Book Club: The Architect's Apprentice

Posted on 31st May 2015 by Rob Chilver
A young boy and a white elephant arrive in Istanbul in Elif Shafak's wonderfully rich novel.
In sixteenth-century Istanbul: a stowaway named Jahun arrives in the city bearing an extraordinary gift for the Sultan. He brings with him Chota, a rare white elephant destined for the palace menagerie. After a chance encounter with the royal architect, Sinan, previously unseen and unthought of opportunities could change Jahan's fortunes forever.

But then there's the elephant in the room. No, not Chota, but while Jahun settles into life in Istanbul he must still steal jewels and rubies from the Sultan as payment for the captain of the boat that brought him to Istanbul. Do his loyalties lie with his master Sinan, the Sultan, the Captain or simply with Chota?

Elif Shafak's The Architect's Apprentice is a wide spanning story that follows Jahun and Chota through their shared childhood into adulthood, crossing oceans and continents along the way. My knowledge of building work extends only as far as the most basic Lego constructions, but here architecture has never been so vibrant and exciting. Shafak makes you feel a part of it all in this wonderful portrayal of a most wonderful era, as the Sultan lavishly spends his riches at a time when appearance is everything.

Sit back and prepare to go back to a rich time in history with the opening pages below.

Of all the people God created and Sheitan  led astray, only a few have discovered the Centre of the Universe – where there is no good and no evil, no past and no future, no ‘I’ and no ‘thou’, no war and no reason for war, just an endless sea of calm. What they found there was so beautiful that they lost their ability to speak.

The angels, taking pity on them, offered two choices. If they wished to regain their voices, they would have to forget everything they had seen, albeit a feeling of absence would remain deep in their hearts.
If they preferred to remember the beauty, however, their minds  would become so befuddled that they would not be able to distinguish the truth from the mirage. So the handful  who stumbled upon that secret location, unmarked on any map, returned either with a sense of longing for something, they knew not what, or with myriads of questions to ask. Those who yearned for completeness would be called ‘the lovers’, and those who aspired to knowledge ‘the learners’.

That is what Master Sinan used to tell the four of us, his apprentices. He would regard us closely, his head cocked to one side, as if trying to see through our souls. I knew I was being vain, and vanity was unfit for a simple boy such as I, but every time my master would relate this story I believed he intended  his words for me rather than for the others. His stare would linger for a moment too long on my face, as if there were something he expected from me. I would avert my gaze, afraid of disappointing him, afraid of the thing I could not give him – though what that was I never figured out. I wonder what he saw in my eyes.

Had he predicted that I would be second to none with respect to learning, but that I, in my clumsiness, would fail miserably in love?

I wish I could look back and say that I have learned to love as much as I loved to learn. But if I lie, there could be a cauldron boiling for me in hell tomorrow, and who can assure me tomorrow is not already on my doorstep, now that I am as old as an oak tree, and still not consigned to the grave?

There were six of us: the master, the apprentices and the white elephant.  We built everything together. Mosques, bridges, madrasas, caravanserais, alms houses, aqueducts . . . It was so long ago that my mind softens even the sharpest features, melting memories into liquid pain. The shapes that float into my head whenever I hark back to those days could well have been drawn later on, to ease the guilt of having forgotten their faces. Yet I remember the promises we made, and then failed to keep, every single one of them. It’s odd how faces, solid and visible as they are, evaporate, while words, made of breath, stay.

They have slipped away. One by one. Why it is that they perished and
I survived to this feeble age only God and God alone knows. I think about Istanbul every day. People must be walking now across the courtyards of the mosques, not knowing, not seeing. They would rather assume that the buildings around them had been there since the time of Noah. They were not. We raised them: Muslims and Christians,  craftsmen and galley slaves, humans  and animals,  day upon day. But Istanbul is a city of easy forgettings. Things are written in water over there, except the works of my master, which are written in stone.

Beneath one stone, I buried a secret. Much time has gone by, but it must still be there, waiting to be discovered. I wonder if anyone will ever find it. If they do, will they understand? This nobody knows, but at the bottom of one of the hundreds of buildings that my master built rests hidden the centre of the universe.
Agra, India, 1632

Istanbul,  22 December 1574

It was past midnight when he heard a fierce growl from the depths of the dark. He recognized it immediately: it came from the largest cat in the Sultan’s palace, a Caspian tiger with amber eyes and golden fur. His heart missed a beat as he wondered what – or who – could have disturbed the beast. They should all be sound asleep at so late an hour – the humans, the animals, the djinn. In the city of seven hills, other than the watchmen on the streets making their rounds, only two kinds of people would be awake now: those who were praying and those who were sinning.
Jahan, too, was up and about – working.

‘Working is prayer for the likes of us,’ his master often said. ‘It’s the way we commune with God.’

‘Then how does He respond to us?’ Jahan had once asked, way back when he was younger.

‘By giving us more work, of course.’

If that were to be believed, he must be forging a rather close relationship with the Almighty, Jahan had thought to himself, since he toiled twice as hard to ply two trades, instead of one. He was a mahout and a draughtsman. Dual crafts he pursued, yet he had a single teacher whom he respected, admired and secretly wished to surpass. His master was Sinan, the Chief Royal Architect.

Sinan had hundreds of students, thousands of labourers and many more adherents and acolytes. For all that, he had only four appren- tices. Jahan was proud to be among them, proud but, inwardly, also confused. The master had chosen him – a simple servant, a lowly elephant-tamer – when he had plenty of gifted novices at the palace school. The knowledge of this, instead of swelling his self-esteem, filled him with apprehension. It preyed on his mind, almost despite himself, that he might disappoint the only person in life who believed in him.

His latest assignment was to design a hamam. The master’s specifications were clear: a raised marble basin, which would be heated from below; ducts inside the walls to allow the smoke to exit; a dome resting on squinches; two doors opening on to two opposite streets so as to prevent men and women from seeing one another. On that ominous night, this was what Jahan was working on, seated at a rough-hewn table in his shed in the Sultan’s menagerie.

Leaning back, frowning, he inspected his design. He found it coarse, devoid of grace and harmony. As usual, drawing the ground plan had been easier than drawing the dome. Though he was past forty – the age when Mohammed had become Prophet – and skilled in his craft, he still would rather dig foundations with his bare hands than have to deal with vaults and ceilings. He wished there could be a way to avoid them altogether – if only humans could live exposed to the skies, open and unafraid, watching the stars and being watched by them, with nothing to hide.

Frustrated, he was about to start a new sketch – having pilfered paper from the palace scribes – when he again heard the tiger. His back stiffened, his chin rose as he stood transfixed, listening. It was a sound of warning, bold and bloodcurdling, to an enemy not to draw any closer.

Quietly, Jahan opened the door and stared into the surrounding gloom. Another snarl rose, not as loud as the first but just as men- acing. All at once, the animals broke into a clamour: the parrot screeched in the dark; the rhinoceros bellowed; the bear grunted in angry response. Nearby the lion let out a roar, which was met with a hiss from the leopard. Somewhere in the background was the constant, frantic thumping that the rabbits made with their hind legs whenever they were terrified. Though only five in number, the monkeys raised the racket of a battalion – screaming, bawling. The horses, too, began to whinny and shuffle about in their stables. Amid the frenzy Jahan recognized the elephant’s  rumble, brief and listless, reluctant to join the tumult. Something was frightening the creatures. Throwing a cloak on to his shoulders, Jahan grabbed the oil lamp and slipped into the courtyard.

The air was crisp, tinged with a heady perfume of winter flowers and wild herbs. No sooner had he taken a couple of steps than he noticed some of the tamers huddled together under a tree, whispering. When they saw him coming, they glanced up expectantly. But Jahan did not have information, only questions.

‘What is happening?’

‘The beasts are nervous,’ said Dara the giraffe-tamer, sounding nervous himself.
‘It might be a wolf,’ Jahan suggested.

It had happened before. Two years ago. One bitter winter eve, wolves had descended on the city, prowling the neighbourhoods of Jews, Muslims and Christians alike. A few had crept in through the gates, God knew how, and attacked the Sultan’s ducks, swans and peacocks, creating mayhem. For days on end they had had to clear bloody feathers from under the bushes and brambles. Yet now the city was neither covered in snow nor was it exceptionally cold. Whatever it was that was agitating the animals, it came from inside the palace.

‘Check every corner,’ said Olev the lion-tamer – a hulk of a man with flaming hair and a curling moustache in the same shade. Not a single decision was taken around here without his knowledge. Mettle- some and muscular, he was held in high regard by all the servants. A mortal who could command a lion was someone even the Sultan could admire a little.

Scattering hither and thither, they inspected the barns, stables, pens, pounds, coops and cages to make sure no animal had escaped. Every resident of the royal menagerie seemed to be in its place. Lions, mon- keys, hyenas, flat-horned stags, foxes, ermines, lynxes, wild goats, wildcats, gazelles, giant turtles, roe deer, ostriches, geese, porcupines, lizards, rabbits, snakes, crocodiles, civets, the leopard, the zebra, the giraffe, the tiger and the elephant. When he went to see Chota – a 35-year-old, six cubits tall and unusually white Asian male elephant – Jahan found him high-strung, unsettled, holding out his ears like sails to the wind. He smiled at the creature whose habits he knew so well.

‘What is it? You smell danger?’ Patting the elephant’s side, Jahan offered him a handful of sweet almonds, which he always carried ready in his sash.

Never refusing a treat, Chota popped the nuts into his mouth with a swing of his trunk as he kept his gaze on the gate. Leaning forward, his massive weight on his front legs, his sensitive feet pasted to the ground, he froze, straining to catch a sound in the distance.

‘Calm down, it’s fine,’ intoned Jahan, though he did not believe in what he said and nor did the elephant.

On the way back, he saw that Olev was talking to the tamers, urging them to disperse. ‘We searched everywhere! There’s nothing!’

‘But the beasts –’ someone protested.

Olev interjected, pointing at Jahan. ‘The Indian is right. Must have been a wolf. Or a jackal, I’d say. Anyway, it’s gone. Get back to sleep.’

No one protested this time. Nodding, murmuring, they trudged to their pallets, which, though coarse and prickly and full of lice, were the one safe and warm place they knew. Only Jahan lingered behind.

‘You’re not coming, mahout?’ called Kato the crocodile-tamer.

‘In a moment,’ Jahan replied, glancing in the direction of the inner courtyard, where he had just heard a curious muffled sound.

Instead of turning left, towards his shed of lumber and stone, he turned right, towards the high walls separating the two yards. He walked warily, as if waiting for an excuse to change his mind and go back to his drawing. Upon reaching the lilac tree at the furthest end, he noticed a shadow. Dusky and unearthly, it so resembled an apparition that he would have dashed away had it not just then turned aside and showed its face – Taras the Siberian. Surviving every disease and disaster, he had been here longer than anyone else. He had seen sultans come, sultans go. He had seen the mighty humbled and the heads that used to carry the loftiest turbans rolled in mud. Only two things are solid, the servants taunted: Taras the Siberian and the misery of love. Everything else perishes . . .

‘Is that you, Indian?’ Taras asked. ‘The animals woke you up, eh?’

‘Yeah,’ Jahan said. ‘Did you just hear a noise?’

The old man gave a grunt that could have been a yes or a no.

‘It came from over there,’ Jahan insisted, craning his neck. He stared at the wall stretching before him, a shapeless mass the colour of onyx, blending seamlessly into the dark. In that moment he had the impression that the midnight haze was full of spirits, moaning and mourning. The thought made him shudder.

A hollow crash reverberated across the yard, followed by a cascade of footsteps, as if a throng of people was scampering about. Deep from the bowels of the palace, a woman’s scream rose, too wild to be human, and almost at once was stifled into a sob. From a different corner another scream ripped through the night. Perhaps it was a lost echo of the first one. Then, as abruptly as it had started, everything fell into stillness. On impulse, Jahan made a motion towards the wall in front of him.

‘Where are you going?’ whispered Taras, his eyes glittering with fright. ‘It’s forbidden.’

‘I want to find out what’s going on,’ said Jahan.

‘Keep away,’ said the old man.

Jahan hesitated – albeit momentarily. ‘I’ll take a look and come back right away.’

‘I wish you wouldn’t do that, but you won’t listen,’ said Taras with a sigh. ‘Just make sure you don’t go further. Stay in the garden, your back close to the wall. D’you hear me?’

‘Don’t worry, I shall be quick – and careful.’

‘I’ll wait for you. Won’t sleep till you return.’

Jahan gave an impish smile. ‘I wish you wouldn’t do that, but you won’t listen.’

Recently Jahan had worked with his master in the repair of the royal kitchens. Together they had also expanded parts of the harem – a necessity, since its population had grown considerably over the last years. So as not to have to use the main gate, the labourers had made a shortcut, carving out an opening in the walls. When a consignment of tiles had been delayed, they had sealed it with unbaked bricks and clay.

A lamp in one hand, a stick in the other, Jahan tapped on the walls as he ambled along. For a while he heard only the same dull thud, over and over again. Then an empty thump. He stopped. On his knees he pushed the bricks at the bottom with all his might. They resisted at first, but eventually gave way. Leaving his lamp behind, intending to pick it up on the way back, he crawled through the hole and into the next courtyard.

The moonlight cast an eerie glow over the rose garden, now a rose cemetery. The bushes, adorned with the brightest red and pink and yellow throughout spring, looked withered, burnished, spreading out like a sea of silver water. His heart was pounding so fast and so loud he was afraid someone might hear it. A shiver ran through him as he recalled stories of poisoned eunuchs, strangled concubines, beheaded viziers and sacks thrown into the waters of the Bosphorus, their con- tents still wriggling with life. In this city some graveyards were on the hills, others a hundred fathoms under the sea.

Ahead of him was an evergreen with hundreds of scarves, ribbons, pendants and laces dangling from its limbs – the Wish Tree. When- ever a concubine or odalisque in the harem had a secret that she could share with no one but God, she would persuade a eunuch to come here with a trinket that belonged to her. This would be tied to a branch, next to someone else’s curio. Since the aspirations of one woman often went against those of another, the tree bristled with clashing pleas and warring prayers. Even so, right now, as a light breeze ruffled its leaves, mixing the wishes, it appeared peaceful. So peaceful, in fact, that Jahan  could not help walking towards it, although he had assured Taras he would not venture this far.

There were no more than thirty paces to the stone building in the background. Half hiding behind the bole of the Wish Tree, Jahan peered around very slowly, only to pull himself back at once. It took him a moment to dare to look again.

About a dozen deaf-mutes were scuttling left and right, going from one entrance through to another. Several were carrying what seemed to be sacks. The torches in their hands traced streaks of umber in the air, and each time two torches crossed paths, the shadows on the walls grew taller.

Unsure what to make of the sight, Jahan sprinted towards the rear of the building, smelling the rich earth, his strides as imperceptible as the air he inhaled. He made a half-circle, which brought him to the door at the far end. It was oddly unguarded. Unthinking, he went in. If he started to reflect on what he was doing, he would be crippled by fear, he knew.

Inside it was damp and chilly. Groping in the semi-dark, he went on, even though the skin on the back of his neck prickled and the hairs stood up. It was too late for regret. There was no going back; he could only move forward. He crept into a faintly lit chamber, sidling along the walls, his breath coming fast. He looked around: mother- of-pearl tables with glass bowls on each; sofas topped with cushions; carved and gilded mirror frames, tapestries hanging from the ceilings, and, on the floor, those puffed sacks.

Glancing over his shoulder to make sure no one was coming, he inched ahead until he caught sight of something that froze his blood – a hand. Pale and slack, it rested on the cold marble, under a mound of fabric, like a fallen bird. As if guided by an external force, Jahan loosened the burlap sacks, one after the other, and opened them halfway. He blinked in confusion, his eyes refusing to admit what his heart had already grasped. The hand was attached to an arm, the arm to a small midriff. Not  sacks, not sacks at all. They were dead bodies. Of children.

There were four of them, all boys, laid side by side, from the tallest to the shortest. The oldest was an adolescent, the youngest still a suckling infant. Their royal robes had been carefully arranged to ensure they retained in death the dignity of princes. Jahan’s gaze fell on the closest corpse, a light-skinned boy with ruddy cheeks. He stared at the lines on his palm. Curved, sloping lines that blurred into one another, like markings in the sand. Which fortune-teller in this city, Jahan wondered, would have foreseen deaths so sudden and so sad for princes of such gentle birth?
They seemed at rest. Their skin glowed, as if lit from within. Jahan could not help but think that they had not died, not really. They had stopped moving, stopped talking, and turned into something beyond his comprehension, of which only they were aware, hence the expression on their faces that could have been a smile.

Legs trembling, hands quivering, Jahan stood there, unable to stir. Only the sound of approaching footfalls yanked him out of the fog of his bewilderment. Barely mustering the strength but finding time to cover the dead, he made a dart towards a corner and hid behind a ceiling-to-floor tapestry. In a moment the deaf-mutes entered the room, bringing another body. They put it down beside the others, gingerly.

Just then one of them noticed that the cloth on the corpse furthest away from him had slid off. He drew closer and looked around. Unsure whether it was they who had left it like that or someone else had sneaked in after they had left, he signalled to his companions. They, too, stopped. Together they started to inspect the room.
Alone in the corner, a flimsy fabric separating him from the murderers, Jahan was breathless with fright. So this was it, he reflected; his entire life had come to naught. So many lies and deceits had carried him this far. Oddly, and not without sadness, he recalled the lamp he had left by the garden wall, flickering in the wind. His eyes watered as he thought of his elephant and his master: both must have been innocently asleep by now. Then his mind wandered to the woman he loved. While she and others were safely dreaming in their beds, he would be killed for being where he was not supposed to be and seeing what he was not supposed to see. And all because of his curiosity – this shameless, unbridled inquisitiveness that all his life had brought him only trouble. Silently, he cursed himself. They should write it on his gravestone, in neat letters:
Here lieth a man too nosy for his own good,
Animal-tamer and architect’s apprentice.
Offer a prayer for his ignorant soul.
Pity, there was no one to relay this last wish for him.


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