Iznik (Nicaea) Turkey


UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List

Iznik (also known as Nicaea or Nicaea) has always been among the primary topics of the history books with its extraordinary cultural past and gained a front-page in Christian history by housing the First and the Seventh Ecumenical Councils. Sophia Church is one of the highlights of an ancient Nicaea tour that was built after the First Council in the 4th century and dedicated to the “Holy Wisdom”.

Sunken Basilica

Recently, it hit the world news when Sunken Basilica was discovered under the water during a photoshoot from the air, 20 m. offshore. “St. Neophytos Basilica” is among the top 10 discoveries of 2014 according to the Archaeological Institute of America. There is a possibility that the basilica sank during the earthquake in 740.

One of the forerunners…

Neophytos was glorified as a saint while he was still a child during the expansion years of Christianity, at a time when the followers of this banned faith were punished by persecution. St. Neophytos was martyred at a very young age by Roman soldiers near Lake Izmit (Ascanius). After the persecutions came to an end with the Edict of Milan in 313, his admirers built a church by the lake in his name. His tomb remained in this complex for a couple of hundreds of years and was moved to another church in the city after the devastating earthquake in 740.

Roman Walls

The city is surrounded by Roman walls 4427 meters in length. Visitors from the north enter the city through Istanbul Gate, above whose triple arch masks of a man and a woman look as if they belong here, although they were moved here from another building in the city at a later date. The Yenisehir and Lefke gates are also triple-arched. The fourth Lake Gate is no longer standing. Like other northerners, we entered through Istanbul Gate. According to Strabo, the famous geographer of the ancient world, it was founded in 316 BC by Antigonus, one of Alexander the Great’s generals, who named it Antigoneia. Lysimachus, another of Alexander’s generals, later took the city and renamed it after his wife Nicaea. Following his death, the city was taken by the Bithynians, Romans, Goths and once again the Romans. When Emperor Constantine was converted to Christianity in 313 AD, it became an important religious center. The Nicene Creed was adopted here at the First Ecumenical Council held in 325 in the Senatus Palace, which today lies beneath the waters of the lake.

The Seventh Ecumenical Council in 787

Iznik (Nicaea), a city and a district in the province of Bursa, has many historic monuments. These include a 15.5-meters high obelisk-like tombstone known as bestas (the Five Stones) in the village of Elbeyli erected in the 2nd century to mark the grave of Cassius Philiscus.

Again near Elbeyli is an underground tomb or hypogeum containing unusually fine frescos that make it the most important tomb of its kind in Turkey. Excavations of the Roman theatre in the city center are continuing. When the Roman Empire split in two in 395, leaving the area in the Eastern Roman Empire, new churches and water channels were constructed in the city. The city continued to play an important religious role, and in 787 the Seventh Ecumenical Council was held in the 4th-century basilica of Hagia Sophia. The main outcome of the council deliberations was the rejection of iconoclasm, so permitting reverence of icons.

Hagia Sophia

The ceiling of Hagia Sophia, like those of so many other churches in the area, has collapsed, and the mosaic pavements have been covered for protection. The ancient water lines remained in use until the 1970s, but today are overgrown by trees and bushes. It has always been an important halting-place on the road leading eastwards into Anatolia from Istanbul, and at various times has served as the capital city to three different states. In 1075 the Seljuk commander Kutalmisoglu Suleyman Sah I changed the name Nicaea to Iznik and pronounced the city to be the capital of the state he had founded, which survived only 22 years. When the Crusaders invaded Istanbul in 1204 finally, the Byzantine imperial family fled the city, and in 1206 Theodor Laskaris proclaimed himself emperor and Iznik (Nicaea) his capital.

Ottoman Era

It enjoyed this privileged position for 55 years until the Byzantines were re-established in Istanbul. In 1331, it became part of the burgeoning Ottoman Empire, and for four years served as its capital. On the northern edge of the city, inside the walls, an extraordinary hollow plane tree survives in defiance of time despite a cavity as large as a room in its trunk. Like this venerable plane tree, some of the Ottoman buildings in and around are still standing, although most are in urgent need of attention.

British Museum has got one of the largest tile collections in the world that were produced in this area between 15th-17th centuries and used to decorate the Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace in Istanbul.

Yesil Camii (Green Mosque)

Yesil Cami (Green Mosque) was completed in 1391. The remarkable tiles adorning its minaret are among the earliest examples of Ottoman productions that follow the Seljuk tile tradition in decoration style and technique but stronger in color. The mosque gets its name from the green and turquoise tile pieces that are notable for their rich variety and diverse color combinations. The majority of the tiles used in the buildings in Istanbul during the Ottoman period were produced. This city was the center of Miletus and Damascus ware and Rhodes ceramics. Evliya Celebi, the Ottoman Turkish traveler in the 17th century, has documented in his Seyahatname (Book of Travels) that there had been over 300 kilns at the time. Mostly; flowers such as tulip, carnation, and hyacinth; animals such as a bird, fish, rabbit, dog are used in these tiles beside pomegranate, human and ship motifs. The most common colors are blue, turquoise, green and red.

Haci Ozbek Mosque

Dated back to 1333, it is the earliest known Ottoman mosque. Nilufer Hatun Imaret, a hospice or public kitchen dating from 1338, has housed the city’s museum since 1960. The museum is filled with works that reflect its splendid history, and more are constantly arriving. For example, a beautiful Late Hellenistic period sarcophagus in the museum grounds was brought here after being confiscated in 1999 from smugglers attempting to take it out of the country. With its baths, mausoleums, medreses, and imarets, it may justly be described as an open-air museum.

The Beautiful Tiles

Yet over and above so many claims to fame, it is best known for its tiles and ceramics, production of which reached its highest level in the second half of the 16th century. In the 17th century, the industry went into sudden decline, and the last potteries closed in 1716. Despite the intervening centuries, several people have made a determined attempt to revive this distinctive art. Faik Kirimli and Esref Eroglu established the first modern pottery here in 1985, followed by Adil Can Guven in 1987 and Rasih Kocaman in 1988, and have successfully reintroduced ceramic production to the city.

The Protection of Chameleon Patterned Iznik Tiles

'Its china bowls, plates and jugs are precious, and all the decorated tiles adorning buildings throughout the land of the Ottomans are made in this city of Iznik. Such lovely chameleon patterned tiles are made that language cannot suffice to describe them.'

These are the words of the 17th-century Turkish writer Evliya Celebi in his 10-volume Book of Travels, and they are no exaggeration. From the mid-14th until the end of the 17th century Iznik was the center of the tile and ceramic production in Ottoman Turkey. The town is still surrounded by its Roman walls, 11 meters high and four and a half kilometers in length, and to enter the town you can choose one of the three ancient gateways, known as Istanbul, Inegol or Lefke gates.

As you walk through the streets of Iznik, with its many historic buildings dating from Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman times, you can stop to visit the ceramic studios and hear the story of Iznik's famous pottery and tiles over a glass of tea.

The oldest Iznik ware was monochrome red paste pottery, mostly blue, green or brown. In the mid-15th century, blue and white ware made of a hard paste of a quality close to porcelain began to be produced, their designs including split-leaf Rumi motifs and flowers. Stylized animal figurines were also made. From the early 16th century, the Iznik potters concentrated on the manufacture of tiles for decorating the interiors of buildings.

Later in this century the famous coral red appeared, set off by cobalt blue and turquoise in vivid polychrome designs. At the same time, naturalistic flowers and other plants became the predominant motifs, including roses, tulips, carnations, lilies, calendulas, hyacinths, grapevines, and cypress trees. Iznik ceramics and tiles reached their zenith at this time.

Many examples of Iznik ware are to be seen today in museums around the world, such as the Louvre in Paris and the British Museum in London. Today Iznik's potters still produce plates, bowls, cups, vases, jugs, lamps and many other objects which perpetuate the spectacular tradition of Iznik ceramics.

Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, the Iznik tile potteries produced almost exclusively for the Ottoman court, both to adorn the palace itself and also the mosques and other buildings founded by sultans and statesmen. Meanwhile, Iznik dishes and other ware were sent abroad as diplomatic gifts, forming the nucleus of many present collections. However, as the economic power of the court diminished, the potters were obliged to accept other commissions to survive. Iznik ware is characterized by strikingly lovely designs and superb use of color and it was highly-prized at the time it was made as today.

Iznik's potteries gradually declined from the late 17th century onwards, and eventually closed down altogether. The potters dispersed and the secrets of their craft were lost. But today, the craft has been revived thanks to the efforts of the Iznik Educational Foundation, establishing the Iznik Tiles and Ceramics Research Centre in 1995, which has achieved the same high quality as typifies the tiles and ceramics of the 16th century. Exhibitions of ceramics produced by the foundation held abroad have focused worldwide attention on the ceramics once again. Research has rediscovered the secrets of the beautiful colors, glazes and other techniques used in the 16th century, and a new generation of craftsmen has been trained at the Iznik Tile and Ceramic Works. The outstanding quality ware produced here today has again made Iznik ceramics sought after by institutions and collectors in Turkey and around the world.