The Iznik Tiles

Getting away for a few days isn't just a Western sentiment. There's a need to do this in rapidly developing Turkey as well, especially Istanbul. Great as that city is, it can wear on the senses like any major metropolis.

Istanbul's Asian side used to serve as an escape valve, but unfortunately, it has become a large commuter sprawl. "Keyif," the Turkish term for an aesthetic, almost intoxicating sense of relaxation, becomes more elusive throughout these environs.

The town of Iznik is still "keyifli", both visually and culturally. It's about two hours from Istanbul, the first half by ferry across the Sea of Marmara to its southern side. A hovercraft also makes the journey but operates less frequently. The ferry ride is a comfortable one that lands at Yalova, where inexpensive shuttle buses depart to take the pedestrian traveler to Iznik.

Concrete eyesores have yet to becloud the Yalova-Iznik landscape. The one-hour ride crosses fertile country, where rows of olive and fruit orchards abound. Lake Iznik lies alongside much of the road, interspersed by villages with their minaret-projecting mosques. At Iznik's outskirts, any trace of frenzied Istanbul vanishes.

Iznik's civic roots go back to ancient Greece. One of Alexander the Great's generals founded the town more than 2,300 years ago, naming it Nicaea in honor of his wife. Nicaea became a provincial capital under the Romans, who built baths, theaters and fortifications befitting an administrative center. The town's best legacy from this period is more than 5,000 yards of imposing walls.

Four double-gated entryways intersect the concentric wall system, their Latin inscription and marble friezes still intact. Lefke Kapisi, or the eastern gate, is particularly impressive, with one of its arches revealing that it was built by Proconsul Plancius Varus in 123.

Nicaea took on a greater importance with the rise of Byzantium. It became the historic equivalent of a convention hub and was the site for important meetings regarding early Christianity. The Greek Orthodox Church's rituals and beliefs were codified by these assemblages, and bishops attending Nicaea's eighth ecumenical council formally approved the use of religious imagery in iconic art.

Much of Byzantium's Nicaea was diminished by earthquakes and neglect. The era's finest remnant is a burial chamber, Yeralti Mezar (literally the "hidden tomb"), that was discovered in the late 1960s in a nearby farming community. The tomb's mosaics are so well preserved that they make the visit worthwhile. Unfortunately, grave robbers tried to plunder Yeralti Mezar's interior, so entering the padlocked complex must be arranged with Iznik's archaeological museum.

Byzantium lost Nicaea to a burgeoning Ottoman Empire, which renamed the town Iznik in 1333. Unlike their Roman and Byzantine predecessors, the Ottomans didn't bequeath Iznik with any structures of notable merit. Instead of architecture, a tile known as cini (the Turkish word for "China" and pronounced similarly: CHEE-neh) was handed down.

Despite its curious name, cini didn't come from the Far East. Legend has it that a sultan became so obsessed with the beauty of Chinese porcelain that he set out to create his own version. This person might have been Selim I - Selim the Grim - who invaded Persia in 1514 and deported the region's artists westward.

Iznik became a state-supported artists colony. Nestled away from major Ottoman centers, craftsmen could concentrate without interruption in a quietly pleasant environment. The nearby hills contained an array of clay and mineral deposits readily available for processing. Despite the relative isolation, shipping or communication were not problems. The Sea of Marmara was accessible via Lake Iznik and a man-made waterway, thus boats could reach Istanbul in a day.

What these workshops perfected is stunning. Like a jigsaw puzzle, individual sections of a panel are festooned with leaves, flowers and branches that merge flawlessly when assembled. Nothing is heavily stylized; the tiles appear to float, with varying degrees of expertise. All Ottoman sites of renown - such as the Blue Mosque in Istanbul and its 21,000 pieces of tile - possess cini decor.

The price for maintaining a far-flung empire affected the cini business. Debt-ridden, the Ottoman court withdrew its patronage, forcing workmen to seek markets abroad. This was a severe blow for Iznik, which never recovered from its dependence on the sultanate. According to late-17th-century travel accounts, only nine cini establishments could be found within the town's boundaries from a once robust 300.

Near Lefke Gate stands the archaeological museum, otherwise known as Nilufer Hatun Imareti (Lady Nilufer's Public Building). Sultan Murat I built the structure in 1388 for his mother, originally a Byzantine princess. Theodora (or Nilufer Hatun, as she was more commonly known) turned her son's gift into a soup kitchen that provided food and lodging to itinerants. Still intact after six centuries, the imaret has a cini collection that validates the ancient saying that life is shortest, but art is longest.

These are relics that represent not only creative development, but episodic points in Ottoman history. Dull Byzantine pottery brightened into cobalt blue and white during the Ottoman Empire's formative years (the late 1300s to the early 1400s). A century later, Sultan Selim's aforementioned escapade introduced Persian-derived turquoise.

The red applied to the tiles has always been difficult to master, but it was perfected during Suleiman the Magnificent's mid-16th-century reign, when Iznik artistry apparently peaked. Red is still a particularly difficult color for today's cini revivalists.

Less striking items from the 1700s reflect Ottoman decline, especially when human and animal figures previously forbidden by Islamic law are depicted.

Outside of the imaret's display, there is little trace of this creative past. The recently established Iznik Vakfi (Foundation) wishes to fill this void by reproducing the town's cini legacy. Considering the absence of documentation as to ingredients and manufacture, this is a tall order.

"The craftsmen took their secrets to the grave," says Atil Ersan, the Iznik Foundation's factory director. "Nobody knows where materials originated from."

To remedy this lack of information, the foundation established a Tile Ceramics and Research Center, where cini's various components are studied. The process is costly, especially in creating thousands of experimental plates that are broken and thrown away, but it is necessary if genuine Iznik tile is to be made. "We're essentially working here on a scientific basis vs. being pure artists," Mr. Ersan says.

Today's end product is indistinguishable from 16th-century masterpieces. Resembling semiprecious stones, the turquoise, emerald green and coral red flawlessly intertwine. Floral depictions are never overpowering, due to the tile's opaque glaze, which absorbs light.

This off-white coating reduces eye strain and bears an identical coloration to the retina, an observation that artisans regularly point out.

Besides the tiles' visual comfort, devotees claim that Iznik cini possess a kinetic energy when touched. Certain Ottoman historians believe that the sultans equated cini's tactile value with its aesthetic qualities, considering it a form of relaxation amid governmental tension and intrigue.

Producing Iznik tiles in an era of speed and automation can be an irksome task. Creating 1 square yard of tiles takes about 70 days of labor. Forget about quality control - runny colors or cracking are the final outcome nearly 25 percent of the time. Even the molds use measurements dating back to Ottoman times instead of today's standardized norms.

"We're not a competitive company," Mr. Ersan quips.

Despite these glitches, the foundation is making a profit. Religious-oriented construction is noticeably on the rise throughout Turkey, begetting an evident clientele for Iznik decorations. One order requires that 500 square meters of tile - more than 500 square yards - be installed within a mosque that will seat 35,000 people. Since cini nowadays goes for $2,250 per square meter, this contract easily recovers the foundation's high production costs.

Another endeavor is furnishing tiles for a newly built mosque in Turkmenistan, an energy-rich Central Asian republic.

The foundation's bottom line isn't based solely on its earnings, however. Education plays an equally important role, ensuring that the revival doesn't fade into oblivion. In conjunction with the 700th anniversary of the Ottoman Empire's founding, a foundation-sponsored university will open in 1999 to emphasize Iznik's cultural and artistic legacies. This is an auspicious occasion for Iznik, where the dynasty's first learning institute, Suleiman Pasa Medrese, a religious school, still exists.

Vocational training is a more immediate matter. At foundation-sponsored summer programs, people from Iznik and surrounding vicinities are being taught cini's delicate methodology. The schooling will provide a knowledgeable source of labor that may even change the residents socially and economically.

"The major reason why the tile industry stalled was because people saw more money in cultivating the area's agricultural richness than adapting to different conditions," Mr. Ersan says. "I'd like to change this mentality by making certain that the art goes back to the people of Iznik again."

Change is occurring, but not without resentment. Women make up nearly 80 percent of the Iznik Foundation's work force, yet instead of admiration for their artisan training, many locals fret about having fewer hands for the harvests. To erase this attitude and lower costs, the foundation soon will begin testing a home-based cottage-industry network.

Farmers aren't the only ones with objections. Independent craftsmen - "serving the Turkish culture," according to one cini renovationist - decry the foundation's technique. "They practice serial manufacturing minus the artistic spirit," says Esref Eroglu, who is one of the first practitioners to re-create Iznik tiles.

According to Mr. Eroglu, the proper procedure is a time-consuming one. "It would take me 10 years to correctly furnish a mosque with `kashi' (the original Ottoman term for cini). The foundation's time span discards procedures that would ensure longevity."

He prefers doing customized repairs for broken or damaged tiles. Yet he is not a complete traditionalist, for his daughter will handle marketing matters once she receives her business diploma.

Degrees in hotel management also could help local business. Regarding accommodations, Iznik has always played second fiddle to the nearby city of Bursa's much better selection. If you're looking for peaceful surroundings, however, noisy Bursa isn't the place to stay.

The problem isn't poor quality, but limited choices. Guidebooks list the same three or four hotels with simple, clean amenities, and those places quickly fill up in season. Be sure to make reservations before arrival.

The best of this group is the lake-side Camlik Motel (phone 224/757-1362, fax 224/757-1631). A double goes for $20 a night, and breakfast is included. The Camlik also has a good restaurant.

A lodging that is overlooked by many travel editions is the Hotel Nidal (phone 224/757-5671 or 5672). Similar to the Camlik in price and features, it is near the Istanbul (northern) Gate.

Also worth taking into account is the ovrenight facility at the Iznik Foundation's compound (phone 224/757-6025, fax 224/757-5737). At $45 a night with breakfast ($20 extra for lunch and dinner), it is more of a high-end boarding house than hotel. Usually, its eight rooms are for special guests and clients, but outsiders can stay when there is availability.

Those who are able to enjoy a brief sojourn at the foundation's compound will relish their experience. Amid cini-making, the adjacent lake and weathered Roman walls and the relaxation, the true nature of "keyif" emerges.

Perhaps this is the image Mr. Ersan tries to convey when he says, "Iznik isn't just a summer vacation land, but a year-round cultural center."

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