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 which was built after the First Council in the 4th century and dedicated to the “Holy Wisdom”.
Recently, it hit the world news when Sunken Basilica was discovered under the water during a photo shoot from the air, 20 m. offshore. “St. Neophytos Basilica” is among the top 10 discoveries of 2014 according to the Archaeological Institute of America. It is possible 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.
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 in fact 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 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 still 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.
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 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.
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 which 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. 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 which 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 The Tiles
In 1995 the Iznik Educational Foundation established the Iznik Tiles and Ceramics Research Centre, 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. The district has a largely agricultural economy, based on the fertile soil of the plain. Whether the grapes known as izari recorded by the renowned 14th-century Arab traveler Ibn Battuta -who said he had seen them growing nowhere else- is still grown here I have no idea, but viticulture is still widespread in the area. Large quantities of olives, tomatoes, and peaches are also grown here, and many other kinds of fruit and vegetables. Lake Iznik, the fifth largest in Turkey, contains abundant stocks of crayfish. Sand-smelts, which somehow got introduced into the lake, have destroyed two of its native species, kepekleme, and bitterlings, and local people still longingly recall the flavor of the latter fish. However, dace, carp, and sheathfish have survived the newcomers' arrival. After this long journey through history, it was time to sit down at one of the lakeside restaurants to savor crayfish, sheathfish grilled on skewers, and a delicious salad dressed with olive oil. As our visit to this magical place drew to an end, the sun setting in a blaze of red over the lake, we sensed Iznik’s yearning for its glorious past.