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Living in the shadow of history.

Given its illustrious post, the small town of Iznik, 100 kilometers south east of Istanbul, is a pale shadow of its former self. The late twentieth century seems to have bypassed this quiet farming community. Yet the town once played a pivotal role in the early development of the eastern church, it was declared a holy city by the Vatican in 1962 and is still renowned for its former tile workshops. The local council now hopes to capitalise on its history and is already planning to commemorate the 2000th anniversary of the birth of Christ.

Iznik is one of the few historic Turkish towns that has not been swamped by modern apartment blocks or tourism related developments. The town's double walls, built and repaired several times between the third and 13th centuries, are in a remarkable state of preservation. Many of its hundred towers still stand and three of its four gates give a clear indication of what a succession of invaders had to face as they lay seige to the city.

The city was originally founded in 316BC by Antigonus, Alexander's general. But 15 years later his rival Lysimachus, seized and enlarged the town, established its grid plan typical of Hellenistic cities and named it Nicaea, which it remained throughout the Byzantine era.

For Christian history the town is important for hosting two crucial ecumenical councils. The first, convened in 325 by Constantine the Great, established the Nicaene creed, which established the criteria for eastern orthodoxy and is still at the heart of orthodox belief today. The council also condemned the teachings of Bishop Arius, his so called Arian heresy, which maintained that the nature of Christ was inferior to God's.

The seventh ecumenical council of 787, the second be held in Iznik, took place in the church of Santa Sophia, the ruins of which still stand in the centre of town. Prompted by the iconoclastic controversy, the council pronounced that icons had a place in the church but that they should not be worshipped. Adoration was due to God alone.

Nicaea played a lesser role in late Byzantine society but followed the sacking of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade in 1204, Theodore Lascaris sought refuge in the city where he founded the short lived Nicaean kingdom.

Lascaris added a second set of walls to the already heavily fortified city but even they were to prove no obstacle to the advancing Ottomans. In 1931, Sultan Orhan, who had captured Bursa five years earlier, breached the city defences and renamed it Iznik.

The following centuries were to see a flowering of the ceramic arts in a multitude of tile and pottery workshops. The celebrated Iznik ware was first produced during the reign of Sultan Mehmet I (1389-1421) who brought skilled potters from Persia. A century later, after Selim the Grim captured Tabriz in 1514, more craftsmen were sent to the growing tile centre. And by the end of the 16th century, as demand for ceramics grew in Istanbul, Bursa and elsewhere, ceramic production had reached its artistic peak.

Iznik's fame as a ceramic centre, however, was brief. By the 17th century many of the best craftsmen had left the city and a century later the celebrated Iznik industry was no more. Tile production moved to the lesser centre of Kutahya, to the south, which still supports a thriving industry. in Iznik only one pottery still produces tiles and plates, although these are of poor quality aimed at the undiscriminating tourist market. If there is little evidence of Iznik's former importance as a ceramic centre in the town itself, quality Iznik ware, particularly from the 16th century, has gained increasing popularity with collectors since the early 1980s (see The Middle East, April 1993). And, over the last ten years, archaeologists from Istanbul have excavated the remnants of of several tile kilns. These have produced many tile fragments which provide valuable clues to the history of Iznik ware.

Work is currently underway to promote Iznik's Byzantine past. The immediate surroundings of Santa Sophia church are being given a facelift in preparation for the 2000th anniversary of the birth of Christ. "We want the world to share our town's historic heritage", declared Iznik's Mayor, Mehmet Kaman.

The Turkish culture ministry has agreed to fund some of the planned celebrations which are likely to include religious services in Santa Sophia where, 1200 years ago, 300 bishops stood before Saint Irene and sealed the division between Constantinople and Rome.
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Title Annotation:town of Iznik
Author:Hellier, Chris
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Oct 1, 1993
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