Leaving the city of Bursa we passed through mile after mile of olive groves, spread along the coast of İznik Lake at the foot of low green mountains. We finally arrived in the town of İznik, passing through a crudely opened gap in the ancient walls and entering a town that still feels much like it has for the past seven hundred years. Since the fall of the city to the Ottomans in 1331, visitors have described it as a village in the midst of a great ruin. Gardens, spaces of overgrown trees, and light industrial spaces fill in the gaps between the modern town and the towering walls of stone and brick.
Before becoming the Ottoman capital, Nicaea, not Bursa was the region’s chief city. With massive walls still marking out its ancient size and importance, the city of Nicaea was the major center of wealth and culture from ancient times on into the Byzantine period. Apart from these walls, there is now little left of this once beautiful city, and yet the names Nicaea and İznik (as it’s known now in Turkish), are still known around the world. Within Turkey, the town of İznik, is famed for being the centre of Ottoman ceramics, with a tradition dating back some 500 years. One of Istanbul’s most beloved landmarks, Sultan Ahmet Mosque, owes its fame and its English name (the Blue Mosque) to the tile makers of İznik, whose artistry decorates the mosques interior.
In the Christian world, İznik is better known for hosting the Nicaean Council, where Emperor Constantine the Great and bishops representing churches ranging from Roman Britannia (England) to Sassania (modern Iran) were gathered to decide on matters of doctrine.
The Council of Nicaea would come to be looked at as one of the most important events in the history of Christianity, and, in keeping with such ancient and important events, myths have grown up around it. While it’s popularly thought that the New Testament was compiled here, the council mostly dealt with doctrines surrounding the nature of the Trinity and imposed bans on things like self-castration. Later authors like Jerome, Voltair, and, more recently Dan Brown have helped perpetuate some of the myths.
It’s commonly repeated that the New Testament of the Bible was canonized at the Council of Nicaea, with some stories describing all the ancient books being piled onto a table and shaken until most had fallen off. The final four that remained went on to be included in the current version of the Bible.
While this is very much a part of İznik’s history there is very little remaining of the ancient city, instead the town today almost exclusively reflects its Turkish history.
While there are many other Turkish Towns with rich histories, what really makes İznik worth visiting is that there is a living history to be explored among the ruins. The town is full of artists with their workshops, galleries, and kilns, all carrying on the pottery and ceramic traditions of the city that have been passed down over 500 years. Some artists stay true to historic forms, reproducing Seljuk and Ottoman pieces while others explore new styles, blurring historic and modern, traditional and progressive.
When we first arrived in the city we set to exploring the walls with their beautifully ornate gates. While some sections of wall have been restored much of the masonry is crumbling away as olive and fig trees encroach and pry apart the bricks and stone.
Near the center of town I came across a little workshop full of heavy laden shelves and an eclectic assortment of odds and ends, all lightly powdered white. The shop belonged to a man named Ibrahim who, rather surprisingly, is the only potter in İznik. He told me that most potters now work in Kütahya, the home of Turkey’s modern ceramics industry. In fact, Ibrahim himself and the clay he uses come from Kütahya.
While Ibrahim can’t meet all the demands of the İznik market, he can shape a surprising number of pieces very quickly. “But”, Ibrahim is quick to explain “there’s much more to the process than just shaping the clay.” First he works the clay smooth and even by kneading it, then comes the shaping. Once the piece has been formed it needs to sit and dry for seven to ten days, then the piece goes back on the wheel to be brushed with a watery mixture of clay known as a ‘slip’. Finally the piece goes into the oven to be baked at 1000 degrees. Only then can the artists who paint and glaze begin their work.
With all the work and artistry that goes into making a real hand-made vessel it’s no wonder İznik pottery can cost a small fortune. In fact it’s a wonder that they’re not more expensive. Speaking to some of the other artists its clear that no one is here for the money. Most only make enough to get by and carry on, instead they do it because they love it. “If it was for the money I wouldn’t be here!” is a line I heard from a few people.
While the work may look slow and almost therapeutic, there’s a saying among İznik’s artists that suggests its not always such an enjoyable process. “The coppersmith is bald, the blacksmith is blind, and the ceramic maker is insane” they say. While the chemicals of burnishing copper make the coppersmiths go bald and sparks blind the blacksmiths, potters go mad because of how often pieces break. Whether from being dropped or knocked some pieces just break. Others will break in the kiln, sometimes the painting goes awry, or the colours don’t end up matching once they’ve finally been glazed and baked. All in all, almost thirty percent of pieces don’t survive to be sold.
Some attribute their sanity to the ceramic’s secret ingredient: quartz, which helps the ceramics survive changes in humidity, and, so I’ve been told, emits positive soothing energy.
Bursa, just like many other Turkish cities, has it’s own take of the Turkish pide, Turkey’s canoe shaped pizza. While we were in the city we had set out to give the local variation, cantık, a try. After ordering from a little side-street shop we got to chatting with the cook and quickly discovered there was a problem. The cook was from Samsun, a Black Sea province famous for it’s own version of pide, and just like the guys from Tokat who only eat Cağ Kebap instead of Iskender, I doubted that a proud man of Samsun would respect the cantık of Bursa enough to give us the real thing.
When the “cantık” came my fears were confirmed. The shape was wrong, the bread was too dense, and the topping totally different. Food culture in Turkey is often cut-throat.
Thankfully, one of İznik’s restaurants served authentic cantık, though, to be honest, it’s not really any better than normal pide.
After going to see İznik’s last standing Byzantine church (now known as the Aya Sofya Orhan Mosque), the local museum, and the remains of the Roman theater, I managed to find something I was really hoping to come across on this trip: a willing local to tell me the stories and history of İznik.
I stopped into a shop along the main street where I met a woman and elderly man sitting next to a paint splattered workbench. The shop was owned by Mesude, a woman who was born in İznik and grew up watching her grandfather paint İznik ceramics.
The older gentleman with her was a kiln worker for decades and between them they shared stories of the origins and recent history of İznik ceramics, beginning with a somewhat legendary account of how ceramics came to the Ottoman empire.
In the 15th century the Ottomans were growing in power and wealth, expanding into Europe and making their new capital at Edirne. Wishing to stay on reasonable friendly terms with the Turks that now surrounded him, the Byzantine Emperor sent gifts to the Sultan for the building of the new palace. Upon inspecting the gifts, the sultan found incredibly fine and ornate ceramic ware from China, the likes of which he had never seen.
Realizing that his potters lacked the technology to make such pieces he sent a delegation to China to learn the craft. Making its way eastward the delegation arrived in central Asia where they mistook the locals for Chinese and learned the making of ceramics from them, who had in turn learned it from the Chinese.
Returning home, the delegation found that İznik was home to all the essential elements needed to make the ceramics: fine sand, quartz, clear water, and oak forests for fuel. They named the ceramics Çini, after the place of its origin: Çin, or China.
As it would turn out the quartz of İznik is different from that used in China, and so the ceramic still couldn’t be made as fine as the Chinese ceramics.
*(Kyrgyz,Turkmen, and Tajik are all closely related languages to Turkish, so for the delegation to think they were in China is very unlikely, even if modern Turks sometimes mistake them for Chinese. The more official story has the Turkish delegation learning it in China)
Whatever the truth of its origin, the ceramic only really came to serve as a foundation upon which the Turkish tradition flourished. The fame of Ottoman tile and ceramic ware is in great part due to the beautiful patterns, twisting tracery, and striking colours. Geometric designs, fanciful trees, tulips, and carnations all brought to life in blue, white, and red.
The vibrant İznik Red, has a legend of its own. Centuries ago, a painter was trying to develop a brighter, bolder red and struggled to find a result that would satisfy him. The process was painstaking as baking and glazing would dramatically alter the colours. Blue, for example can be pink until baked depending on the ingredients of the paint. The painter, finally despairing of finding true red, threw himself into the kiln and died. The vessels that were being fired came out with brilliant reds and so İznik Red was finally discovered.
İznik kilns need to heat to around 1000 degrees, and while the wood burning fireboxes have been replaced with electric and gas heating elements, the gentleman that I sat with described to me the process of stoking the kilns by hand, loading two tons of oak firewood a day. Some of the larger kilns in the town would burn up to three tons a day. Rather dramatically, the firebox of a kiln is called a cehennemlik, or ‘place of hell’ in Turkish, though it must have felt like the gates of Hell to be working at its mouth for hours on end. It’s important that the temperature be kept relatively steady, a challenging task with a wood burning kiln. Kiln workers had to learn to read the smoke and colour of the flame in the chimney, a subtle art specific to each unique kiln. The woodburning made for an almost apocalyptic atmosphere at times.
Sadly, our time in İznik wasnt long, and even though we got to meet some fascinating characters, we really only got to scratch the surface of the cultural heritage of İznik. Unfortunately, some of the towns older craftsmen have been driven into hiding thanks to the Corona virus. As usual we left thinking, just maybe we’ll come back and explore a little deeper. In the meantime, with busses and flights to catch we made our farewells, and left, passing out through the ancient walls, past olive orchards and on to home.