Iznik ceramics: relighting the kilns of history
The tiles of Iznik can be found decorating monuments and religious structures; not only in Turkey, but in Cairo, Damascus, Jerusalem, and many other cities, and are proudly displayed in museums and private collections worldwide. They have inspired countless people throughout the centuries, including a new generation of artists.

By Eric James Beyer

Photos by Merve Göral

Iznik tiles represent one of the many apogees of artistic achievement in Turkish history. Without the lustrous effect they lend to some of the country’s most famous structures, much of the soul that draws people to them would evaporate. If the foundations of famed architect Mimar Sinan’s achievements are these buildings’ skeletons, then Iznik tiles are their lithe skin, their gracile eyelashes, their elegant posture. 

Visit Sultanahmet Mosque in Istanbul and you’ll notice not only the soft blue for which it’s known, but a coral red luminescence as well. Stroll by the Green Tomb of Mehmed I in Bursa and you’ll marvel at how its walls radiate such deep cobalt and verdant hues that they shame the fir trees surrounding them.

Iznik tiles get their name from the small city on the shore of Lake Iznik in northwest Turkey in which they were, and still are, produced. The city produced many ceramics. Over time, however, Iznik has come to be most closely associated with the decorative wall tiles that truly define the art form.

Gülsu Şimşek, a doctoral researcher at Koç University’s Surface Science and Technology Center, has been studying the tiles for years, using spectrometry to try to trace the methods of Iznik tile production back to a definitive source. “We aim to see the beginnings of the Iznik style,” she told The Guide Istanbul. “Did it come from a Timurid tradition, the Anatolian Seljuks, or from Tabriz? Right now, it’s an open question.”

What we do know is that the end of the fifteenth century heralded a new age of Ottoman ceramic art. Sultan Mehmed II held the arts in high regard, increasing court patronage in many artistic fields and galvanizing innovation in different mediums. He did so by establishing strong ties between the Ottoman palace design atelier, known as the nakkaşhane, and artists across varying mediums, resulting in consistencies of theme and motif in everything from embroidered fabrics to metalworks, and tile art was no exception. The artists of Iznik now had a concerted focus; they would supply the empire with decorative tiles for mosques, palace halls, monuments, and other official structures.

Iznik’s Zenith

By the time Süleyman The Magnificent began his reign in 1520, ceramic quality had greatly increased, new designs were beginning to flourish, and the tile art form was nearing its zenith. The Ottoman Empire was entering its richest period, both politically and culturally, a time during which Mimar Sinan was putting out one architectural marvel after another, ingeniously utilizing Iznik ceramics in his work. Colors such as olive green, grey, and manganese purple had been newly developed and were being skillfully applied to the increasingly exquisite tiles. 

Iznik ceramics are distinguished by their sharp clarity of design and radiant color. Both traits can be traced to the unique composition of materials used in their creation and the way in which they were processed.

 Compared to ceramic production in other parts of the Middle East, Iznik tiles were made from a quartz-based composite rather than a clay-heavy one. Shaped from this mineral mix, the body was coated in a thin slip layer to ensure a radiant white backdrop. Next, patterns provided by the imperial atelier were drawn on the tiles via perforated stencils and then painted with various colors. Finally, a glaze was applied to permanently seal in the design. 

“Iznik potters were the masters of this underglaze technique,” remarks Tahir Eğinci, the owner of the vibrant, three-story Iznik Classics gallery in the Sultanahmet neighborhood. “The higher the quartz ratio in the production mix, the more brilliant the tiles.”  

Evolving over time from relatively simple blue-on-white designs at the end of the fifteenth century, the sixteenth century saw the development of a range of tile motifs; most notably, naturalistic floral patterns. Kara Mehmed Çelebi, an influential artist working in the imperial atelier, was responsible for introducing these patterns to Ottoman schools of art during the reign of Süleyman The Magnificent. Tulips, roses, carnations, hyacinths, spiraling vines and slender cypress trees carried strong symbolic meanings, and artists were able to imbue their tiles with messages of betrayal, forbidden love, grief, and more.

By the end of the sixteenth century, motifs had expanded to include subjects from everyday life as well. Tiles were overlain with designs of boats, architecture, even human and animal forms. Representations of birds, for example, flourished—reflecting Ottoman society’s high regard for the creatures and their religious undertones. Religious inscriptions found their way onto Iznik productions as well, with Süleymaniye Mosque being the first significant example of the use of tiles as a vehicle for Arabic inscriptions in 1557. These were done in what is known as a sülüs style, their letters tall, stately, and dignified.

This proliferation, aside from being a great creative stimulus, had its downsides as well. As time went on, and experimentation and imitation spread throughout the empire and the region, the term “Iznik ceramics” became more and more diluted, and after 1590, the name began to lose much of its significance.

The kilns go quiet

From the late sixteenth century onward, tensions between Iznik potteries and the imperial court began to surface. Tile makers were directing increasing energy toward completing orders from wealthy private individuals who often hailed from Europe. Ottoman officials responded by issuing edicts in 1598 and 1613 that banned potters from accepting other work before orders for the empire were finalized. 

Tile makers were reluctant to comply, however. At a time when, due to the economic troubles of the empire, inflation was wreaking havoc on food prices and other goods, Ottoman officials refused to adjust the price of tiles accordingly, thus presenting the tilemakers with an unenviable choice: follow court orders at great financial risk, or ignore them to make ends meet. Letters sent from the imperial court explicitly warning chief tilemakers against choosing the latter highlight the depth of these disagreements.

Such strife with the court—combined with natural disasters, widespread illness, and the overall wanting financial state of the empire—led to a decrease in quality output from Iznik by the early seventeenth century. Innovation in design was just as potent, but technical standards had dropped sharply. The famous coral red that leaps out at the eye from so much pottery made during the latter half of the sixteenth century turned to a dull brown, faults and imperfections in glaze work began to appear, and colors bled into one another, as can be seen in tiles that decorate the walls of the Çinili Mosque in Üsküdar and the Yeni Mosque in Eminönü. By the end of the seventeenth century, production at the town of Iznik had come to an inglorious end.

Reclaiming the past, envisioning the future

After centuries of laying dormant, with much of the technical knowledge lost in oral traditions that died alongside their masters, the art of Iznik ceramics is beginning to revive and reassert itself. But this is an endeavor that requires more than simple replication. 

Hülya Bilgi, director of the Sadberk Hanım Museum, is among those delighted to see artists breathing original life into the art form. She is also adamant that this work must be as authentic and genuine as possible. “It doesn’t mean anything to just copy the Iznik styles of the past,” she says. “There must be new interpretations reflecting the conditions and events of our lives today.”

 Artists like Faik Kırımlı—whose experiments with production methods in the 1960s and 1970s brought him close to recreating the likeness of tiles from the sixteenth century—are due credit for encouraging this revival. 

Adnan Ergüler, a renowned tile artist better known as Adnan Hoca, made serious strides in invigorating the art form as well. Though the master potter passed away in 2016, Tahir Eğinci has dedicated substantial space to his legacy at the Iznik Classics gallery in Sultanahmet. Home to a plethora of the artist’s work, the collection includes many broad and regal ceramic plates featuring designs inspired by patterns from antique atelieres. “He was a hero to so many artists who work with Iznik tiles today,” Eğinci fondly remarks. 

In contrast to the more conventional emulations of Iznik art, the contemporary artist Elif Uras is bringing a distinctly modern set of ideals to bear on the tradition. Her pottery and tile work, often featuring feminine forms painted over bulbous and suggestive vessels, is a bold direction in the discipline of Turkish underglaze ceramics. 

In the capable hands of artists like these, Iznik is no longer slumbering beneath the weight of its own history, but reigniting the creativity that has always defined it. Happily, the future of the tradition looks as bright as the tiles themselves. 

Aslı Filinta’s spring/summer 2019 collection

Best places to see Iznik ceramics in Istanbul

  • The Sadberk Hanım Museum in Istanbul houses a wonderful example of work from this period in the form of a bottle from the mid-sixteenth century. Featuring impeccable craftsmanship, deep blue and light green-grey hues, and impressively intricate borders, its presentation is breathtaking. 
  • Hosting the Ottoman imperial family for over 400 years, Topkapı Palace is one of the most visited museums in Istanbul. An unchanging design element of the palace throughout the years, Iznik tile panels featuring elegant flower forms adorn the walls of the Imperial Council, the Chamber of  Petitions, and the Black Eunuch Court.
  • Thought to be a reinterpretation of early examples of six-minareted Ottoman mosques, Piyale Paşa Mosque stands out from Mimar Sinan’s trademark style with its six-domed structure. Cobalt-blue Iznik tiles cover three walls of the interior. Some identical Iznik tile panels, on display at Victoria and Albert Museum and the Louvre, are also believed to be from Piyale Paşa Mosque. 
  • Designed by the great architect Mimar Sinan, the interior of Süleymaniye Mosque shows the first use of Iznik red hue in tiles. Located on top of one of the seven hills of Istanbul in Kantarcılar district, make sure to include the mosque in your sightseeing.

Iznik in fashion around the world

Iznik motifs have been inspiring fashion designers all over the world, blending heritage with contemporary aesthetics. 

  • Aslı Filinta’s 2019 spring/summer collection is inspired by traditional Iznik motifs, in which turquoise, blue, white, and Iznik red are prominent.
  • An exquisite feast for the eyes, Iznik tiles designed by Leila Menchari and the Iznik Foundation decorated the backdrop of 16 Hermés showrooms in Paris in 2009.
  • Designer Bora Aksu drew inspiration from Iznik patterns in his London Fashion Week spring/summer 2014 collection. 
  • Inspired by the intricate interior design of Topkapı Palace, Tory Burch’s pre-fall 2017 collection’s store windows featured backdrops covered with Iznik tiles in collaboration with Iksel Decorative Arts.
  • Patek Philippe’s Turkish Motifs collection features very limited edition two watch models. Iznik red and blue tulips on a white background embellished the designs as a tribute to the interior of Istanbul’s famous mosques.
  • Handmade in Istanbul, Vidal Erkohen is first designer to incorporate Iznik tiles into eyewear, with limited edition RVS by V eyewear frames glorifying the ancient tradition of Iznik tiles.

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