The Architect’s Apprentice by Elif Shafak is an engaging blend of historical fact with fiction. The novel opens with an elderly Jahan briefly recalling his life as the architect’s apprentice in 16th Century Istanbul, the center of the Ottoman Empire. It then flashes back to his youth and his years in Istanbul.
At the age of twelve, a naïve Jahan enters Istanbul with Chota, a splendid gift of a white elephant sent from the Shah of Hindustan for the menagerie of Suleiman the Magnificent. Jahan’s original intention is to run away as soon as he gets Chota situated, but he ends up staying in Istanbul for the next couple of decades as Chota’s friend, trainer, and care-taker. Eventually taken under the wing of the architect Mimar Sinan, he trains in architecture while absorbing some of Sinan’s spiritual wisdom. Mimar Sinan serves under three sultans, rising to the position of Royal Architect and building some of Istanbul’s magnificent mosques. Jahan becomes skilled in designing and building mosques, bridges, schools, aqueducts, as well as in renovating existing structures.
The intriguing world of the 16th Century Ottoman Empire is seen through the eyes of Jahan. He describes in vivid detail the opulence and barbarism of the palace and its inhabitants, the intrigue and rivalry within the palace, the crowded and narrow streets of Istanbul, and the cosmopolitan nature of its inhabitants.
Because Chota is frequently called upon to amplify the sultan’s grandeur, as her trainer, Jahan participates in parades and other ceremonial functions, fights in battles, and entertains the sultan and his entourage. He falls in love with the Princess Mihrimah during her frequent visits to Chota. He interacts with foreign dignitaries and meets historical figures, including Michelangelo. He even spends time in the dungeon when he defies the powerful Grand Vizier Rustem Pasha. Eventually, Jahan is forced to flee Istanbul and ends up in Hindustan where he meets the Shah and becomes one of the two Chief Royal Architects working on the Taj Mahal to commemorate the Shah’s deceased wife, Mumtaz Mahal.
The structure is episodic in nature, unfolding as it does through a series of incidents revolving around the central character, Jahan. Rather than having a coherent plot from beginning to end, the narrative meanders, taking detours that occasionally lead nowhere, much like some of the streets in Istanbul. Just as a snake biting its tale, the novel ends where it began—with a century old, frail Jahan, now married to a woman some sixty years his junior, physically deteriorating, and longing for the release of death.
Shafak has written an entertaining and imaginative novel that takes place over a period of several decades. Her extensive research on the subject is evident. The atmosphere, sights, sounds, smells, and people of 16th Century Istanbul are described in vivid detail and have the ring of authenticity. Mystery and magic are woven into the tale. Epic in scope and skillfully integrating historical fact with fiction, The Architect’s Apprentice is an entertaining read, especially for lovers of a historical fiction situated during the time of the Ottoman Empire.