World History 2 55 - 4.2.3 Science and Technology

As the Ottoman state grew in prestige and size, its sultans deliberately set out to become patrons of science and learning, following the examples set by the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs and other prominent Muslim leaders. The core of all education was religious; there was no separation between what today would be considered religious philosophy or doctrinal study and the “hard sciences” such as astronomy, chemistry, mathematics, and physics. On the contrary, scientific investigation was considered an act of devotion because of its exploration and discovery of the intricacies of the divinely created universe.

From the very beginning of the state, institutions of higher learning—madrasas—were established in major cities. Patronage of science, art, and culture reached a new level under Sultan Mehmed II. Mehmed founded the first institution of higher learning in the new capital, the Fatih complex, which included a hospital, public kitchens, a library, and schools. The Fatih hospital remained operational into the nineteenth century.

As Istanbul developed as the imperial capital, many other such institutions came to be established there. Another complex of charitable institutions, the first one designed and built in Istanbul by Mimar Sinan, the master architect and engineer of Armenian origin, was a teaching hospital endowed by Hurrem Sultan, the wife of Sultan Suleiman. It was also common for wealthy Jewish and Christian patrons to establish their own vaqfs to fund projects that benefited their communities, because these trusts were exempt from inheritance taxes. Teaching hospitals were considered important recipients of vaqf funds given that hospital care was provided free of charge.

The geographic diversity of the empire was an advantage to the development of medical science because it was now possible to compare the results of medical treatments and experiments in several different geographic and climate zones. For this reason, many important medical treatises of the day were written in the Ottoman Empire. The tradition of medical writing built upon the foundation established by such famous Muslim scholars and physicians as Ibn Sina, who composed The Canon of Medicine in the tenth century. The works produced by physicians who made their home in the Ottoman Empire included one of the first treatises dedicated to dentistry, written by the Spanish Jewish scholar Musa bin Hamun, who made his home in the Ottoman Empire after the Jewish people were expelled from Spain.

In Their Own Words

The Architect of an Empire

Mimar Sinan was the chief architect of the Ottoman Empire. Of Armenian origin, he was a member of the devshirme as a youth and began his career as a military engineer in the Janissary Corps. He first came to the attention of the sultan Suleiman after he was able to construct a bridge over marshland that was impeding the progress of the Ottoman Army. Sinan lived to be nearly one hundred years old and designed more than three hundred structures (Figure 4.17).

An image of a stone arched bridge over water is shown. Buildings are on the hills surrounding the water. Hills with trees and farmland are visible in the background.
Figure 4.17 The Mehmed Paša Sokolović bridge in Višegrad, Bosnia and Herzegovina, was built by Mimar Sinan in 1577 and placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2007. (credit: modification of work “Višegrad, Bosnia, Austro-Hungary” by Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

In writing his autobiography toward the end of his life, Sinan had this to say about the start of his illustrious career:

When Sultan Süleyman set out for Moldavia and arrived on the banks of the River Pruth, a bridge was needed for the army to cross. . . . Since it was a marshy place, they were bewildered as to how to build a bridge. His Excellency the late Lutfi Pasha said, “My felicitous padishah, the construction of this bridge can be achieved with the skill and ability of your servant Sinan. . . . He is a master of the world and a skilled architect.” . . . In ten days I built a noble bridge and the army of Islam and the shah of humankind crossed it. . . .

By the grace of God, . . . the office of [chief] architect fell vacant. . . . Lutfi Pasha said, “The architect must be Sinan. There is no one capable of this work other than him.” . . . It was true that the thought of abandoning my career [as a Janissary] gave me pain, but in the end I accepted, seeing it as an opportunity to build many mosques and thereby fulfill many desires in this world and the next.

—Howard Crane and Esra Akin, Sinan's autobiographies: Five sixteenth-century texts. Translated and adapted from Mimar Sinan, Tezkiretuʼl-bunyan

  • What is the military role of an architect? How did Sinan come to fill it?
  • Why was Sinan convinced to abandon his role as a Janissary and pursue architecture?

Link to Learning

Take this virtual tour of the Suleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey, one of Mimar Sinan’s greatest monuments. Rotate your view of the mosque by dragging your mouse or using the wheel on the left of your screen.

Among the great scientists of the Ottoman Empire was Taqi al-Din, who was invited by Sultan Murad III to build an observatory in Istanbul (Figure 4.18). Taqi al-Din’s method of calculating the coordinates of stars is said to have been better than those of Tycho Brahe and Nicolas Copernicus, noted astronomers working in northern Europe around the same time. Taqi al-Din also developed steam turbines and mechanical clocks and conducted research into the optical refraction of light. His work illustrates the way scientific discoveries transcended religious and national divisions; he himself had set out to improve on astronomical techniques devised by Ulugh Beg at Samarkand (in today’s Uzbekistan), and in turn his own research was consulted by Tycho Brahe in Denmark when Brahe was developing his ideas about astronomy. Taqi al-Din’s works were also collected by the Dutch mathematician Jacob Golius, who brought them to the library of Leiden University in the Netherlands in the seventeenth century.

A painting of ten men working with astronomical instruments along a long brown table is shown. One man stands in the top right corner holding his hands, watching all the others under a striped, colorful picture. All the men have beards, wear white turbans and solid-colored long robes. Various astronomical instruments lay across the table and each of the ten men holds an instrument.
Figure 4.18 Scientists and their astronomical instruments are depicted in Taqi al-Din’s Istanbul observatory in this 1581 miniature by an unknown painter. (credit: “Ottoman astronomers at work around Taqī al-Dīn at the Istanbul Observatory” by Shahinshahnāme Istanbul University Library /Muslim Heritage, Public Domain)
This lesson has no exercises.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax