Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Ancestry of Mimar Sinar

The ancestry of Mimar Sinan, the famous architect responsible for building numerous mosques throughout 16th-century Ottoman Turkey [including Sultanahmet ("The Blue Mosque") and Suleymaniye in Istanbul], has long been subject to debate. The architect is said to have been Greek and Armenian while some Turkish nationalists have long insisted in his pure Turkish patrilineage. It was no doubt this insistence that led zealous Turks to dig up his grave in the 1930s and remove his skull from the rest of his remains in order to finally prove his "Turkishness." From Hurriyet Daily News:
According to Professor Selçuk Mülayim from Marmara University, the corpse of Mimar Sinan, best known for the 16th-century Süleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul, was taken from its modest tomb next to that building Aug. 1, 1935, in order to measure the famed architect’s skull.

Documents show that the team, headed by Turkish Historical Society Director Hasan Cemil Çambel, society member Şevket Aziz Kansu and historian Afet İnan, conducted the excavation in an hour, Mülayim told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review recently.

“The purpose was to prove he was an ethnic Turk,” the professor said. “Kansu took measurements with compasses and other tools and from these measurements it was decided that he was an ethnic Turk.”

At the time of the team’s foray into the tomb, there was a rising appreciation of Mimar Sinan in Europe, where people were increasingly claiming that the great architect could not have been Turkish, Mülayim said. “The excavation was an answer to these claims.”

To this day, few members of the Turkish public know that the man hailed as the greatest of Ottoman architects was actually a Muslim convert of Armenian origin.

Following the excavation of Sinan’s tomb, the Turkish Historical Society team took its findings to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic. “He refused to look at the results, saying, ‘Instead of measuring his skull, make a statue of the architect,’” Mülayim said.

The idea that Sinan’s skull is missing from his tomb is not a new one, but one that many experts have avoided repeating in public.
For more on the construction of Turkish identity, click here. Though Turkey has come a long way, defensive notions of "Turkishness" are still at the heart of much of the country's identity politics.

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