İznik tiles

For centuries, pottery vessels graced with blossoming flowers, tulips and carnations, and beautiful buildings where birds sang on tiled walls told the story of skilled hands that perform a labor of love.

Having abandoned yourself to the study of nature, you are strolling through the fruit orchards and villages scattered along the lake's edge past slopes covered with olive trees when suddenly its soaring walls rise before you. And you enter the city through one of the land gates. The city of Iznik, nestled in the hills, capital of empires that ruled for centuries, and at the same time center for the production of the famous ceramic tiles to which it has given its name. Tiles on whose 'eye white' backgrounds skilled decorators worked their designs.

This delicate and labor-intensive work still goes on in İznik today. Those who see the old khans, baths and medreses, the streets, and the tile ateliers and ubiquitous shops selling pottery are speechless with awe. For in today's workshops young girls and boys are attentively chasing down the patterns and colors of another age.

Ottoman palace residents, especially the women who dwelled in sweet-scented harems, were enamored of the turquoise-colored Chinese porcelains decorated with cranes brought by the caravans that braved the 15th century's endless silk roads to enter the palace gates. Hand-worked in a labor of love, these tiny porcelains were called 'Çini' in Persian, meaning 'of Chinese origin'. In vibrant colors with a wealth of brilliant motifs and designed to encase and thereby reinforce broad surfaces, tiles have always been a key element in the Turkish art of decoration. Tiles fall into two groups depending on how they are used. The first are the wall tiles, formerly known as 'kaşi' (painted and glazed tile), or what is known in the West as Tile-Art. The second are what are known as 'evani' (vessels), or functional ceramics such as vases, mugs, pitchers and bowls.

After their conversion to Islam, the Karahanids in particular began to adorn their places of worship with tiles, which became a traditional architectural element in the time of the Great Seljuks and the Anatolian Seljuks Inheriting the art of the tile from the Seljuks, the Ottomans brought a new style and mission to it, and tiles began to be produced at Iznik, the most suitable location due to the clay deposits in the vicinity. According to legend, people in nine different quarters of the city made a living by producing tiles and pottery at Iznik in the 17th century when it boasted over three hundred kilns. The Turkish art of the tile enjoyed a golden age under the

Ottomans in the 16th century as the Empire  grew in size and wealth, construction activity abounded, the palace's notion of splendor changed, and the capital began to make its power felt throughout the world, all of which also ensured the development of tile art. New techniques were invented with the proliferation of skilled artisans and creative artists, and new motifs were developed in colors so vibrant as to be the envy of nature itself.

Examples of the earliest Ottoman tiles can be seen in Iznik's Green Mosque and Medrese, in Bursa's Green Mosque and Mausoleum as well as in the Muradiye Mosque, and at the Tiled Pavilion in Istanbul. The tile decorations in Bursa's Green Mosque and adjoining complex illustrate the high level that was achieved in this early period Ottoman art. In the colored glaze technique used here, the contours of the pattern were either incised deeply into the red clay or stamped on, after which colored glazes were applied and the tile was then fired. In one of the frequently used classic techniques, the object to be decorated was first covered with an opaque colored glaze containing zinc. Colored glazes were then applied to the tile, which was also subjected to various other kinds of processing before being fired to ensure the permanancy of the colors. 

The colored overglaze technique of the 15th century continued in Istanbul in the 16th, as we see in the tiles of the Mosque and Mausoleum of Selim I. In the second half of the 16th century, an interesting change took place in both technique and motifs when the technique known as the underglaze came into use. In later periods the use of color was enriched with the addition of yellow, white, purple and pistachio green, and patterns such as the peony and compositions boasting Hatayî motifs of Far Eastern provenance are observed to enter the art of the tile.

A tile panel is first covered with a slip after which the outline of the intended pattern is stenciled on and then filled in with the desired colors. After being dipped in the slip and dried, the tile panel is fired, and all the colors shown brilliantly from beneath the transparent slip. These tiles, which exhibit a meticulous technique and refined concept of design, are enriched with intricate compositions consisting of an endless variety of flowers such as tulips, carnations, hyacinths, roses and rosebuds, daffodils and irises, as well as blossoming trees in spring, clusters of grapes, cypress and apple trees, imaginary animals and bird figures, all worked in a naturalistic style. In all this enrichment the tile masters and decorators attached to the Ottoman palace must be given their due. Those working under chief decorators such as Karamemi and Şahkulu in particular created a wide variety of designs.

In the 1550's a very special color appeared  which succeeded in adding its name to the painter's palette. Used briefly in the tile art of the period, it later disappeared without a trace. That color was 'coral red', and its disappearance can only be attributed to the death of the master who created it since it continues to defy production even today. The first tiles decorated with coral red are said to be those in the oil lamp of the Süleymaniye Mosque, in whose wall panels 'coral red' and 'Iznik blue' also figure prominently.

The development today of 'evani' pottery, or what we would call functional vessels, goes back to 'Baba Nakkaş', the 'Father of Decoration' and Chief Palace Decorator in the period of Mehmed the Conqueror. What caught my eyes as I toured the Iznik workshops was that it is more this type of pottery - pitchers, bowls, plates, candlesticks, jugs, mugs, and ewers - that is being produced today.

The zenith reached in the art of the tile under the Ottomans is in evidence today in the patterns, colors and countless figures used in the tiles that decorate Topkapı Palace, that deck the walls, pulpit and columns of the Rüstem Pasha Mosque, and in the tulip-patterned tiles emblematic of the period. The Sokullu Mehmed Mosque at Kadırga and the Piyale Pasha  Mosque, both in Istanbul, the Selimiye Mosque at Edirne, and the Atik Valide Mosque at Üsküdar on Istanbul's Asian shore are the last examples of the tile art of this period. Istanbul's Sultan Ahmed or Blue Mosque meanwhile is the largest mosque exhibiting specimens of this most brilliant period of the Turkish art of the tile, with 21,043 individual tiles according to the records.

Iznik tiles have entered the literature as ‘the ceramics impossible to produce', the reason for this being the difficulty in shaping a substance of such high quartz content and the extremes of heat required to fire it. The tiles that grace mosques, medreses, the salons of harems, monumental gateways and palace chambers were fired at temperatures of 950-980C and employed a variety of extremely labor-intensive techniques. An attempt is being made to recover the former splendor of the art of the tile through the excavations carried out at Iznik in the 1990s and the efforts of expert Faik Kırımlı as well as the research done by Prof. Oktay Aslanapa. Thanks to the Iznik Foundation, founded in 1993, and the Tile and Ceramic Research Center, founded in 1995, young women have now replaced the old decorators and are striving to discover the secret of the tile's pure 'eye white' color using old and new techniques.