‘The Architect’s Apprentice’ by Elif Shafak is an illuminating novel about the 16th-century Ottoman Empire and its master architect, Mimar Sinan who, it is believed, oversaw the construction of over 360 structures during his life.

Sinan was born a Christian in a time in Turkey when all religions lived together peacefully but later converted to Islam. There were some distinctions, Ms. Shafak writes: “The Muslims wore turbans; Jews had red hats; and Christians, black hats. There are seventy-two and a half tribes,” an official tells Jahan, the protagonist of the novel. “Who are the half?” Jahan asked. “Oh, the Gypsies,” was the response. “They are forbidden to ride horses, only donkeys.”

Jahan is a 12-year-old Indian boy when he first sets foot in Istanbul, bringing Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent a gift of a white elephant. From being the (Mahout) caretaker and trainer of the albino elephant Chota, he becomes an apprentice to Sinan, learning the details necessary to build a solid structure and eventually moves into the Topkapi Palace, the residence of the sultan. For example, in order to prepare a solid foundation, Sinan orders dozens of carcasses of cattle and sheep to be hung on ropes around what would be the perimeter, so he can judge by the rate of decay how humid the area is – and how likely to promote deterioration of a foundation.

Sinan and Jahan live through three sultans who, with their spoils of war, were intent on having magnificent mosques built in their names. Sinan is in contact with other intellects and creative builders, most of them in Europe. Did he communicate with Galileo, the author wonders – and did the astronomer Takiyuddin communicate with Tayco Brahe?

Aya Sophia is restored; the aqueducts are revitalized; and Takiyuddin’s observatory built. But there was intrigue – whispering campaigns and outright destruction of some of the projects. Observing a comet that might be coming near Earth, Takiyuddin promises it is a portent of good harvests. But the comet did not come close, and instead there was a drought. It became easy to say that the comet had brought misery. “Who were they to watch God? – God should watch them,” the sultan and some of the people felt. The observatory was torn down. The source of and reasons for this sabotage become apparent only near the end of the story.

The time of Suleiman the Great, his son and his grandson was a period of beautiful creative artistry clashing with the ignorance of the era. 

The story is part historical fiction, with the construction of Sinan’s buildings, and part picaresque novel, with Jahan’s intriguing adventures.

Ms. Shafak is Turkish, living in both Istanbul and in London. Reading this novel provides the reader a look at Turkish history and culture and insight into daily life in 16th century Turkey.