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The Architect’s Apprentice by Elif Shafak 

I just loved this book, enjoyed its length and the narrative drive, the characters and the setting. It was recommended to me by two readers who I respect and so I obtained a copy, despite being rather lukewarm about Elif Shafak’s most recent novel: The Island of Missing Trees. 

It’s a novel to immerse yourself in; to marvel at the events in Jahan’s life, the people he meets and the skills he develops. Among his most valued friends are Sinam, the revered architect to the Sultan, Chota the white elephant that he cares for, and the leader of the Gypsy band Balaban who rescues him from many scrapes. All this is against the background of Istanbul in the sixteenth century, when its power rivalled any in Europe, and it traded with lands far away. It was a city crammed to the limits, full of people of different faiths and backgrounds, and ruled over by the sultans who held unimaginable wealth.

The Architect’s Apprentice

The apprentice of the story is Jahan who finds himself in the post of elephant tamer/mahout in the Sultan’s palace. Jahan is a bit of a chancer and a bit of a thief, but he is genuinely fond of Chota the white elephant who he delivers to the Sultan’s menagerie and for whom he must care. Her learns the architect’s trade, but also humanity from Sinan.

We follow him through a century, mostly in Istanbul. With the elephant he goes to war, parades, and builds. He travels to Rome and he falls for the sultan’s daughter. His own origins are not quite clear, but along with a very diverse population he has found his way to Istanbul and must try to stay alive there. He is closely involved in building the many mosques, bridges, madrasas, caravanserai, alms houses and aqueducts that still survive in Istanbul. He lives with the other animal tamers by the menagerie and has a ringside view of the palace. He and his elephant are often involved in the conspiracies of the palace, including the bloodletting that surrounds the succession of each sultan. Early in the story, Chota and Jahan go to war with the army of Sultan Suleiman. 

Chota broke into a springy trot enjoying the open air and the steady march after months of being confined to the palace garden. From where he sat on his neck Jahan could see below and behind, astonished to find himself staring at a sea of bodies with no end in sight. He saw the camels carrying provisions and the oxen pulling cannons and catapults; the Halberdiers of the Tresses, with their hair dangling from their caps; the dervishes chanting their invocations; the agha of the Janissaries proudly sitting atop his stallion; the Sultan riding an Arab steed, encircled by guards on both sides – the left-hand archers to his left, the right-handed to his right. In front of him rode a standard-bearer carrying his flag of the seven horsetails.
Propping up their banners and horsetails-on-poles; hoisting lances, scimitars, hatchets, arquebuses, axes, javelins, bucklers, bows and arrows, thousands of mortals were forging ahead. Jahan had never seen so many together. The army was less a horde of men that one lump of giant. The beat of feet and hooves in tandem was hair-raising and stupefying at once. They proceeded uphill against the wind, slicing through the landscape like knife into flesh. (85)

The generosity, abundance and imagination of this novel, evident in the previous quotation, are quite delightful. It sprawls, it raises and destroys hopes. It is vivid and hugely enjoyable. It also often unbelievable, although rooted in a rather loose history. Cursed to live too long a life, Jahan ends up in Hindustan, where he helps the Shah build the Taj Mahal.

One of the most striking passages concerns the social outcomes of the plague that strikes Istanbul, and how the rich closet themselves, but are not able to protect themselves; how many die; the fear and ignorance that the plague carries with it. Ultimately it sets tribe against tribe, in a vivid foretaste of Covid.

Before the circumcision celebrations, the plague arrived. First appearing on the outskirts of the city, in the hovels by the port of Scutari, it spread faster than wildfire, jumping from one house to the next, the curse scattering in the wind. Death settled over Istanbul like a fog that wouldn’t lift, seeping through every home and crack. It fluttered about in the sea breeze, frothed in the yeast of bread, brewed in the thick, bitter coffee. Little by little people stopped going about; shrinking from gatherings, they sank into solitude. The splash of oars and the murmur of oarsmen could not be heard even on the quietest evenings. No one wished to journey from one shore to the other if they didn’t have to. Never had Istanbulites been so afraid of standing out in the crowd. Never had they been so afraid of offending God. (112)

Ultimately it is the generosity and belief in the community embodied by the architect Sinan, but also by the Gypsies, and by the many other lowly or disadvantaged people that provides the positive outlook of this splendid novel.

Elif Shafak

Elif Shafak is a Turkish-British writer, born in 1971. She writes in Turkish and English. She has published 11 works of fiction, some in English. She lives in London, and has lived in many countries, including being brought up in Turkey. She says she carries Istanbul in her soul, and many of her books feature the city.  I admire her ability to tell a strong story through some well-drawn characters. Her strong themes include the necessity of people to move from one country to another, and to explore the disorder created by humans.

The Architect’s Apprentice by Elif Shafak, first published in 2014 by Penguin/Viking 456pp.

The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak on Bookword in August 2022 (shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2022)

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