Moldova’s ‘forgotten’ Sinan masterpiece


There is something quite unnerving and “otherworldly” about the location of Bender fortress in the little town of Bender, Transnistria — a place where it seems there are more soldiers than people, and checkpoints greet you around every corner.
Officially the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, this semi-autonomous state isn’t recognized by the UN, which considers it part of Moldova. PMR is also the only country in the world with the Soviet hammer and sickle on its flag, and like a communist state, “outsiders” are not made to feel very welcome here.
The grounds of the fort, on the edge of Bender, feel equally hostile. Fronted by a gate that belongs on a Soviet-era prison, there are no legible signs, leaving visitors to assume this is the entrance.
It was a cold February afternoon when I stepped into the dank “ticket” room of the fortress. Outside, the harsh wind could be heard howling and rattling its way through the abandoned buildings. An aged clerk behind an old wooden desk looked me up and down before taking a quick drag of her cigarette. In the corner, an ancient gas stove struggled to warm the room. The clerk spoke no English, but my rucksack told her why I was there.
“Binder?” she inquired.
I nodded and took the stamped paper ticket from her.
The winding path to the fortress was overgrown with weeds and passed huge abandoned buildings where shattered glass hung precariously from broken windows. Until very recently, this had been a Russian military training base. On the walls painted yellow marksmen with their faceless heads bullet ridden stood as reminders. I came across no one else during my 10-minute walk through the post-apocalyptic landscape.
Earlier, I had boarded a train in Chisinau with my long-suffering wife who had agreed to come along and explore Bender with me. Naively, we crossed the “invisible” PMR border without papers. It was a mistake we would pay for later — literally. It was still very early when we stepped out at Bender station and decided to wander through the early morning crowds at the local street market where folk were buying their groceries and household goods. As we walked toward the stalls, a red tractor came rolling through, and the crowds parted as if it was the most normal thing in the world.
I lifted my camera to try and capture the moment and felt a heavy hand on my shoulder.
“No photo!” barked an angry middle-aged man.
I scanned his outfit for official insignia. Nothing.
“Sorry,” I smiled, assuming that would be the end of it. But it wasn’t.
He said something I didn’t understand and then tried to grab me.
What was this? A citizen’s arrest for taking a picture?
I stood my ground. I knew I had done nothing wrong.
Soon, my wife and I were tugging at the man’s arm. He was not letting go. Others in the market became interested, and the atmosphere was turning uncomfortable. Eventually, I showed him the only photo I had taken on my camera’s screen — the tops of market stalls, I had no other pictures, but he wasn’t satisfied until I deleted that one in front of him. I put my camera away after that.
Now I had it out again, just as a large square turret appeared in the distance, its roof a cone of red terracotta tiles. It felt good to finally get a glimpse of the prize I had come looking for. My wife had opted to remain in a warm coffee shop in town, called the London Sweet Cafe. Wandering around military fortresses on a freezing cold February day wasn’t really her thing.
But this was no ordinary military fortress, hidden way out on this unwelcoming little “Soviet-state,” close to the Russian border.
What I was looking for was a true masterpiece of Muslim military architecture, built by the greatest architect of them all — Koca Mimar Sinan, the Ottoman master.
Modeled on the Western European “bastion style,” Sinan built the Bender fortress shortly after Sultan Suleiman I took the town of Tighina in 1538, and renamed it Bender.
I stood with my back to the sheer drop on which the fort sat — intended as a moat, though never filled — and stared at the beige baked bricks, still impregnable almost 500 years on. There wasn’t a soul anywhere to be seen. I was all alone looking at one of the Muslim world’s greatest pieces of military architecture, and I knew of no one else that had ever seen it or even knew it existed.
“It was built by Sinan? Are you sure brother?” asked Yaser, whom I met in Chisinau. Like most of the congregation at the Islamic Cultural Center of Moldova, he was studying in Chisinau, and originated from the Middle East. We were sitting in the small dining area of the ICCM, eating tasty meat, potato and lentil soup served after Friday prayer. The mosque was also in an unwelcoming place — an industrial site on the northeastern edge of Moldova’s capital Chisinau.
“All my research tells me it was. Apparently, until 1882 there was even a marble slab above the entrance that had Sultan Suleiman’s imperial tugrah (insignia) on it with the date 945 AH (approximately 1538).”
“Really, Sultan Suleiman? Here in Moldova?”
Yaser looked incredulous.
“Have you been to the fortress?” I asked.
“No. I never thought it was anything to do with Muslim history. But I will try to go now that you have told me this.”
After Sinan built Bender fortress, it served the empire well for two centuries before falling into Russian hands during the 18th century Russo-Turkish wars. Today, all clues to the fort’s Muslim past are kept in the belly of one of the towers. Mannequins in Ottoman outfits, retrieved coins, swords, muskets and a miniature model of the fortress bring to life the Muslim period. Hanging overhead are replicas of red Ottoman flags and on the walls are painted murals depicting the fortress’ dramatic capture — complete with a burning mosque that once stood nearby.
Sinan built the Bender fortress at a pivotal moment in his career. It may have been one of the last projects he worked on before being promoted to the Office of Architect of the Abode of Felicity in 1539, signaling the start of a 50-year period in which he would cement his reputation as the greatest Muslim architect the world has ever seen.
It was in this period Sinan built such masterpieces as the Sulemaniye Mosque in Istanbul and his magnum opus, the Selimiye Mosque in Edirne, also in Turkey. Long hailed the pinnacle of Ottoman architectural style, Sinan’s work is celebrated across the Muslim world.
The great architect died aged 98 and is buried in the Sulemaniye cemetery, close to his friend and great patron, Sultan Suleiman. Experts believe Sinan may have worked on almost 500 projects, but many have been either destroyed or remain “forgotten” in former Ottoman territories. The Bender fortress in Transnistria is no longer one of them.