Unlike the other two novels: The Bastard Of Istanbul and Honor, which I have read by Elif Shafak, The Architect’s Apprentice is not set in contemporary times but in the exotic world of 16th century century Istanbul, with the Ottoman Empire at its zenith.
Elif Shafak is a gifted storyteller, she deftly weaves a tale of a boy arriving on a ship from India with a baby white elephant a gift to the Sultan Suleiman from Shah Humayun, the Mughal emperor. Jahan is not the elephant’s original mahout but he loves the elephant, Chota, deeply. The original mahout was thrown overboard by Captain Gareth’s crew after a decision worthy of Solomon. Once in Istanbul, Jahan becomes acquainted with the colourful characters in the sultan’s menagerie, human and animal. He is also besotted by the Sultan’s daughter, the beautiful Mihrimah.
Jahan becomes the apprentice of the Chief Royal Architect, Sinan (Koca Mi’mâr Sinân Âğâ), who created many of the iconic mosques around the city. The elephant is useful in helping these grand constructions. Jahan is one of four apprentices competing for his Master’s attentions. The cut-throat politics of the Ottoman court are parallel with the acolytes’ ambitions to be chosen as Sinan’s successor some day. Jahan is a keen student of architecture and related disciplines like languages “When you master a language, you are given the key to a castle. What you’ll find inside depends on you.“
Real historical characters are mixed with fictitious characters and Shafak writes in the endnotesm that she played a little with the true historical timeline for the benefits of the story. The Ottoman Court is a real Turkish delight, with its exotic menagerie, the harem with its concubines and eunuchs and the court intrigues. An environment with a strict hierarchy. There is also an occasion for Jahan and another apprentice, Davud, to visit Rome at the behest of their master to study St Peter’s dome and meet a grumpy Michelangelo.
Jahan as a privileged servant with an elephant, can easily slip into different milieux, he can be found at the palace’s official building sites and gipsy camps, brothels, taverns and prisons. Jahan is a little naive but his master, Sinan and the leader of the gypsies, Balaban are looking out for him.
The story can be a little languorous at times, but I was a willing participant. I have loved each of the novels I have read by Elif Shafak.
My rating : 5 out of 5