İznik is located on the banks of the lake of the same name in the province of Bursa in the northwestern part of Anatolia. In antiquity it lay within the borders of the Bithynian region. One legend says that the town was established on the return of the God Dionysus from India. According to another legend, İznik was colonized by the soldiers who escorted Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.) during his conquests.
When Antigonas Monophthalmus founded the city in 316 B.C., there was already a settlement of the Bottiaei people here, called Elikore, but Antigonas called the town Antigoneia after himself. After the battle of Ipsus (301 B.C.), one of Alexander’s generals, Lysimachus (360-281 B.C.), took the city and named it after his wife Nikaia, the daughter of the Macedonian leader, Antipatros. Throughout the centuries the name Nikaia went through slight phonetic changes, becoming first Nicea and eventually İznik in Turkish times.
In the course of its history from 316 B.C. to the present-day, İznik presents a picture of a city which has undergone great cultural and architectural changes. In the true sense of the word, İznik is an archaeological and historical art laboratory of the Romans, Byzantines, Seljuk and Ottoman Turks.
Following the recent excavations of İznik kilns on the site, Prof. Aslanapa and Prof. Altun have clearly observed that the Ottoman ceramics in İznik had a Seljuk background. The latest research and analysis have revealed that the white pasted hard ceramic consists of the same material as the soft porcelain used in the Ottoman Period. At first, blue and white were the prevailing colors in the pots and wall tiles in this category. During the 16th century, the turquoise was introduced. The embossed red of the wall tiles of the mihrab of Süleymaniye Mosque (1555) marks the peak of Ottoman tiles and ceramics. During the Ottoman era, the İznik tiles and pottery were exported to other countries via the Island of Rhodes, which was then under Turkish rule.
Evliya Çelebi, the famous Turkish traveller, mentions the existence of 300 workshops in İznik during the 17th century. This number, also justified by the excavations, gives us an idea of the importance of tile production in this town. Various reasons have been put forward with regard to the decline of tile production in İznik. The most widely accepted theory is that the demand from Istanbul for the use of these tiles in major public buildings such as mosques and palaces had fallen during the period of decline of the empire. In the beginning of the 20th century, the population of İznik was composed of Turks as well as small ethnic minorities such as Greek and Armenians involved in farming and silk production.
During the Turkish war of Independence, İznik went through turbulent times. The town was invaded by Greeks in September 1920, and towards the final stages of the war it was burnt to the ground by the defeated invaders and the inhabitants had to flee. With the declaration of the Turkish Republic, İznik became home for an influx of Turkish immigrants from Greece and Thrace.
The Characteristics of İznik Tiles
İznik Tiles are admired worldwide for the following reasons:
- İznik Tiles are made on a very clean white base with hard backs and underglazed decorations in a unique technique.
- 70-80 percent of an İznik tile is composed of quartz and quartzite. Its beauty arises from the harmonious composition of three successive quartz layers and a paste-slip-glaze combination which is extremely difficult to bring together. The mixture of quartz, clay and glaze disperses in a very wide thermic spectrum at 900 centigrade. After painstaking research, the problem of the fluctuating thermal behavior of the tiles due to their quartz and rock crystal composition is solved. The result is a tile made primarily out of a semi-precious stone: quartz.
- Even though it may appear to be against the principle of “ceramic textural unity”, the porous structure of the tiles cause dilatation or shrinkage in hot, cold or freezing conditions. It is said that this particular aspect of the structure “allows it to breatle”.
- In İznik tiles, one can observe colors resembling those of semi-precious stones such as the dark blue of lapis lazuli, the blue of turquoise, the redness of coral, the green of emerald.
- Some of the colors observed on the tiles and utensils, particulary the coral red, are very hard to obtain and apply. To obtain all of these colors, the cornea white and opaque sheen glazes are required. The slightly opaque quality of the glaze on the tiles absorbs light and reduces strain on the eyes. It not only protects the tile but also help it breathe.
- The figures on the tiles and utensils reflect allegorical and symbolic characteristics and the flora and fauna of the region. The geometrical designs can be interpreted almost cosmologically as a general description or depiction of the world or the Universe. They blend beautifully with the surrounding architectural constructions in which they are found, and are never overpowering or overstated, but always tend towards a timeless discretion and moderation.
- The inscriptions and the writings on the tiles never consist of egocentric or aggressive texts; rather, they present the ideology and philosophy of Islam.
- The Foundation researchers have been using the classical İznik tile designs on the productions, reviving the mystery of the creation of the İznik tile. Throughout the production processes, the main objective is to master the traditional technological methods rather than embrace those of our own day. In order to preserve the authenticity of the İznik tiles, the İznik Foundation utilizes raw materials that are akin to those of the 16th century.
İznik Tiles, The Revival
İznik became the center of worldwide attention once again when the year 1989 was declared the year of İznik. Several activities relating to İznik took place; a symposium, an international exhibition and the publication of two books. Finally, the İznik Foundation was established in September 1993.
İznik Tiles Today
İznik tiles reached their heyday in the 16th century, and the masterpieces produced at that time are regarded as the most valuable specimens of the art of ceramics by the leading museums of the world.
İznik Kiln excavations, carried out for more than 20 years by the Istanbul University Department of Archaeology and History of Art, give us clues as to the types of kilns and ceramics used in the Art of İznik tile making. In the İznik Tiles Atelier opened in mid 1996, following the opening of the İznik Foundation in 1993 and the Tile and Ceramic Research Center in 1995, it is now possible to produce tile nearly equaling the quality of those of the 16th century.
Obviously, to reach this point, many experiments wer made and everything about İznik tiles was investigated, sinc the old masters took the secrets to their graves, with the resul that even the slightest clue to their manufacture lay conceale for centuries.
The composition of the tiles and the percentage of the components within the microstructure of the material are carefully studied. The availability of these materials and reserves within the region are considered.
Following the excavations, it is observed that İznik tile production was fire high on wastage owing to the large proportion of quartz in the ceramic. Similarly, a number of experiments with the minerals in the area was carried on in the course of which thousands of experimental plates were produced only to be broken and thrown away. The most unfortunate setback the Foundation has had to face has been the absolute lack of documentation regarding the process. Not even the names of the towns and villages where the materials originated were known.
Thus, the conclusion was arrived at that only through the most meticulous scientific research could a unified İznik tile concept be formed.
In its efforts, the İznik Foundation has received the support of scientific foundations and NGO’ s such as TÜBİTAK, M.A.M. (Marmara Research Center), İ.T.Ü. (İstanbul Technical University), İ.Ü. (İstanbul University), in Turkey, and Princeton and M.I.T. (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) in the United States in a vast range of analysis.
The production of handmade tiles of the desired quality in this era of speed and automation is a particularly difficult task.
Today, İznik tiles are used as an architectural element in old and modern buildings by the discriminating decorator and art-lover alike.
The Objective of the Foundation
The İznik Foundation is established with the aim of introducing to the world the cultural and artistic aspects and heritage of İznik and its environs and transferring this heritage to future generations through systematic educational programs. The İznik Foundation is composed of three entities: Vocational Center, Tile-Ceramics Research Center and the Tile and Ceramics Atelier. It also has a liaison office in Kuruçeşme, Istanbul.
The İznik Foundation is primarily concerned with the revival of the traditional art of underglazing. Presently, the Foundation is not only capable of reproducing 16th century masterpieces, but also of continuing the tradition of the ancient masters in such a way that the end product is equal or better in terms of quality. The support for all the work comes from the aforesaid excavations, and from scientific research conducted by scholars. It can be stated that the first successful examples have been highly appreciated in Turkey as well as abroad.
It is of great importance that İznik tile manufacture is adapted to presentday technology, without spoiling the inherent quality and aesthetic value which have made the 16th century İznik tile renowned in the world of ceramics. To this end, the İznik Foundation is sponsoring excavations and research on the archeology and art history of İznik. One other activity is to scan the inventories in museums and architectural works of old İznik tiles both in Turkey and abroad, and to establish a documentation center. Each year the Foundation prepares calendars with different tile compositions taken from historical buildings and source documents.
A second İznik Tile Exhibition is being planned for 1999, ten years following the first one, along with an exhibition of new examples on the occasion of the celebration of the 700 th anniversary of the Ottoman Empire.
So far 70 young graduates, have been issued certificates by the İznik Foundation on a course on tile decoration given free of charge. A summer school is to be opened for students both from Turkish and foreign Universities. The İznik Foundation is also planning a prospective University in İznik with emphasis on archaeology, art history and ceramics.
The Ultimate Goal, İznik University:
Orhan Gazi (1326-1362) is known to be the founder of the first medrese (theological college) in the Ottoman Empire.
He established medreses in İznik, Bursa, Akçaova, Sapanca and İzmit to which the most renowned scholars or müderris of the period were appointed. This led to the creation of other education centers in the Ottoman Period.
The conquest of İznik in 1331 was followed by the opening of the first medrese and the mosque in the city. Davudu Kayseri was appointed to the position of müderris at the aforementioned institution in 1333. This was followed by the Süleyman Paşa Medresesi, which was built before 1357 and still survives in its original state and by the Hayrettin Paşa Medresesi the portico columns of which can be seen on the north of the Green Mosque in Bursa.
The İznik Foundation aims at restoring the site to its former importance as a cultural center by the establishment of a university in İznik.