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Everything about Iznik

Everything about Iznik
İznik 90km southeast of Istanbul (but by road 200km going around the Gulf of İzmit) and 80km by road from Bursa is this sleepy farming community. Sitting on the eastern side of the lake of the same name, it was once the seat of empires and scenes of violent battles because of its close proximity to the sea lanes of the Marmara.

Today this backwater of slumbering orchards and fertile olive
groves is becoming a popular tourist destination. Famous for its 16th century ceramics and tiles, the best to be produced in Turkey, though sadly most of which are absent from its own mosques and museums. Even the town’s famous landmark the Yeşil Camii (Green Mosque) has inferior copies made at nearby Kutahya. Most visitors come from Istanbul and Bursa for a long day visit which is enough to time to enjoy the monuments in town.

İznik History

First founded in the 4th century BC by Antigonus, Alexander’s great general, it was then seized fifteen years later by his rival Lysimachus. He enlarged the city building its first set of walls and grid plan similar to other Hellenistic towns and renamed it Nicaea after his late wife. Bequeathed to the Rome in 74 BC the city prospered as the province capital and flourished during the Byzantine era. Nicea played a crucial role in early Christianity by hosting two important ecumenical councils. In 325 AD the First Council of Nicea was called by Constantine the Great because of Aryanism (the doctrine that Christ was not equal with God but a lesser divine being) and from which the spread of the Nicene Creed came about affirming Jesus' divinity.  Another important council was held at Nicea in 787 AD presided over by Empress Irene to deal with the iconoclastic controversy (the dispute over whether the use of icons was appropriate or constituted idolatry). This is known as the Second Council of Nicea and the Seventh Ecumenical Council. It concluded that icons were worthy of veneration but not worship and restored their use in the Byzantine Empire. The walls of Nicea rarely deterred invaders; the Seljuk’s took the city in 1081 and were evicted 16 years later by joint Byzantine and Crusader forces.

After the Fourth Crusade captured Constantinople (Istanbul) in 1204, the Empire of Nicea was founded and to where the Byzantine heir Theodore Lascaris retreated and made this the base of the Nicea Empire. Before returning to Constantinople in 1261 the Lascarid dynasty added a second circuit of walls but their defence also failed and the Ottomans, under the command of Orhan Gazi, the victor of Bursa, broke through them and conquered the city in March 1331. The city was renamed İznik and went on to blossom and grow and only briefly interrupted by the 1402 Tamerlane raids.  Most of the surviving monuments predate this Mongol attack.

The famous İznik tiles and pottery, which first appeared in the reign of Çelebi Mehmet I who was responsible for bringing skilled potters from Persia to start this local industry and was further improved after Selim the Grim captured more craftsmen and sent them there. The İznik tiles are what decorate mosques and palaces throughout Turkey. By the end of the 16th century ceramic production reached its height with more than 300 kilns in use and until the mid 18th century, after war and politics had dispersed many of the artisans, the industry died and the inferior products from nearby Kutahya served as an alternative. İznik’s long and steady decline accelerated to almost complete destruction during the 1920-22 war.

İznik Town

The town is very easy to get around. The city walls measure 4970m in length and were built around the town in the shape of a pentagon. The main boulevard, Ataturk Caddesi or Ataturk Street, runs north-south and the east-west Kılıçaslan Street, link four of the seven ancient gates and divide the town into quadrants. The double walls are now missing most of the hundred or so original watchtowers and there are three of the seven portals remaining and worth seeing. The original openings are now restricted to pedestrians and tractors with heavier traffic being rerouted through modern openings to reduce further damage by vibration.

Iznik Lake and Swimming

İznik Lake offers good swimming in the summer but the beaches are not very nice and to reach the more attractive spots a car is needed.  There are small beaches where swimming is possible along the two lakeshore roads that lead out of town.

The Southeast Quadrant of Iznik

Aya Sofya Museum

Aya Sofya Museum is housed in what remains of the Byzantine Church of Holy Wisdom, founded by Emperor Justinian. The current structure was built in 1065 after an earthquake and as it was the cathedral for the Byzantine capital it was host to four of the Nicaean Emperors coronations.  It was converted to a mosque by the Ottomans after they took the city and then restored by the great architect Mimar Sinan . There is not much to see here but inside there are some damaged floor mosaics and a faint but beautiful fresco of Christ, John and Mary. Excavations are still taking place of the İznik kilns and the site can be entered at any time with the kilns being clearly visible. Finds from the excavations are on show at the archaeological museum.

Suleymanpasa Medresesi

East of the kilns is the oldest Ottoman structure, built in 1332, the Süleyman Paşa Medresesi and this first example of a school with an open courtyard is surrounded by eleven chambers and has nineteen domes.

Yakub Celebi Zaviyesi and Kimisis Church

Close by is the 14th century Yakub Çelebi Zaviyesi founded by the unlucky prince killed by his brother Beyazit I in 1389 and the foundations of Kimisis Kilisesi (Church of Assumption) the supposed burial place of Theodore Lascaris which was destroyed in the war of 1920-22.

The Northeast Quadrant

Haci Ozbek Mosque

North of the Kılıçaslan Caddesi is the much ruined and earliest known Ottoman mosque, Hacı Ozbek Camii, built in 1333, had its portico senselessly demolished in 1939 and is currently undergoing restoration by the Ministry of Culture. Along from here is the huge landscaped park and where İznik’s most famous monuments are scattered.

Green Mosque

The 14th-century Green Mosque (Yeşil Camii) is named for the green tiles adorning its minaret, although the original tiles have been replaced by inferior copies, it has a wonderful marble relief in the portico.

Nilufer Hatun Soup Kitchen

Across from the park is the Nilüfer Hatun Soup Kitchen (Nilüfer Hatun İmareti) commissioned by Murat I in 1388 in honour of his mother. The T-shaped building, whose many domes play a permanent host to storks, was a meeting place of the Ahi Brotherhood, a guild of craftsmen who also run a community welfare and benevolent society.

Iznik Archaeology Museum

Abandoned for many years and restored in
1955 it is now the İznik Archaeological Museum. Sadly deficient in İznik-ware there are some 14th century tiles excavated from the town’s kilns that have been painstakingly restored although all are incomplete. There are also a few beautiful 16th century mosque ornaments and huge plates that are commonplace in the museums of Istanbul and abroad. The museum's collection consists mainly of Roman antiquities such as a bronze dancing Pan, Byzantine gold jewellery and glass, supplemented with some recently discovered Seljuk and Ottoman tiles and an almost perfect condition sarcophagus. If you want a great view of the Nilüfer Hatun cupolas you can climb the minaret of the adjacent Şeyh Kubettin Mosque.

İznik Walls & Beyond

Lefke Gate

Lefke Gate (Lefke Kapısı) to the east has three gateways including a victory arch dedicated to Hadrian. The middle gate bears the Greek inscription that it was built by Proconsul Plancius Varus in 123 AD. Nearby is section of the ancient aqueduct that was still supplying water to the town until recently and its possible to climb up on the ramparts from here to walk around.

Istanbul Gate

You can also climb up the ramparts of the Istanbul Gate (Constantinople Kapısı), the better persevered of the gates and was built as a victory triple-arch to celebrate Hadrian’s visit in 124 and is decorated with two stone carved masks that were probably removed from the nearby Roman theatre.

Palace Gate

In the southwest quarter a line of ancient wall defines the “Senatus Court” extending to the Saray or Palace Gate (Saray Kapısı), built for Sultan Orhan in the 12th century. Just inside the gate are the ruins of a Roman theatre. The Abdülvahap Hill, 2.5km east of Lefke Gate offers extensive views over İznik, the walls, surrounding countryside and the lake. The green painted tomb at the top is for Abdülvahap who was a semi-legendary character from the Arab raids of the 8th century.

Elbeyli Village

The village of Elbeyli lies 7km north of İznik and the site of the Yeraltı Mezar a subterranean tomb said to be the 4th century burial chamber of a Roman couple and covered in frescoes including a pair of peacocks. The keys to this are held by the archaeological museum and the custodian will take visitors there after the museum closes at 5pm. You will need your own transport for this or take a taxi for a return trip.

Ikinci Murat Hamam or Turkish Bath

The Ikinci Murat Hamamı ( or Turkish baths) built by Sultan Murat II is close to the Aya Sofya Museum and the small bus station (otogar) is in the southeast quarter of town.  

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