Travel Guide to
Muslim Europe With travel writer and European Muslim heritage specialist Tharik Hussain
Mimar’s Moldovan Military Masterpiece
ou have to work extremely hard to reach this forgotten gem of European Muslim heritage. The Bender Fortress sits in a harsh little corner of Eastern Europe, close to the Ukrainian border, in a ‘state’ guarded by gruff-looking soldiers wearing insignia that suggests the Soviet Union is still alive and well. The fort is in the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic or ‘Transnistria’, a self-declared semi-autonomous state within the country of Moldova. The international community and the United Nations don’t recognise the state, seeing it simply as part of Moldova. Yet Transnistria has its own government, parliament, military, currency, police and flag - the only one in the world to still bear a hammer and sickle. And much like the old communist countries, it is not a very welcoming place. The Fort sits on a raised hillock just north east of the centre of the town of
Bender, overlooking the Dnister River. The surrounding grounds have an eerie post-apocalyptic feel. Abandoned bunkers sit in the shadows of large dilapidated buildings where every window has been shattered. On the walls, painted target men stand in a state of arrest, riddled with bullet holes. Large metal containers rust away in twos and threes, and overgrown weeds appear in every crack along the concrete path leading up to the fort. In many ways, it is a fitting location for a military monument. Until very recently this five centuries-old fort was still being used by the Russian military as a training base. They took back the town and fort in 1812 following the RussoTurkish wars. Before that, it was under the stewardship of the Ottomans who built the fortress in the 16th century. The man behind its construction was a certain Ko’cer Mimar Sinan - the greatest Ottoman architect ever.
Sinan based his design on the Western European ‘bastion style’, and built the fortress at a pivotal moment in his career. It was the year 1538 and Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent had just taken the town of Tighina, renaming it Bender, and needed to fortify it. He called upon his most capable and trusted haseki (elite guard), Sinan, to carry out the construction on a strategic hillside overlooking the river. Until 1882, Sultan Suleiman’s Imperial tugrah (insignia) was inscribed on a marble slab above the entrance to the fort, alongside the year of construction, 945 AH (approx 1538). The stunning fortress would have been one of the last projects Sinan undertook before being promoted to the Office of Architect of the Abode of Felicity the following year - starting a prolific 50-year period as the Muslim empire’s chief architect. It was in this phase of his life that Sinan designed