Iznik pottery, named after the town in western Anatolia where it was made, is a decorated ceramic that was produced from the last quarter of the 15th century until the end of the 17th century.

The town of İznik was an established centre for the production of simple earthenware pottery with an underglaze decoration when in the last quarter of the 15th century, craftsmen in the town began to manufacture high quality pottery with a fritware body painted with cobalt blue under a colourless transparent lead glaze. The meticulous designs combined traditional Ottoman arabesque patterns with Chinese elements. The change was almost certainly a result of the active intervention and patronage by the recently established Ottoman court in Istanbul who greatly valued Chinese blue and white porcelain.

During the 16th century the decoration of the pottery gradually changed in style, becoming looser and more flowing. Additional colours were introduced. Initially turquoise was combined with the dark shade of cobalt blue and then the pastel shades of sage green and pale purple were added. Finally, in the middle of the century, a very characteristic bole red replaced the purple and a bright emerald green replaced the sage green.

Following the establishment of the Ottoman Empire in the early 14th century, Iznik pottery initially followed Seljuk Empire antecedents.

After this initial period, Iznik vessels were made in imitation of Chinese porcelain, which was highly prized by the Ottoman sultans. As the potters were unable to make porcelain, the vessels produced werefritware, a low-fired body comprising mainly silica and glass.

The originality of the potters was such that their use of Chinese originals has been described as adaptation rather than imitation. Chinese ceramics had long been admired, collected and emulated in the Islamic world. This was especially so in the Ottoman court and the Safavid court in Persia which had important collections of Chinese blue and white porcelain. Such Chinese porcelains influenced the style of Safavid pottery and had a strong impact on the development of Iznik ware. By the mid-16 the century, Iznik had its own vocabulary of floral and abstract motifs in tight designs making use of a limited palette. Decoration progressed from pure symmetry to subtle rhythms.

Provenance of Iznik Pottery

From the second half of the 19th century until the 1930s European collectors were confused by the different styles of Iznik pottery and assumed that they originated from different pottery producing centres. Although it is now believed that all the pottery was produced in Iznik the earlier names associated with the different styles are still often used. In the 19th century until the 1860s all Islamic pottery was normally known as 'Persian' ware. However, between 1865 and 1872 the Musée de Cluny in Paris acquired a collection of polychrome fritware pottery with a design that included a bright 'sealing-wax red’. As all the items in the collection had been obtained on the island of Rhodes it was assumed, erroneously, that the pottery had been manufactured on the island and the term 'Rhodian' ware was adopted for this style. European collectors also purchased a number of pieces decorated in blue, turquoise, sage green and pale purple which were believed to originate from the town of Damascus in Syria and became known as 'Damascus' ware. Blue and white fritware pottery became known as 'Abraham of Kütahya ware' as the decoration was similar to that on a small ewer that once formed part of the collection of Frederick Du Cane Godman and is now in the British Museum. The ewer has an inscription in Armenian script under the glaze on its base stating that it commemorated Abraham of Kütahya with a date of 1510. In 1905-1907 , during the construction of a new post office in the Sirkeci district of Istanbul near the shore of the Golden Horn, pottery fragments were unearthed that were decorated with spiral designs on a white back ground. As a result, pottery with similar spiral patterns became known as 'Golden Horn ware'.

It was not until the 1930s that art historians fully realised that the different styles of pottery were probably all produced in Iznik. In 1957 Arthur Lane, the keeper of ceramics at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, published an influential article in which he reviewed the history of pottery production in the region and proposed a series of dates. He suggested that 'Abraham of Kütahya' ware was produced from 1490 until around 1525, 'Damascus' and 'Golden Horn' ware were produced from 1525 until 1555 and 'Rhodian' ware from around 1555 until the demise of the Iznik pottery industry at the beginning of the 18th century. This chronology has been generally accepted.

Imperial Workshops in Istanbul

During the first half of the 16th century underglaze painted blue and white ceramics were also produced in Istanbul. A surviving account book for 1526 that records wages paid to craftsmen employed by the Ottoman court, lists a tilemaker from Tabriz with ten assistants The tilemaker was probably one of the craftsmen brought to Istanbul after Selim I had temporary captured Tabriz in 1514. The tile workshops were located in the “Tekfur Sarayı” neighbourhood of the city near the Palace of the Porphyrogenitus. The craftsmen are believed to have been responsible for all the tiles on the imperial buildings until the construction of the Süleymaniye Mosque in the 1550s. Most of the tiles were decorated with coloured glazes using the cuerda seca (dry cord) technique, but in a few cases the tiles were underglaze painted in cobalt blue and turquoise. These underglaze tiles were used on the revetments of the facade of the Holy Mantle Pavilion (Privy Chamber) in the grounds of the Topkapı Palace and within the mausoleum of Çoban Mustafa Pasha (1529) in Gebze. The most striking examples are five extremely large rectangular tiles, 1.25 m (4.1 ft) in length, that form part of the façade of the Circumcision Room (Sünnet Odası) of the Topkapı Palace. Although the building dates from 1641, the tiles are believed to come from an earlier structure on the same site that was erected in 1527-28. These large tiles are decorated with very elaborate designs that suggests the close involvement of the court designers.

Although there are no surviving records detailing the output of the imperial workshops, it is likely that the potters manufacturing the blue and white underglaze painted tiles also made other items for the court. The historian Gülru Necipoğlu has suggested that an unusual gilded mosque lamp and a decorative ball that come from the Yavuz Selim Mosque should be attributed to the imperial work shop. The lamp and ball have underglaze inscriptional bands in cobalt blue but the mosque itself is decorated only with cuerda seca tiles. The number of tilemakers employed by the imperial workshops dwindled so that by 1566 only three remained. With the construction of the Süleymaniye Mosque, Iznik became a major center for the manufacture of underglaze tiles.

Miletus Ware (15th century)

Archaeological excavations in Iznik conducted by Oktay Aslanapa in the early 1960s revealed that the town had been an important centre for the production of simple earthenware pottery well before the introduction of the blue and white fritware. The excavations uncovered fragments of what is confusingly known as 'Miletus ware'. The discovery of kiln-wasters confirmed that the pottery was manufactured locally. The name originated from the discovery of sherds during excavations by the German archaeologist Friedrich Sarre at Miletus in the early 1930s. As Miletus had a long history as a pottery producing centre, it was erroneously assumed that the pottery was produced locally and it became known as 'Miletus ware'. It is now believed that Iznik was the main centre for the production of 'Miletus ware' with smaller quantities being produced at Kütahya and Akçaalan. The excavations have not provided a clear date for the pottery but it is assumed to belong to the 15th century. The archaeological evidence from other sites in Turkey suggests that Miletus ware was produced in large quantities and widely distributed.

Miletus ware used a red clay body covered with a white slip which was painted with simple designs under a transparent alkaline lead glaze. The designs were usually in dark cobalt blue but also sometimes in turquoise, purple and green. Many dishes have a central rosette surrounded by concentric bands of gadroons.

Blue and White Ware (1480 – 1520)

In the final decades of the 15th century, potters in Iznik began producing blue and white fritware ceramics with designs that were clearly influenced by the Ottoman court in Istanbul. There are no surviving written documents that provide details on how this came about. The earliest specific mention of Iznik pottery is in the accounts for the Imperial kitchens of the Topkapi palace for 1489-1490 where the purchase of 97 vessels is recorded. The earliest datable objects are blue and white border tiles that decorate the mausoleum (türbe) in Bursa of Şehzade Mahmud, one of the sons of Bayezid II, who died in 1506-1507.

The term 'Abraham of Kütahya ware' has been applied to all the early blue and white Iznik pottery as the 'Abraham of Kütahya' ewer, dating from 1510, is the only documented vessel. The art historian Julian Raby has argued that the term is misleading as the ewer is atypical and has instead proposed the term 'Baba Nakkaş ware' after the name of the leading designer attached to the Imperial court in Istanbul. The earliest surviving Iznik fritware objects, dating from probably around 1480, are believed to be a group of vessels painted in a dark cobalt blue in which much of the dense decoration is in white on a blue back ground. The vessels have separate areas of Ottoman arabesque and Chinese floral designs. The combination of these two styles is referred to as Rumi-Hatayi where Rumi denotes the Ottoman arabesque patterns and Hatayi the Chinese inspired floral patterns. Many of the meticulously painted arabesque motifs of this early period are believed to be influenced by Ottoman metalwork.

During the first two decades of the 16th century there was a gradual shift in style with the introduction of a brighter blue, more use of a white back ground and a greater use of floral motifs. Dating from this period are four mosque lamps from the mausoleum of Sultan Bayezid II in Istanbul which was constructed in 1512-1513. A fifth lamp that probably also came from the mausoleum is now in the British Museum. These pottery mosque lamps are of a similar shape to Mamluk glass lamps. There was a tradition of hanging pottery lamps in mosques dating back at least to the 13th century. The opaque pottery lamps would have been completely useless for lighting and they instead served a symbolic and decorative function. The lamps from Bayezid II's mausoleum are decorated with bands of geometric motifs and kufic inscriptions but around the centre they have a very prominent broad band containing large rosettes and stylized lotus blossoms.

Patronage by the Ottoman Court: Suleyman the Magnificient

After the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, the Ottoman sultans started a huge building programme. In these buildings, especially those commissioned by Süleyman, his wife Hürrem (Roxelana) and his Grand Vizier Rüstem Pasha, large quantities of tiles were used. The Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Istanbul (the Blue Mosque) alone contains 20,000 tiles. The Rüstem Pasha Mosque is more densely tiled and tiles were used extensively in the Topkapı Palace. As a result of this demand, tiles dominated the output of the Iznik potteries.

Under Süleyman the Magnificent (1520-1566), demand for İznik wares increased. Jugs, hanging lamps, cups, bowls and dishes were produced, inspired by metalwork and illuminated books as well as Chinese ceramics. Many large dishes were made with looser designs, incorporating ships, animals, trees and flowers. The dishes appear to have been made for display, as most have pierced footrings so that they can be hung up, but they have been observed also to be scratched from use. Designs in the 1520s include the saz style in which a long, serrated saz leaf, dynamically arranged, is balanced by static rosette forms. In the later 16th century, the quatre fleurs style used a repertoire of stylised tulips, carnations, roses and hyacinths.

Golden Horn Ware (1530 – 1550)

The so-called 'Golden Horn ware' was a variation on the blue and white decoration that was popular from the late 1520s to 1550s. Golden Horn ware was so named because sherds in this style were excavated in the Golden Horn area of Istanbul. It was later realized that the pottery was made in Iznik as some motifs on the vessels closely resembled those used on other blue and white Iznik pottery. The decoration consists of a series of thin spirals adorned with small leaves. The narrow rims of dishes are painted with a meandering pattern. The design is similar to the illuminated spiral scrolls used as a back ground to Sultan Suleyman's Tuğra, or imperial monogram. Julian Raby has used the term 'Tuğrakeş spiral ware' as the tuğrakeş were the specialist calligraphers in the Ottoman court. The earlier vessels were painted in cobalt blue while later vessels often include turquoise, olive-green and black. A number of dishes dating from this period show the influence of Italian pottery. The small bowls and a large flat rims are similar in shape to maiolica tondino dishes that were popular in Italy between 1500 and 1530.

Damascus Ware (1540 – 1555)

The so-called 'Damascus ware' was popular under Suleiman the Magnificent from 1540 to 1555. Vessels were decorated for the first time with green and purple, in addition to cobalt blue and turquoise, and form a transition towards full-fledged polychrome ceramics. They were mistakenly believed to have originated from Damascus by art collectors in the second half of the 19th century. The name is particular misleading as tiles with a similar palette of pastel colours and floral designs were made in Damascus from the second half of the 16th century.

A key object from this period is a ceramic vessel in the form of a mosque lamp with an inscribed date that is now in the British Museum. It is the best documented surviving piece of Iznik pottery and enables scholars to fix the dates and provenance of other objects. The lamp was discovered on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem in the middle of the 19th century and is believed to have been associated with the refurbishment of the Dome of the Rockinitiated by Suleiman the Magnificent. Around the base of the lamp are a series of inscribed cartouches giving the name of the decorator (Musli), a dedication to the Iznik Sufi saint Eşrefzâde Rumi, and the date of AH 956 in the month of Jumada'-Ula (AD 1549). The lamp is decorated in green, black and two shades of blue. The design includes pale blue cloud-banks, small-cale arabesques on a green ground and a row of tulip buds in dark-blue cartouches. The lamp can be used to date a group of other vessels including some large footed basins. Although the basins are quite different from the lamp in overall style, each basin shares motifs present on the lamp.

There are only two surviving buildings with tiles that use the purple colour scheme. The earliest is the Yeni Kaplıca bathhouse in Bursa where the walls are covered with hexagonal tiles set on their points. The tiles are decorated with arabesques and floral motifs painted in blue, turquoise, olive green and purple. There are nine different designs. The tiles were originally installed in a different building but were transferred to the Yeni Kaplıca bathhouse when it was restored by the grand vizier Rüstem Pasha in 1552-1553. The tiles probably date from the late 1540s.

The other building is the Hadim Ibrahim Pasha Mosque at Silivrikapı in Istanbul which was designed by the imperial architect Mimar Sinan and completed in 1551. Under the portico on the north façade are three tiled lunette panels and two roundels. The panels have white thuluth lettering reserved on a dark cobalt blue back ground. Between the letters are flowers in purple and turquoise. Within the mosque above the mihrab is a large lunette panel with tiles painted in cobalt blue, turquoise and dark olive green.

Polychrome Ceramics (1560 – 1600)

An important object in the study of Iznik pottery is a mosque lamp that is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The lamp is believed to have made for the Süleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul which was completed in 1557. The lamp is the earliest dated object with the bole-red decoration that was to become a characteristic feature of Iznik tiles and pottery. The red on the lamp is thin, brownish and uneven. A few surviving dishes that use a similar thin red colouring are believed to date from the same period. The Rüstem Pasha Mosque in Istanbul, completed in 1563, has a mihrab decorated with tiles painted with a similar thin brownish red but in other parts of the mosque there are tiles with the thick sealing-wax red relief that became a common feature of later Iznik tiles and vessels.

Decline (1600 – 1700)

Towards the end of the 16th century there was a marked decline in the quality of the pottery produced in İznik. This has been linked to the loss of patronage by the Ottoman court and with the imposition of fixed prices in a period of inflation. Another important factor was that from the middle of the 16th century increasing quantities of Chinese porcelain were imported into Turkey. The İznik craftsmen failed to compete with the high quality imports and instead produced pottery with crudely painted rustic designs. Although the Chinese imports did not compete with locally produced tiles, there was little new imperial building and therefore little demand. Even when the court required tiles such as for the mausoleum of Ahmed I built between 1620 and 1623, the low prices led to a drop in the living standards of the potters. They responded by finding new markets outside the Ottoman imposed price system. Tiles were exported to Cairo where they were used to decorate the Aksunkur Mosque which was remodelled by Ibrahim Agha in 1651-1652. Tiles were also exported to Greece where in 1678 the Monastery of the Great Lavra on Mount Athos was decorated with polychrome tiles inscribed with Greek lettering. Nevertheless, there was a decline in the volume of pottery produced and by the mid-17th century only a few kilns remained. The last dated pottery are dishes with crude uncial Greek inscriptions from 1678.