Ottoman legacy

The ancient art of making dazzling quartz tiles fit for a sultan has been triumphantly revived, reports Vanessa H. Larson

Feature

Monday, 29 November, 2010 by Vanessa H. Larson

İznik quartz ceramics
İznik quartz ceramics

İznik’s brilliantly coloured, exquisitely patterned quartz tiles are one of the most beautiful artistic legacies of the Ottoman Empire. The centre of ceramic production for the Ottoman court, the town supplied the ornate tiles, called çini in Turkish, that decorated palaces, mosques and other imperial buildings. Their splendour undiminished, these tiles can be seen today in some of Istanbul’s most famous landmarks, including Topkapı Palace’s harem. Sultan Ahmet Mosque gained its popular English name, the ‘Blue Mosque’, from the hues of the 20,000 tiles that adorn its interior.

From the 15th to the 17th centuries, hundreds of İznik artisans were employed to make quartz tiles and ceramic ware exclusively for the Ottoman sultans. The tiles were also sent by sultans as gifts to foreign rulers, an indication of the high value placed upon them; today, many are in European museum collections.

But İznik quartz tiles were expensive to make due to the materials used (quartz is a semi-precious stone) and the labour involved. When the financial decline of the Ottoman Empire began in the late 17th century, demand for the tiles decreased. Eventually, the town’s workshops shut down and its ceramics techniques were forgotten.

İznik quartz tiles remained a lost art until the late 20th century, when Dr Işıl Akbaygil, a professor who was researching the history of İznik’s tile industry, became determined to revive the technique. The Turkish Ministry of Culture had declared 1989 İznik Year, sparking renewed interest in this important Ottoman heritage.

Akbaygil and her team spent several years researching and consulting with local and international scientific institutes until they rediscovered the formula for making quartz tiles. In 1993, Akbaygil founded the İznik Foundation with the aim of keeping the art form alive through research, production and education.

İnci Dallı, overseas coordinator at the İznik Foundation, explains the significance of the foundation’s discovery. In the Ottoman era, İznik tile making was a craft passed down from father to son and methods were never recorded. By examining fragments of Ottoman-era tiles, she says, researchers determined their composition. ‘But even if you know the composition, that doesn’t mean you can produce them; it depends on a lot of factors.’

The İznik Foundation succeeded, however, in recreating İznik quartz tiles for the first time since the Ottoman period. The tiles, which are 85% quartz, are handmade and take about 70 days to create. The foundation uses methods as close as possible to the original Ottoman techniques, while taking advantage of modern technologies such as electric kilns, rather than the wood-burning kilns used in Ottoman times.

İznik’s magnificent quartz tiles symbolised the artistic height of the Ottoman Empire. The word çini (pronounced ‘chini’) comes from the Turkish for ‘Chinese’; the Ottomans considered Chinese porcelain the highest standard for ceramics. İznik’s tiles were renowned for their elaborate designs and characteristic shades of blue, turquoise, green and red; since Islam forbids the portrayal of living creatures, most İznik designs were floral or geometric. Flowers and plants held symbolic meanings. One of the most popular Ottoman motifs, the tulip, represented God, while roses represented the Prophet Muhammed. Particular styles, such as the saz style, with its serrated green leaves and Eastern influences, were characteristic of different periods.

The İznik Foundation produces tiles with traditional İznik patterns and colours as well as modern styles, and tiles can be custom-made in any design and colour imaginable. The foundation has commissioned well-known artists and designers, such as architect Zaha Hadid and Turkish artist Murat Morova, to design tiles and has created quartz tiles for architectural projects around the world, from mosques to five-star hotels to the window displays in Hermès’ Paris flagship during the 2009 holiday season. The İznik Foundation is not only keeping the İznik quartz tile tradition alive, but also reinventing it for future generations.

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