İznik - the city that launched a thousand tiles

Turks have certainly discovered its charms, but most foreign tourists still skip straight on to Bursa, thereby missing a real gem of a place.

İznik - the city that launched a thousand tiles

Set on the shores of a peaceful lake just a short boat-and-bus ride from İstanbul, İznik is a delightful small town with such an intriguing history that you might expect it to be heaving with visitors. Turks have certainly discovered its charms, but most foreign tourists still skip straight on to Bursa, thereby missing a real gem of a place.

İznik started out as Nicaea, and it is as Nicaea that it left an indelible impression on the history of Christianity. The First Ecumenical Council of the Church was held in Nicaea in 325 and proceeded to draw up the Nicene Creed, a statement of the basic tenets of Christianity that is still recited in churches today ("I believe in God…").

At that time Nicaea was part of the Roman Empire. When Rome gave way to Byzantium, the great Byzantine Emperor Justinian took a keen interest in the city across the Sea of Marmara and started work on the walls which still ring the town center today. Those walls were strong enough to keep out encroaching Arab invaders. However, the Selçuks did better, grabbing the city and renaming it İznik. When the Fourth Crusade somehow got itself diverted to Constantinople (İstanbul), the Byzantine emperor was forced to take refuge in İznik, where he set up a short-lived "Nicaean Empire" (1204-61).

In 1331 it was the turn of the Ottomans to take control of İznik, and it was the Ottomans who helped the town stamp its even more famous mark on history. In 1514 Sultan Selim I occupied Tabriz in Iran and exiled its tile-makers to İznik. There they set up shop and added a precious coral-red glaze to the more conventional blue and white tiles. The rest, as they say, is history. İznik tiles went on to grace mosques worldwide but especially those of İstanbul.

Unfortunately their popularity was also to be their downfall. So much did Sultan Ahmet I love the tiles that when he started work on his great "Blue" mosque he insisted that the İznik tile-makers should work on nothing else until it was completed. In the way of things, enthusiasm didn't necessarily translate into decent wages, and many of the tile-makers voted with their feet and headed out for better-paying Kütahya. The inevitable result was that Kütahya was soon "in" and İznik "out" in tile fashion circles. Reputedly there were 300 functioning kilns in İznik when work began on the Blue Mosque and only nine still in business when it was completed seven years later.

As you drive into İznik you feel as if you are arriving in a miniature İstanbul, an impression created by the encircling walls and compounded when you reach the town center to find its main feature a church of Aya Sofya! But of course İznik is a relative tiddler of a place compared to İstanbul, with a population of only 20,000, so that fleeting impression is quickly dispelled. Instead you find yourself exploring a serene little settlement whose main streets -- laid out on a Roman grid pattern -- are shaded with giant plane trees.

The old walls wind for five kilometers around the town center and you can just about track them for most of the way, provided you don't mind dodging a bit of traffic and navigating some patches of wasteland. If you don't have time for the walk, it's still worth examining the four main gateways into the city: İstanbulkapı, Yenişekir Kapısı, Lefke Kapısı and Göl Kapısı. Grandest of them all is the Lefke Gate, where it's still possible to climb up onto the walls and check out the lay of the land.

Aside from the walls, Aya Sofya is probably the town's most important monument. Theoretically you need to buy a ticket to look around but really, there is little enough to see inside to justify the outlay. Instead what you will see is the wreck of a building set in a sunken garden that just barely survives after fire, earthquake and plain indifference have done their worst.

More impressive is the Yeşil Cami (Green Mosque) down the road. This is a 14th-century mosque whose minaret is criss-crossed with fine turquoise tiles as if its Selçuk builders had been daydreaming about their Iranian fatherland. Across the road, İznik's museum is housed in an old soup kitchen set up by Sultan Murat I in 1388. It would be nice to anticipate a magnificent showcase for the finest of İznik's tiles. Instead it houses a fairly mundane collection with inadequate labeling, worth viewing mainly to relish the beauty of the building itself.

In the backstreets near the Horoz Kapısı (Rooster Gate) lie the scant remains of the ninth-century Church of the Koimesis. The Byzantine Emperor Theodore I Lascaris, who had been driven into exile by the errant Crusaders in 1204, was eventually buried here after refortifying İznik to ensure he couldn't lose another home base. After the Turkish War of Independence the church was deliberately destroyed, presumably to ensure that no latter-day Byzantines could turn it into a shrine to Lascaris.

If you're interested in the history of Turkish tile-making you may want to look at the neglected remains of the old Ottoman kilns across the road from the 15th-century II. Murat Hamamı, whose women's section now houses a tile showroom. To see the best of what tile-makers were (and are) capable of you should head down toward the lake and follow the walls to the Sarayı Kapısı (Palace Gate).

Just inside the walls, set in a lovely rose garden, you'll find the showrooms and workshops of the İznik Vakıf, a foundation which has, since 1993, worked tirelessly and with great success to revive the old tile-making tradition. After looking round the foundation you might want to spare a moment for the remains of the old saray (palace) itself, because it was here that the First Ecumenical Council met to draw up the Creed.

İznik is one of those rare small towns with a seemingly endless succession of minor monuments to look at. But don't let yourself be misled into thinking you'll get to see the frescoes in the underground tomb at Elbeyli which are advertised all around town; the museum curator guards the keys as closely as if they secured the Topkapı Treasury.

Once you're through with sightseeing, the best thing to do is head down to the lake, where a series of small cafes open for tea and snacks in the summer. Some of İznik's small hotels cluster around the lakeshore. Most are none too exciting, although the Çamlık Motel has a pleasant waterside restaurant. The best place to stay would be the guesthouse attached to the İznik Vakıf, although rooms are only let to outsiders if no visiting tile experts want them.

How to get there: Take an İDO fast-ferry from Yenikapı to Yalova and then catch an onward bus to İznik. You can also get there by bus from Bursa.

Where to stay: Çamlık Motel. Tel: (0224) 757 1631

İznik Vakıf Konukevi. Tel: (0224) 757 6025

Sunday's Zaman

Last Mod: 06 Ağustos 2007, 01:40
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