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The Architect’s Apprentice Reader’s Guide

By Elif Shafak

The Architect's Apprentice by Elif Shafak


In her many works of fiction the Turkish author Elif Shafak has always been interested in exploring the notion of the “other,” and how outcasts and outsiders often end up encountering,  befriending, and deeply understanding other outcasts and outsiders.  For her, such characters, who for some reason or another feel excluded or pushed to the margins, speak the same language even if they come from different backgrounds.  Sometimes even an animal can become one’s best friend and companion of the road, as in her new novel, which tells in part of the unexpected bond between two outcasts in sixteenth-century Istanbul—a twelve-year-old boy and a white elephant from India.

Jahan, the main character of  The Architect’s Apprentice, has taught himself how to deceive in order to survive.  Though he has never seen Hindustan and knows little about caring for animals, Jahan passes himself off as an Indian mahout so that he can travel to Istanbul in the company of Chota, the small white elephant with which he has formed an almost fraternal bond. Once established in the menagerie of the Turkish sultan Suleiman, Jahan pilfers royal baubles and spins fantastic tales for the amusement of the sultan’s daughter, the kind and alluring Princess Mihrimah. Caught up in a world of illusion and intrigue, Jahan sometimes feels that all of life is a mere spectacle, in which, one way or another, everyone is performing tricks and vainly parading.

Yet within this vast network of lies, Jahan remains paradoxically passionate in his pursuit of truth, seeking always firm, objective knowledge and the redemptive grace of true love. In his quest, Jahan falls under the protection of Mimar Sinan, the sultan’s chief architect, who is generally acknowledged to be the greatest architect ever in the Islamic world (interestingly, he was  born a Christian, most probably Armenian or Greek, and remained so until the age of twenty-one).  Sinan takes Jahan under his wing, not only because he sees in him an apt pupil and possible successor, but also because he hopes to rescue him from the character flaws that  threaten to bring him down. Patiently, over a period of long years, Sinan instructs Jahan and his three fellow apprentices in the value of artistry and work, not only as ends in themselves, but also as the means of transcending cultural differences and discovering the true value of oneself. At the same time, Jahan finds solace and meaning in caring for Chota, who seems to possess a silent, preternatural wisdom of his own.

But peace and harmony are fleeting in Jahan’s world. Religious fundamentalists argue that Sinan’s science and ambitions are offensive to Allah. Earthquakes, plagues, and war also threaten to disturb and destroy Sinan and his apprentices from outside. From within, the band of builders is slowly driven apart by hidden resentments and potentially explosive secrets. Perhaps worst of all, a succession of sultans, corrupted by absolute power and gargantuan vanity, continually interfere with the architects’ dedication to artistry and technical excellence. Jahan and his compatriots struggle to work and survive in an atmosphere of overwhelming arbitrariness and cruelty, in which no outcomes are assured and almost no friendship seems sacred.

Jahan’s fortunes lead him into battle and into the sultan’s most dreaded dungeon, lifting him up to exhilaration and thrusting him down into the depths of despair. Nevertheless, sustained by Sinan’s wisdom, his idealized love of Princess Mihrimah, and the mysterious companionship of Chota, Jahan moves inexorably toward a shining destiny that is his alone.

Compellingly written, illuminated by a sincere vision of justice, equality, and self-transcendence, The Architect’s Apprentice is far more than a story of love, striving, and adventure. It is one of those very rare novels with the power to enlighten and transform its readers for the better.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. The Architect’s Apprentice begins with the assertion that people might be divided into “learners” and “lovers.” How does the tension between learning and loving play itself out through the novel? Do you agree with this method of classifying people? Why or why not?

2. A number of the characters in The Architect’s Apprentice, including the various sultans, Mihrimah, and Sinan, were real people, refigured by Elif Shafak in her fiction. Do a little reading about one of these actual people and discuss how Shafak’s portrayal both resembles and reimagines the original.

3. One of Sinan’s sayings is “If not put to use, iron rusts, woodwork crumbles, man errs. Work we must” (323). Is Sinan’s gospel of work sufficient as a moral credo, either within the novel or in real life? 

4. Late in the novel, Sinan’s apprentice Davud arraigns him as follows: “Every colossal mosque we built was raised thanks to the revenues from another conquest. . . . Our master never cared for these sorrows. He refused to see that, without bloodshed elsewhere, there would be no money, and without money there would be no building in the capital” (413). Are Davud’s criticisms justified? Why or why not?

5. What are Jahan’s transgressions? Are they more excusable than those of other characters in the book? Why or why not?

6. Discuss the significance of domes in Shafak’s novel. What do they represent? Why is the construction of a dome seen as a particularly spiritual act?

7. Jahan is admonished according to the words of Dante: “Don’t be one of those wretched souls who live without blame or without praise” (188). The inference would seem to be that a blameworthy life is in some ways preferable to a bland, morally neutral one. Do you agree? Why or why not? 

8. The Architect’s Apprentice is a novel deeply tinged with death and the fear of dying. What does Shafak have to tell us about this fear and the necessity of transcending it?

9. Science and the Muslim faith clash continually in The Architect’s Apprentice. In what ways is this conflict reenacted in our own modern, Western society? Do you feel the same way about such conflicts when they involve purportedly Christian values instead of sixteenth-century Islam? Why or why not?

10. Chota the elephant occupied a central place in Shafak’s novel. How did you respond to his “character”? In what ways does his influence on Jahan complement the influence of Sinan?

11. Of particular interest is the position of women in the novel. How do women resist oppression in the patriarchal society of Istanbul? Given the social conditions described in the novel, does it seem possible for a woman to lead a life that is both ethical and empowered?

12. The Architect’s Apprentice might be read in the tradition of the bildungsroman, a genre that focuses on the education and growth of the main character. In what ways does the character of Jahan change and mature over the course of the novel?

13. Shafak emphasizes that Sinan’s building projects bring together workers of all cultures, who work side by side to realize a shared objective. To what extent does shared effort succeed in supplying a common ground, both in Shafak’s novel and in life itself? 

About this Author

Born in 1971 in Strasbourg, France, Turkish author Elif Shafak writes in both Turkish and English. Her books have been translated into more than forty languages and she has received acclaim for novels that include The Flea Palace, The Forty Rules of Love, Honor and The Bastard of Istanbul. A TEDGlobal speaker as well as a founding member of the European Council on Foreign Relations and a member of the  World Economic Forum’s Council on the Role of the Arts in Society and the UN Live Museum Committee, she has also been named by the government of France as a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. An active social media figure with more than 1.7 million Twitter followers (@Elif_Safak) and an eloquent advocate for human rights, Shafak has been a staunch supporter of women’s rights and freedom of speech in Turkey. She divides her time between London and Istanbul.
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