The Architect’s Apprentice by Elif Shafak – old Istanbul brought to life

A tale of Ottoman intrigue, youthful curiosity – and a boy’s love for an elephant

Elif Shafak’s novels resemble maps that use detailed keys to help readers to journey through them, so it’s not surprising that her latest book is about the building of an ancient city. The Architect’s Apprentice describes how Istanbul blossomed in the 16th century under its most revered architect, Mimar Sinan, who served three Ottoman emperors over 50 years. Each Sultan’s reign produced a cluster of mosques envisioned and executed by Sinan, many of which still exist today. Narrated by Sinan’s fictional disciple, this is, at its core, a story about a master and his student.

Shafak recreates ancient Turkey with practised flair. Her 2010 novel The Forty Rules of Love is set partially in 13th century Konya, and her 2007 novel The Bastard of Istanbul mourns the victims of the Armenian genocide of 1915. This time she blends historical fiction, urban politics and youthful curiosity in an elaborate map of Turkey whose key is the book itself.

The story begins in India with a 12-year-old boy named Jahan who refuses to be parted from his only friend, a baby elephant named Chota. The albino calf, raised by Jahan and his father, is to be sent as a gift from the Mughal emperor to Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, but once its cage has been heaved on to the ship, Jahan scrambles on board in a section reminiscent of Italo Calvino’s description of “a sailing ship, a hand, an elephant” in Invisible Cities. The public is bemused by this mismatched pair, but it is the Sultan’s young daughter whose interest is the most piqued. She visits Chota regularly, oblivious to Jahan’s growing admiration and her maid’s bitter disapproval, and the love story that follows is not unexpected.

The elephant is the catalyst for the friendship between Jahan and the great architect Sinan, who recruits the boy as his fourth apprentice. Jahan notices how the other pupils constantly compete for their master’s attention, and makes every effort to stand out. Shafak deftly parallels the cut-throat politics of the Ottoman court with the disciples’ ambitions to be chosen as Sinan’s successor some day. But Sinan builds tirelessly, well into his 80s. His bridges win wars, his mosques reach the sky and when he is summoned to the palace in the dead of night because royalty have been murdered for the sake of other royalty, he builds tombs deep enough to bury the bodies as well as the secrets.

Softly spoken and serene, Sinan is the opposite of Gypsy leader Balaban, who protects Jahan with elephant remedies and colourful disguises. Just as Shafak “commutes” between Turkish and English in her work – writing here in English – so does Jahan between his two father figures. However, their involvement prevents Jahan from becoming his own man. The adolescent’s innocence and his unrequited love persist improbably, making him seem forever young. However romantic a notion, this slows the pacing of an otherwise realistic book.

Mimar Sinan would argue that The Architect’s Apprentice cannot be perfect; no human creation is. Ever loyal, Jahan would agree, and insist that the book be indulged. Readers should follow Shafak’s words to trace the lines of an Ottoman city, now buried. “People must be walking now across the courtyards of the mosques, not knowing, not seeing … Istanbul is a city of easy forgettings.” How ironic, then, that the key to Shafak’s latest map is a story that begins and ends with an elephant.

• To order The Architect’s Apprentice for £11.99 (RRP £ 11.99) go to or call 0330 333 6846.

Aditi Sriram

The GuardianTramp

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