in Istanbul (1609–16) being the most important achievement. The building replaced Hagia Sophia as the city’s main mosque and continues in the vocabulary of the great architect Mimar Sinan. Because of the interior tile scheme, it is also and maybe better known as the “Blue Mosque.”
Under Ahmet III, the arts revived one more time. He built a new library at the Topkapi Palace and commissioned the Surname (Book of Festivals), which documents the circumcision of his four sons as recorded by the poet Vehbi. The paintings detail the festivities and processions through the streets of Istanbul and were completed under the direction of the artist Levni (died 1732).
Ahmet III’s reign is also known as the Tulip Period. The popularity of this flower is reflected in a new style of floral decoration that replaced the Saz style of ornamentation with serrated leaves and cloud bands that had characterized Ottoman art for many years and is found in textiles, illumination, and architectural ornament.