Iznik is a small farming town (population ca. 43,000) in the Marmara Region in northwestern Turkey, surrounded by its historical city walls. The town has an extremely rich history, which makes it ideal for cultural tourism. In 2014, Iznik was added to the tentative list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
History of Iznik
For the casual visitor, it is hard to believe that this small town is the ancient Nicaea, which in Roman and Byzantine times was an important centre and even became the capital city of several empires. The city was founded as Antigoneia by Antigonus I Monophtalmus (the one-eyed), a general of Alexander the Great, in 315 BCE. Fifteen years later, it was seized by Antigonus' rival Lysimachus who named it Nikaia (Latinized as Nicaea) after his late wife. Lysimachus ordered the construction of city walls and laid out the city plan as a rectangular grid, as so-called Hippodamian city plan. Lysimachus rule was succeeded by the Bythinian kingdom and Nicaea became the seat of the royal court. In 72 BCE the city came under the rule of Rome. During the Roman period, Nicaea prospered and developed into one of the most important urban centres of Asia Minor, as well as a major military and administrative centre. Under the rule of Emperor Hadrian the city, after being heavily damaged by earthquakes, was reconstructed and enclosed with a 5 km long polygonal city wall.
In 325 CE, Constantine the Great organized in Nicaea the First Ecumenical Council on the nature of Christ in which Arianism was banned, Christ's divinity was affirmed and established what is now known as the Nicene Creed. The Second Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 787 condemned the practice of iconoclasm. Because of all this, the 19th Ecumenical Council declared in 1962 that Iznik (Nicaea) was a holy city for Christians. In 1081, Anatolian Seljuks captured Nicaea, made it their capital and renamed it as İznik. The Byzantines succeeded in recapturing the city in 1097. When Constantinople fell during the Fourth Crusade in 1204, Nicaea became the capital of the remaining part of the Byzantine Empire and the seat of the Patriarchate until the collapse of the Latin Empire in 1281.
During the Byzantine period, the city gradually declined in importance until it was taken in 1331 by the Ottoman Sultan Orhan I who renamed it as Iznik and made it the capital of the Ottoman Emirate, which it remained until the conquest of Bursa in 1326 and the capital was moved to there. Çelebi Sultan Mehmet I brought some skilled potters from Persia who started the local production of the famous Iznik tiles and pottery. The art of ceramics got its real boost when Yavuz Sultan Selim I conquered Tabriz and sent many of the local craftsmen west. By the end of the 16th century, Iznik's ceramic industry reached its pinnacle. However, it was a brief flowering. By the end of the 16th century, the demise began and by the 18th century, İznik's ceramic industry had almost completely vanished, being replaced by Kütahya as the leading centre of the Ottoman ceramic industry.
Sights & Photos of Iznik
Iznik's main attraction is without a doubt the crumbling, but relatively well-preserved city walls and gates. The present walls were begun by the Roman Emperor Gallienus (253-268). The Byzantine Emperor John Doukas Vatatzes (1222-1254) restored the walls, raised them and added an outer wall. Four main gates transect the walls. The eastern gate is the Lefke Kapısı, a complex structure that actually consists of a complex triple structure with a triumphal arch between the inner and outer gateway. The archway was erected by the Proconsul Marcus Plancius Varus in 124 to mark Emperor Hadrian's visit to Nicaea.
Close to the Lefke gate are the remains of a Roman aqueduct. The southern entrance to Iznik is the Yenişehir gate. Opposite, on the other side of town, is the northern entrance, the Istanbul gate which is as imposing as the Lefke gate. The Istanbul gate is the best preserved of the city gates and is also a triple structure like the Lefke gate. The outer part was constructed as a triumphal triple arch to celebrate the visit of Emperor Hadrian in 124 CE. Two stone-carved masks, probably taken from the nearby Roman theatre, decorate the inner gate.
Here are photos of Iznik's city walls, click on the thumbnails to see greater pictures.
Iznik's Green Mosque, the Yeşil Cami is near the Lefke gate. The mosque was built in Seljuk style between 1378 and 1391 by order of the Ottoman Sultan Murad II and takes its name from the green Iznik tiles that once adorned its minaret. Unfortunately, the original Iznik tiles have been replaced by work of lower quality from Kütahya.
To honour his mother Nilüfer Hatun, a Byzantine prıncess, Sultan Murad I ordered in 1388 the construction of an imaret, a public soup kitchen, the Nilüfer Hatun İmareti, which is located near the Yeşil Cami. After its restoration between 1958-1960, it houses the museum of Iznik. The museum garden is literally packed with Greek, Roman, and Byzantine sarcophagi, gravestones, and other archaeological artefacts.
The Roman theatre near the Istanbul gate was built by Pliny the Younger between 111 and 113 when he was governor of Nicaea. Recent excavations have revealed that its roots go back to the 6th century BCE, the Ionian era.
Iznik's most prominent monument is the Aya Sofya museum with the crumbling remains of the church that housed the Ecumenical council. The original church was built by Emperor Justinian. Unfortunately, due to restoration works it was closed at the time of our visit. Another important monument is the Hacı Özbek Camii, which dates back to 1333 and is the earliest known Ottoman mosque. Today's Iznik is an important agricultural centre and there are many workshops that manufacture wooden crates to store fruits.
Here are photos of the other historical landmarks in Iznik, click on the thumbnails to see greater pictures.
Travel Information & Travel Tips
The best way to visit Iznik is as a half-day excursion from Bursa (76 km). There are minibuses departing from Bursa every half hour, to arrive one hour later in Iznik. A tour around the city walls and gates and the town's main monuments takes about 4 hours, including a few rest stops.