Elif Şafak’s New Novel: A Great Ottoman Architect, An Elephant and His Keeper

Dec 7 2014 update: Review of The Architect’s Apprentice

The author of eight novels including the best-selling and controversial Bastard of Istanbul, Elif Şafak, has just launched her ninth—Ustam ve Ben—in Turkish. The title literally means “My Master and I.” Curiously, though she wrote it in English, according to Sunday’s Zaman (Homage to Mimar Sinan) the English version won’t appear until October 2014, and not necessarily under that name either.

Ustam ve benSet in 16th-century Istanbul, the book revolves around two characters: a white elephant named Çota and his Indian keeper, Cihan, who is one of four apprentices to Sinan Mimar, the chief architect to three Ottoman Sultans: Suleiman the Magnificent, Selim II, and Murad III. Experts consider the Selimiye Mosque in Edirne his masterpiece, although he is better known for the Suleiman Mosque in Istanbul. Sinan Mimar was reportedly responsible for the construction of more than three hundred major structures, and according to Wikipedia, “his apprentices would later design the Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Istanbul, Stari Most in Mostar and help design the Taj Mahal in the Mughal Empire.”

The object of much veneration in Turkey due to his unarguably superb architectural contribution to the Ottoman Empire, one aspect of Sinan Mimar’s legacy is both disputed and highly sensitive: his ethnicity. As online readers have commented below the Hürriyet Daily News article, and Wikipedia notes as well, some  historians maintain he was not an ethnic Turk, and may have been of Armenian, Albanian or Greek heritage. It is unlikely that Şafak would directly address this question in her novel, because reminding the public that the architect of some of Turkey’s most beloved mosques was Christian would be asking for trouble. In fact, reports The Guardian, she was prosecuted—but found not guilty in 2006—for “insulting Turkishness” and “faced up to three years in jail over remarks made by a fictional character in her latest novel, The Bastard of Istanbul, which referred to the massacre of Armenians in the first world war as genocide.”

An excerpt from the recent interview with the author:

[Sunday’s Zaman:] In this novel, you write of the refined character and art of Sinan through the stories of other people. But why did you not prefer to focus mostly on the architect?

[Şafak] In my opinion, great people can only be told of through their relationships with others. The people around them hold mirrors to (the inner worlds) of these great people. To be more precise, in order to tell the story of a master like Sinan, I need to tell the story of his relationship with his apprentices. I also need to tell the story of how he treated the laborers who worked for him. The greatness of Sinan was not only on paper. There were letters he sent to sultans, asking them to increase the salaries of the laborers. He was working hard in order to improve conditions. He could just as well have chosen not to deal with such details, but instead he did not step away from construction sites until the end of his long life. When I think of Sinan, I see a person who showed the utmost respect to his art and the people who did their jobs. These are the values that we have long forgotten. I wanted to write about the working principles of Sinan in this novel. I needed to prepare an environment to achieve this. So, I included the apprentices and animals in this story.

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