Iznik is a lovely walled town on the shores of Lake Iznik. This is the ancient Nicea, named after Nikaia, wife of Lysimakhos, one of the rulers who inherited the empire of Alexander the Great. As an illustrious city unter the Greeks, Romans and Byzantines, who knows which plays were performed at Iznik's Roman theatre now being excavated, and which famous historic figures passed through its four gates, today known as the Istanbul, Gol, Yenisehir and Lefke gates. Early in the 13th century the Seljuk Turks ruled the city briefly following which Iznik became the setting for major events in Byzantine history for another century. The city finally came under Turkish sovereighty again, this time for good in 1331 during the reign of the second Ottoman Sultan Orhan Gazi.
The 17th century Ottoman traveller Evliya Celebi gives a detailed account of the town in his Chronicles. In his typical lively style, he describes its setting on the flat plain to the east of the lake, its walls, mosques and other monuments, shops and trade. After mentioning its vineyards, orchards, market gardens shaded by cypresses and olive groves, he continues, "Its china bowls, plates and jugs are greatly valued. All the decorated wall tiles in the land of the Ottomans are made in the city of Iznik. Words are incapable of describing the tiles ornamented like chameleons which are produced." While the events of political history, however important, are recalled only sporadically, art set its stamp on daily life so that its memory remains vivid. The chinaware of Iznik, an art which began here in Byzantine times and reached its zenith under the Ottoman Turks, is a striking example, and the potteries of Iznik played a central role in the town's destiny. During the Byzantine era the pottery of Iznik was similar to that made in many other regions of Anatolia but soon after the Turkish conquest, Iznik ware developed a distinctive style. Moreover production expanded significantly, as the potteries were turned virtually into imperial tile works manufacturing vast quantities of wall tiles for the Ottoman palaces, mosques and other monumental buildings which embellished the four corners of the empire.
In addition to tiles, the town's potteries continued to produce china ware for sale to the public as well as the palace. Large quantities of dinnerware were required on such occasions as circumcision ceremonies for the royal princes, such as in 1582 when festivities lasting 52 days and nights were held to celebrate the circumcision of Murad III's son Mehmed. When the 397 valuable Chinese porcelain dishes in the palace proved insufficient, 541 Iznik plates, bowls and dishes were purchased.
The blue and white Chinese porcelain and celadon ware which poured into the markets of the Near East from the14th century onwards became extremely popular among the wealthy who could afford such precious objects. Iznik's potters had to compete to survive, and they did so by imitating the Chinese designs from Yuan and early Ming porcelain, of which abundant examples were available. This was not difficult, since they were already acquainted with many Chinese motifs which had earlier influenced Timurid art. They began to turn out plates and dishes similar to the much admired Chinese porcelain, and before long had not only mastered these designs but began to give them new forms according to their own tastes. The result found favour not only within the Ottoman Empire but beyond, and some of the Iznik ware which has survived in Europe provides evidence that the Iznik potteries received orders from various European countries, such as articles bearing royal arms. Blue and white plates, bowls, lamps, candlesticks and other items made in Iznik during the 15th century are decorated in the style we now call Baba Nakkas, consisting of scrollwork and floral designs, which was popular during the reign of Sultan Mehmed II (1451-1481). During the reign of his son Bayezid this style gradually began to change, with the incorporation of knotted interlacing and Chinese cloud bands. When Sultan Selim I (1512-1520) conquered Tabriz, craftsmen from that city brought to Istanbul made their own contributions to Ottoman Turkish art. Among these diverse craftsmen were sixteen painters, one of whom, Sah Kulu, introduced the Saz style into Ottoman art.
This was undoubtedly one of the most significant innovations in Ottoman decorative art. Not long after Sah Kulu began to work at the Ottoman palace workshops, in the early part of Suleyman the Magnificent's reign (1520-1566), the influence of his style begins to appear on Iznik tiles. Other distinctive designs of this era are those of the so- called Golden Horn wares consisting of spiral scrolls deriving from the tugra (imperial cipher) of Suleyman the Magnificent, and motifs borrowed from Chinese porcelains. Turquoise was added to the traditional Iznik palette of blue and white from the 1530s onwards. Iznik's potters developed a style which diverged significantly from that of the court decorators, and more over began to enrich their repertoire with human and animal figures and ship motifs. It must be remembered that apart from wall tiles made to order for the court, the potters made china plates, bowls, ewers, cups, vases, candlesticks, lamps and many similar articles for public consumption, and for these the potters created their own designs. Drawing upon the new styles developed by the great court painters they designed new patterns of their own. From the 1540s onwards, mauve and purple also appear in Iznik designs, followed by green and the exquisite coral red unique to Iznik ware. These were used in the naturalistis floriate designs introduced into decorative art by the great 16th century master illuminator Kara Memi.
In addition to a wide range of flowers, pomegranates, artichokes and tree motifs occur in the compositions of this period. The finest Iznik pottery was produced during the reign of Suleyman the Magnificent and up to the end of the 17th century.The tiles and other pieces were exuberantly decorated with hyacinths, tulips, carnations, roses, and stylised floral scrollwork known as hatayi, Chinese clouds, imbrication, cintemani (a design consisting of three spots and pairs of flickering stripes), and geometric patterns.
The Turkish Ministry of Culture proclaimed 1989 as Iznik Year, and numerous events and activities relating to Iznik pottery were held. Iznik has a special place in the history of Turkish art, and thanks to the efforts of Turkish Airlines and Turk Ekonomi Bankasi Iznik Year became Iznik Years. Researchers are continually discovering more about e beautiful type of ceramics, whose designs are enjoying a new wave of popularity.