It’s hard to believe that İZNİK (ancient Nicaea), today a backwater among fruit orchards and olive groves at the east end of the eponymous lake, was once a seat of empire and scene of desperate battles. As you look around this fertile valley, however, you can understand its attraction for imperial powers needing a fortified base near the sea lanes of the Marmara. With its regular street plan, İznik’s walled centre is easy to navigate on foot, and most people visit as a long day out of İstanbul or Bursa, staying a night at most. That’s enough time to sample the monuments, and pick up souvenirs from the local ceramics workshops. During its sixteenth-century heyday, İznik produced Turkey’s finest tiles, and the tradition has recently been revived.
Founded by Alexander’s general Antigonos in 316 BC, İznik was seized and enlarged fifteen years later by his rival Lysimakhos, who named it Nicaea after his late wife. He also gave Nicaea its first set of walls and the grid plan typical of Hellenistic towns; both are still evident. When the Bithynian kingdom succeeded Lysimakhos, Nicaea alternated with nearby Nicomedia as its capital until bequeathed to Rome in 74 BC. After prospering as capital of the Roman province, the city continued to flourish during the Byzantine era.
Nicaea played a pivotal role in early Christianity, hosting two important ecumenical councils. The first, convened by Constantine the Great in 325 AD, resulted in the condemnation of the Arian heresy – which maintained that Christ’s nature was inferior to God the Father’s – and the promulgation of the Nicene Creed, affirming Christ’s divine nature, which remains central to Christian belief. Empress Irene presided over the second council to be held here (the seventh in all) in 787 AD, in which the Iconoclast controversy was settled by the pronouncement, widely misunderstood in the West, that icons had their proper place in the church so long as they were revered and not worshipped.
Nicaea’s much-mended walls seldom repelled invaders. The Selçuks took the city in 1081, only to be evicted by a combined force of Byzantines and Crusaders sixteen years later. The fall of Constantinople to the Fourth Crusade in 1204 propelled Nicaea into the spotlight once more, for the Byzantine heir to the throne Theodore Laskaris retreated here, and made it the base of the improbably successful Nicaean Empire. The Laskarid dynasty added a second circuit of walls before returning to Constantinople in 1261, but these again failed to deter the besieging Ottomans, who, led by Orhan Gazi, the victor of Bursa, broke through in March 1331. Renamed İznik, the city embarked on a golden age of sorts, interrupted briefly by the pillaging of Tamerlane in 1402.
While virtually all the surviving monuments predate the Mongol sacking, the most enduring contribution to art and architecture – the celebrated İznik tiles and pottery – first appeared after Çelebi Mehmet I brought skilled potters from Persia to begin the local industry. This received another boost in 1514 when Selim the Grim took Tabriz and sent more craftsmen west as war booty. By the end of the sixteenth century, ceramic production was at its height, with more than three hundred functioning kilns. The flowering was brief; within a hundred years war and politics had scattered most of the artisans. By the mid-eighteenth century the local industry had packed up completely. İznik began a long, steady decline, hastened by near-total devastation during the 1920–22 war.