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From Raqqa to Istanbul, and counting

Suleymaniye mosque photo by Winstanza

Suleymaniye mosque
photo by Winstanza


How long would it take an Islamic State purification patrol to reach Istanbul?  From Raqqa, Syria, the current Daesh capital, it’s only 870 miles, a fifteen-hour drive northwest through Aleppo and Adana, with possible traffic delays around Ankara.  However, road conditions on the Syrian leg may have deteriorated recently, and then you can’t always trust Google maps.

Sinan, the greatest architect of the Ottoman Empire, worked in Istanbul for the better part of the sixteenth century, more or less like Michelangelo in Rome.  Sinan, too, was born a Christian, probably an Armenian Christian.  Some speculate that he was Albanian, as others have claimed that Barack Obama is Hawaiian—but the operative word here is Christian.  Later, after the Ottoman conquest in 1453, he converted to Islam in order to become a Janissary soldier in the service of the sultan.

During a winter visit to the Topkapi Palace, while Bush 43 was still in office, I was waylaid by one of the many A Janissary  actually Roumanian)Janissary guards.  He advanced, with turban, staff, and mustache, across a vast hall, giving me plenty of time to reflect on my possible infractions, before I saw that he was grinning.  He pointed to my broad-brimmed felt hat.  “Texas?” he asked. His own headgear was much more remarkable than mine, and it was frigid just then, next to the Bosphorus, but I blushed and stuffed the hat into my bag.







Although Sinan had worked with his father, a stonemason, he learned more about architecture and structural engineering by destroying bridges and fortresses in various military campaigns from Baghdad

Interior, Suleyman mosque

Interior, Suleyman mosque

to Apulia.  Eventually, when he had risen to the rank of Architect of the Empire, he could delegate the extensive military construction and maintenance projects.  He could focus on the building of splendid mosques, baths, madrasas, mausoleums, and even soup kitchens, sometimes in  combination, like that built for Sultan Suleyman the Magnifcent atop the third of Istanbul’s seven hills (Rome again.)  In his buildings, the surfaces of domes, half domes, minarets, arches, and walls, of stone, marble, ivory, brick—still glisten with vividly colored, gold-enriched mosaics and tiles.



Selimiye mosque

Selimiye mosque

Sinan saw the Selimiye mosque in Edirne, with its four needle minarets, as his masterpiece, and he designed its dome to surpass any the Turks had seen for a thousand years—even that of the Hagia Sofia. Originally an Eastern Orthodox basilica-cathedral, Hagia Sofia was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest in 1453. The brilliant, idolatrous Christian mosaics were blanketed with plaster until 1931, when Kamal Ataturk secularized the cathedral/mosque and proclaimed it a museum.  Many, not all, of the glorious mosaics were uncovered, revealing scenes of the Christian messiah, his mother, and the doctors of the church. (Off in the upstairs gallery, the personal favorite of some visitors, including my young grandson:  a fragment of the melancholy face of the Virgin Mary, and a bit more of John the Baptist, together beseech Jesus to save the wicked world.)

Mosaic detail, Jesus with Mary and John the Baptist

Jesus, Mary, John the Baptist mosaic



Sinan reigns as the greatest figure in classical Ottoman architecture, the counterpart of Michelangelo in the western Renaissance. But what was happening in the Renaissance was not unknown in Istanbul.  Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci were invited to submit plans for a bridge across the Golden Horn of the Bosphorus. Michelangelo declined, probably ungraciously, but Leonardo, as was his wont, offered a grand project that would never be built.



Bridges were important in the watery surround of Istanbul, and throughout the Ottoman Empire. The famous Stari Most (Old Bridge) was in 1566 the oldest elliptical-arch span in the world, tied with Ponte Santa Trinita’ in Florence, completed three years later. According to a 17th century traveller,the Stari Most was “a wonder in its own time, thrown from rock to rock as high as the sky.” After 427 years it was destroyed by the Croats during the Bosnia-Hercegovina War in 1993. Sarajevo newspapers reported that it took more than 60 shells to demolish the bridge. Reconstruction in 2004 recycled some of the original stones found in the river below.  Sustainable destruction?




Ponte Santa Trinita

Ponte Santa Trinita

The most elegant of Florentine bridges is the Ponte Santa Trinita’, designed by one Bartolomeo Ammannati, perhaps with Michelangelo’ s emendations.  Poor Ammannati was the subject of a spiteful Florentine couplet still found even in 21st century guidebooks.  “Ammannato, Ammannato, che bel marmo hai rovinato,” referring  not to the bridge but to his oddly goofy statue of Neptune in the fountain on Piazza Signoria.In August 1944, all the Florentine bridges were blown up by retreating German troops, except for Hitler’s personal favorite, the Ponte Vecchio.  The three elliptical arches of the Ponte Santa Trinita’ were reconstructed in 1958 with stones recovered from the river and from the old quarry, like the Stari Most over the Drina River. More “sustainable destruction.”


No bodies of water obstruct passage from Aleppo to the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, which would take about twelve hours, given good toll roads all the way from the Turkish border.  A cultural cleansing patrol might want to make a detour to level Sinan’s mosque in Aleppo, a work of his youth, although the minaret was already taken down by the rebels or the regime, or both, last summer.  At the border crossing there might be a bit of a fuss if IS/Daesh tanks are involved.

Also located near the border between Syria and Turkey is the settlement of Dabiq, site of a major battle in 1516. The Islamic State cites a Prophetic narration that foretells yet another portentous battle at Dabiq, against an enemy identified in the prophecy as the “Army of Rome.” What “Rome” is now, since the good Papa Francesco has no army, remains a matter for conjecture. Some suggest that it means the Christians, but could mean any infidel army, certainly not excluding the Americans.

Dabiq village

Dabiq village

After winning the battle of Dabiq, some prophesy that the caliphate will expand and sack Istanbul, and perhaps move beyond.  Eventually the victors will witness the descent and return of Jesus, and here it gets a little confusing.  One should perhaps remember that Jesus is the second-favorite prophet in the Qu’ran. Which is also a bit confusing. In any event, Dabiq was chosen for obvious reasons as the title of the official magazine of the Islamic State, very glossy. The latest issue begins with a declaration of war against Japan. You can browse through the seven issues online.



Disciples of Sinan went far and wide, some, it is said, to work on the Taj Mahal.  From Raqqa–or Mosul, to the Taj Mahal is quite a stretch.  To Tokyo, it’s 8,585 kilometers, or 5,334 miles.

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