A blue fire enlightens the history and civilizations at İznik. İznik is the first capital of the Ottoman Empire, our renaissance that came after the Seljuk Empire. Growing and maturing with the grace of the Mediterranean and the Balkan region, today, the same blue fire continues to illuminate and heal the structures it decorates and even their surroundings.
The famous Turkish novelist Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar describes the tile works at İznik, Bursa saying: "our ancestors did not just build structures, their work is almost like worshipping". Today, İznik Foundation uses the original prescriptions to continue this tradition after a 400-year break. Having completed the tile works of more than 50 monuments worldwide, the Foundation offers once again the ancient colors and patterns of İznik tiles, enriched with the quartz at its heart which contributes to its healing spirit for the humanity.
Of course, it was not an easy task to revive this art form which was long lost in history while the Ottoman Empire suffered economic losses. It was only possible with İznik Foundation's efforts, especially after 1995, to adapt İznik tile-making to today's technology without compromising its quality and aesthetics. Having earned a unique position regarding İznik tiles, the Foundation first established İznik Tiles Research and Development Laboratory and İznik Tiles and Ceramics (Industry and Commerce Ltd. Company). The foundation focused on reviving the original İznik tiles and worked with international experts of Princeton University and MIT from the U.S in addition to experts from Istanbul Technical University, Mimar Sinan University and TUBITAK. As a result of these efforts, we can now once again talk about the same healing spirit; the quartz, at the heart of the tiles.
THE SECRET RECIPE OF THE QUARTZ
To explain the art of tile making, which reached its most sophisticated form during the Ottoman period, we should first mention the high amounts of quartz involved in its composition. It is the density of the quarts material that determines the durability of the tiles as well as the brightness, vividness and depth of its colors. Also, this quartz material makes the difference between a tile and ceramic, which sometimes confuses an inexperienced eye. In ceramic, this quartz material is used in minimal amounts whereas it is used in all four layers of İznik tiles. These four layers include the raw tile called the "biscuit", the lining used for an easier drawing process, the colors formed by metal oxides and the last layer called the "glaze".
Boasting a significant position in the world art history, the Turkish tile and ceramic art dates back to the Uighur period in the 8th and 9th centuries. Since then, the use of tiles in Turkish art evolved in two directions: tiles to be used in architecture and tiles to be used as pottery such as plates, pots, glasses or vases. The Turkish tile art reached its first renaissance period during the Great Seljuks and this continued during the period of the Anatolian Seljuks as well. The Anatolian Seljuks blended tile making with the colorful Anatolian culture that led to a successful synthesis while this also laid the foundations of the İznik tile art.
TILES DURING ANATOLIAN SELJUKS PERIOD
During the Anatolian Seljuks period, significant technical developments were witnessed, such as the glazed brick technique and the solid-color tiles. Glazed or unglazed bricks manufactured in turquoise, cobalt blue, purple and black were used in different layouts such as horizontal, vertical, zigzag or diagonal compositions.
Another innovation introduced by Anatolian Seljuks to tile art is the mosaic technique used until the mid-16th century. This technique featured geometric compositions and we see plant motifs, Kufic and thuluth scripts, again in cobalt blue, purple, turquoise and black.
Additionally, plain and gilded tiles in a square form or hexagonal and triangle shapes decorated the walls during this period. Breathing the soul to the matter as if they are in a worshipping ritual, the tile craftsmen used three additional techniques in civil architecture and palaces: enamel, under glazing and luster. Konya Alaaddin Palace still stands today as one of the most brilliant examples of the enamel technique, which we see in its miniatures that depict the court life. This technique is used with purple, blue, turquoise, green, red, brown, and black colors and some of the paint is applied into the underglaze, while some is applied on the overglaze after which the tile is kiln-dried a second time. The most elegant examples of the underglaze technique can be seen at Kubadabad Palace in the colors turquoise, cobalt, green, purple and black. In the underglaze technique, paints are applied into the underglaze and then kiln-dried, as the name suggests, and human and animal motifs are used in addition to the plant patterns which has an important place in the art history.
We see the most elegant examples of the third luster technique again in Kubadabad Palace. This technique involves patterns in brown and yellow applied on the overglaze with a silver and copper alloy after which they are kiln-dried a second time. Again, we see plant patterns, human and animal motifs in the examples of this technique.
THE RENAISSANCE OF THE TILES: THE OTTOMAN EMPIRE PERIOD
After a somewhat stagnant period in terms of tile-making during the Anatolian Beyliks period, the Anatolian Seljuks carried the art to the Ottoman period with some of the most spectacular works. The Ottoman period meant support of the palace, so this opened the path to creating different techniques, colors and patterns, resulting in the real renaissance of tile art.
The tile-making during the Ottoman period first started with the “color glazing” technique and we can see its first examples in the late 14th and early 15th century. This technique uses a red clay paste with white lining. The patterns are either printed or engraved, and then colored glaze is painted on top of them. In this technique, we see plant motifs, Kufic, thuluth scripts and geometric motifs coming to life in various colors such as turquoise, cobalt, lilac, yellow, black, bright green and gold. The most elegant examples of these tiles can be seen at the mosques in Bursa and Edirne.
A CORRECTION - “MILETUS” TILES OR IZNIK TILES?
Here, let us clear a misconception about the İznik ceramics that many often and mistakenly refer to as Miletus tiles. These tiles, manufactured in the Seljuk tradition, were used in daily life during the early Ottoman Period. The works shaped from red clay paste are painted in blue, turquoise and purple in transparent underglaze. We also observe the influence of mineral arts in the compositions embellished with a wide variety of plant and animal motifs. The reason they were named as "Miletus make" was because they were discovered in the excavations in the ancient city of Miletus. However, further excavations in İznik made it certain that these ceramics were actually made in İznik towards the end of the 14th century.
A NEW ERA
The 1500s marks the beginning of a new era for Ottoman tile art. The first development we see during this period is the blue-and-white technique characterized by the hard and white clay paste and this technique was used until the mid-17th century. Here, the patterns produced by the Ottoman court miniature artists were applied and kiln-dried at İznik workshops. The patterns were influenced substantially from the 15th century Ming porcelains and the shape of the tiles mainly featured a hexagonal form. The best examples of this technique are displayed at Topkapı Palace, of course. The patterns of this period are grouped as Baba Nakkaş (taking the name from a prominent court miniature artist) and Haliçişi (taking the name from the tiles produced at workshops around Haliç area). The Baba Nakkaş style is defined by stylized "hatayi", "rumi" and "bulut" patterns and the primary color is cobalt blue and its shades. Haliçişi style can be differentiated from the small leaves and flowers on the helixes.
After the second half of the 16th century, the tiles with underglaze technique were manufactured at İznik as well as pottery examples, which were thought to be “Damascus make” until the middle of this century. The style used in these pottery examples were mostly floral patterns colored in cobalt blue, turquoise as well as purple and cumin green. The wall tiles in this style were used in only a few buildings.
THE MAGNIFICENT CENTURY!
The developments in classical Ottoman architecture in the 16th and 17th centuries resulted in significant improvements in tile making as well. This period is marked by its maturity as a result of transformation into a global empire that turns its face to the West in a sense and it is differentiated with its rational presence. During this period, the buildings grew in volume and size although the use of building ornamentations decreased. Thanks to the prominent names who came one after another, 16th century İznik tile art is still the leader in the world ceramic literature. These names are Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-1566), Selim II (1566-1574), Murad III (1574-1595) and particularly, Sinan the Architect. The latter was the chief court architect, whose work is described as worshipping rather than just building.
Sinan the Architect strived to deliver all architectural elements in tremendous harmony within a structural unity. He used İznik tiles in their most excellent form at Rüstem Paşa Mosque, Sokullu Mehmet Paşa Mosque and in some sections at Topkapı Palace. Sinan’s most important work is Selimiye Mosque where he used the tiles as an indispensable part of the structure and space. He used the tiles in the most spectacular structures of the time; art historians explain his mastery saying that -without any overuse- he added glory to the promises of these structures that goes beyond this world.
While the art of tile-making lived its splendor during the period of Suleiman the Magnificent and Sinan the Architect, we can actually say that the underglaze technique also experienced its brightest days. Cobalt blue shades, turquoise, green, black, brown, and embossed coral red were applied to hatayi, rumi and bulut compositions in tiles and pottery during this period. Here, we should mention the chief court miniature artist Karamemi's school. Karamemi school highlights included tulip, carnation, hyacinth, rose, lily, violet, cypress, spring branches, grape leaves and free compositions drawn in a natural style. Additionally, galleons and herringbone patterns, animal figures were used in various forms of pottery. The most elegant examples of these tiles are at Süleymaniye Mosque, Rüstem Paşa Mosque and the Tomb of Suleiman the Magnificent.
Although Sinan and similar architects were behind these works which represents the pinnacle of tile art, they were supported by 600 artists including 45 designers and painters working at the court in the second half of the 16th century. The designs to be used in the buildings were implemented on the tiles with architects and artists' collective work.
THE END FOR ALL İZNİK WORKSHOPS
The meticulous tile and pottery production continued until the mid-17th century but began to deteriorate by then due to economic problems. Over time, the masters in İznik no longer added their soul to the tiles, the colors on the tiles lacked their traditional qualities and even worse, the patterns got imprecise. İznik workshops were late in delivering the orders received from the palace as they were producing for other customers as well. All these caused this art form to come to a halt in the 18th century when all İznik workshops were closed completely. This art form continued after this period mainly at Kütahya, which was another center for tiles since the 14th century. Kütahya production tile work can be described as free-patterned pottery produced with a different technique. However, we see recession also in Kütahya in the early 19th century. After decades, the production was re-kindled, but it failed to regain its own identity.
In the meantime, an alternative center for tile making was established at Tekfur Palace in Istanbul to fill the gap caused by the closure of the İznik workshops and Kütahya. However, tiles produced here could not measure up to İznik quality and it was closed after a short time of 30-40 years.
Today, almost 400 years have passed after the end of this era and the fire of İznik tiles was re-kindled in 1995 with the hard work and efforts of İznik Foundation. İznik tiles still remain as top examples of this art form despite a four-century break and İznik Foundation has managed to bring back the İznik tiles using today's technology without compromising from their quality and aesthetics. İznik welcomes back its heritage from a magnificent century and master artists are once again working as if worshipping at İznik Foundation's workshop.