Located next to a large lake – Iznik Gol – and formerly a capital of the Byzantines, Iznik still marinades in memories of its glory days. Under the Ottomans, it became famous in the 16th century for its stunning ceramics, the finest ever produced by a dynasty that was not short on master craftsmen, and today it’s a beautiful city to visit for its refreshing location and splendid historic monuments.
The first Ecumenical Council was held here by Constantine in 325 AD, when the city was called Nicaea – hence ‘Nicene Creed’, which established the official line on the relative natures of Christ and God, a matter of furious debate even on the streets of Constantinople. It wasn’t uncommon for citizens to be beaten up for asserting that the Son was consubstantial with the Father, or alternatively to espouse the Arian position that they were quite separate, depending on the company, and the Council was called to clear up this tricky issue once and for all.
In 1081 the Seljuk Turks captured Nicaea and renamed it Iznik, and later on in 1097 it was retaken by the Crusaders for the Byzantine Emperor Alexius I Comnenus. For 50 years it was the capital of the ‘Empire of Nicaea’ when Constantinople was shamelessly occupied by the knights of the Fourth Crusade from 1204. Finally, Orhan Gazi retook it for the Ottomans in 1331.
One of the oldest buildings in Iznik is Haghia Sophia, rebuilt in 1065 following an earthquake. It was Byzantine Nicaea’s main place of worship, and you can still see beautifully preserved mosaic flooring as well as a fine fresco of Christ, Virgin Mary and John the Baptist. Under the Ottomans it was converted into a mosque, and in the 1920s it was trashed by the Greeks but later restored by the new Turkish Republic.
From a later era, the magnificent Green Mosque or Yesil Camii gets its name from the gorgeously coloured tiles of its minaret.
Suleyman Pasa Medresisi is the oldest Medrese (or Madrasa) is Turkey, dating from 1332 and built by Suleyman Shah, son of the famous Orhan Gazi.
I was also able to see the excavations of an Ottoman tile factory which provided some insight into the hive of activity in searing temperatures that it took to produce the distinctive Iznik tiles, prized across the civilised world for centuries. Iznik ceramics were produced here from the 15th to 17th centuries, the last major commission being for the Sultanahmet Mosque in Istanbul in 1616 (24,043 tiles). Brilliant blues and whites characterise Iznik tiles, vases and plates, and it was a real thrill to stand on one of the sites where these masterpieces were created by the top craftsmen of the time.