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The history of İznik ceramics


Stunning ceramics and tiles made in the İznik style are well worth seeking out in Istanbul, from the ancient architecture they adorn to the modern products bringing them to a new market

Karen Munnis portrait
Karen Munnis ,

If you’ve visited the Louvre in Paris, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, or the Topkapı Palace in Istanbul, you’re sure to have come across the distinctive ceramic tiles and pottery produced in İznik. Today several companies are bringing new life to the traditional technique, once a dying craft, producing tiles using historic methods and reworking classic designs into beautiful homewares and lifestyle objects that appeal to modern consumers. 

Rich heritage
İznik ceramics date back to the 9th century; İznik, a town in the northwest of Turkey (historically called Nicaea) was the centre for this distinctive style of ceramics, with Kütahya in the west of the country, and Istanbul, producing smaller numbers. This style of ceramics became particularly in demand in the 15th and 16th century, and at height of the Ottoman empire, İznik pottery was often an official present from Ottoman leaders to foreign dignitaries, while İznik tiles were used to decorate palaces, mosques and other important structures. Later, these beautiful tiles were exported to other countries in Europe, and in cities such as Rome and Verona their distinctive style was replicated.

Classic designs
The designs of the tiles and ceramics combined traditional Ottoman arabesque patterns with Chinese-influenced blue-and-white porcelain. The bright colours of the tiles – coral red, malachite green, turquoise, and deep blue lapis lazuli – were inspired by semi-precious stones. Tiles were primarily made from quartz which provided a hard glaze, making them extremely durable against the elements.

The first building on record to use the distinctive green hexagonal tiles as decoration was the Sultan Orhan Mosque, built in İznik in 1333, and the legacy of the İznik heyday can be seen across Istanbul at sites including the tomb of Sultan Selim II in the Hagia Sophia museum, and the Baghdad Kiosk in Topkapı Palace.

Resurrecting the craft
The production of İznik tiles rapidly declined during the 17th century and at one stage it looked as though the art would disappear. However, in 1993 the İznik Training and Education Foundation was established to resurrect the craft; the organisation looked at how modern methods of production could be introduced while still using traditional raw materials. In the two decades since the foundation was established, a number of companies have emerged which champion İznik art, and are producing must-have pieces.

Modern artists
Nejla Anıl launched Anikya İznik Çini in 2000, with the aim of making İznik tiles relevant to modern life. ‘I believe that traditional arts can only be protected by using, consuming and reproducing them, rather than preserving them in museums,’ she explains. Anıl is committed to preserving the heritage of İznik tiles by reproducing them using 16th-century techniques. Her company works on architectural restoration projects across Turkey and has recently completed the interior of the Eyüp Sultan mausoleum in Istanbul and the exterior of Yeşil Türbe in Bursa: known in English as the Green Tomb, this is the mausoleum of the fifth Ottoman sultan, Mehmed I, and was built in 1421.

Anıl stresses that without extensive knowledge about the heritage of İznik tile-making it would be ‘dangerous’ to try to turn it into a modern craft. ‘It is a big responsibility to carry this art into the future,’ she says.

Along with extensive restoration projects, Anikya İznik Çini designs a wide range of modern homewares and accessories which incorporate traditional designs, including ornate plates, bowls, bookmarkers, leather trays and jewellery, which are available from its shop on Beybostanı Sokak in the Beylerbeyi area of the city.

Unusual usage
Sahi helps to promote Turkish arts and crafts, whether based on traditional skills or contemporary techniques. It has two boutiques in Istanbul (on Kilic Ali Pasa Mescit Sokak in Karaköy and on Hızır Çavuş Köprübaşı Sokak in Fatih), and among its wide spectrum of products are İznik ceramics, including beautifully painted Turkish delight bowls, candle holders and bright blue tile necklaces. ‘The colours of İznik tiles and ceramics never fade away, so they never look old-fashioned,’ says Melissa Simin Yener, Sahi’s brand communication and experience executive. ‘Since most people visit Istanbul to experience the golden age of the Ottomans and the grandeur of sultans’ lives, İznik ceramics allow them to bring some of this feeling home.’

According to Yener, there are times when people can’t keep their hands off these ceramics – quite literally – due to their rumoured healing properties. ‘Quartz was in demand in Ottoman times, because it was famous for its healing effects,’ she explains, adding that some people believe that by touching an İznik ceramic, the quartz will soak up stress.

There’s no denying that visitors and local people are increasingly attracted to İznik tiles and pottery – when in the city, look out for historic buildings decorated with elegant examples and find your ideal pieces to take home.

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