It’s hard to believe that İZNIK (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. But looking around the fertile valley, you can understand the attraction for imperial powers needing a fortified base near the sea-lanes of the Marmara. Most people visit İznik as a long day out of İstanbul or Bursa, staying a night at most. This is enough time to sample the town’s monuments, and pick up a souvenir or two from the local ceramics workshops. In its heyday in the sixteenth century, İznik produced Turkey’s best tiles, and the tradition has been recently revived here.
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. Under the Roman emperors the city prospered as capital of the province and it 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 is still central to Christian belief. The seventh council (the second to be held here) was presided over by Empress Irene in 787 AD; this time 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-repaired walls seldom repelled invaders and in 1081 the Selçuks took the city, 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 this 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. Virtually all the surviving monuments predate the Mongol sacking, but the most enduring contribution to art and architecture – the celebrated İznik tiles and pottery – first appeared during the reign of Çelebi Mehmet I, who 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. It was to be a brief flowering, since within another hundred years war and politics had scattered most of the artisans. By the mid-eighteenth century the local industry had packed up completely, with products from nearby Kütahya serving as inferior substitutes. İznik began a long, steady decline, hastened by near-total devastation during the 1920–22 war.