History of Iznik Tiles

Iznik ceramics are high quality ceramics produced from the 15th century to 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 of Iznik there were produced ceramics painted with cobalt blue containing 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.

In the 16th century, the iznik ceramics began to show gradual changes, more fluid and aesthetic. 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.

In the middle of the century the color passed to another dimension. Instead of purple, it looked more coral red and emerald green instead of sage green. From the last decade of the century there was a marked deterioration in quality and although production continued during the 17th century the designs were poor, as the city's role as primary ceramics producer was taken up by Kütahya.

The ceramic collection of the Topkapi Palace includes over ten thousand pieces of Chinese porcelain but almost no İznik pottery. Most of the surviving İznik vessels are in museums outside Turkey, but plentiful examples of the city's tile production exist in numerous cities throughout Turkey, such as İstanbul, Bursa, Edirne, Adana, and Diyarbakır. You can see the most magnificent examples of Iznik tile in the mosques, in the palaces, in the graves. The most known examples of iznik tiles in Istanbul. The tomb of Selim II in the Hagia Sophia complex, and certain buildings of the Topkapı Palace complex such as the Circumcision room and the Baghdad Kiosk.

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.

It is not wrong to say that all the bowls and pots were produced in Iznik and Kutahya. In the nineteenth century, all Islamic ceramics until 1860 were known as Persia. Between 1865 and 1872 the Musée de Cluny in Paris get a collection of polychrome fritware pottery with a design that included a bright '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. The collectors in Europe bought a few pieces decorated with blue, turquoise, sage green and pale purple which are thought to have originated 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 background. As a result, pottery with similar spiral patterns became known as 'Golden Horn ware'.

Art historians, until the 1930s, noticed that different forms of ceramics were probably 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. mHe recommended that Kütahya supplies Abraham, around 1425 den Sham was produced 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.

Iznik and Kütahya

Designs, materials and production techniques are similar to those used in Iznik. Kütahya is further from Istanbul with less easy access to the capital and was probably only a small pottery producing centre in the 16th century. However, some of the ceramics now labeled as Iznik was manufactured in Kütahya. The art historian Julian Raby has written: "For the moment we have no choice but to call all Ottoman glazed pottery of the 16th and 17th centuries by the generic label" Iznik, and to hope that in time we can learn to recognise the diagnostic features of contemporary 'Kütahya ware'."


From the end of the 15th century, the pottery in Iznik began to produce products under a crystal clear blue adorned with a crystal of white main body. Both the manufacturing technique and the underglaze designs were very different from that used in the production of Miletus ware. Fritware, Iznik fritware, made in the Near East in the 13th century but reaching a white surface, is a great innovation.

Fritware (also called stonepaste) is a composite material made from quartz sand mixed with small amounts of finely ground glass (called frit) and some clay. When fired, the glass frit melts and binds the other components together. In the 13th century the town of Kashan in Iran was an important centre for the production of fritware. Abu'l-Qasim, coming from a tile makers in the city, wrote an article on precious stones containing a section on fritware production in 1301.

His recipe specified a fritware body containing a mixture of 10 parts silica to 1 part glass frit and 1 part clay. There is no equivalent thesis on the production of Iznik vessels, but the analysis of the remaining parts shows that the vessels in Iznik are roughly similar. In Kashan the frit was prepared by mixing powdered quartz with soda which acted as a flux. The mixture was then heated in a kiln. In Iznik, quartz and soda as well as frite lead oxide were added.

As the fritware paste lacked plasticity and was difficult to work on the wheel, vessels were seldom made in one piece. Instead they were formed in separate sections that were allowed to dry and then stuck together using the fritware paste. This additive technique meant that there was a tendency for the final vessels to have slightly angular shapes.Dishes were almost certainly made using a mould attached to a potter's wheel. A fritware paste would have been into a sheet much like when a rolls out pastry. The sheet would have been placed on the mould to form the inside of the dish. The lower part of the candle would have been shaped using a template when the mold spun on the wheel. When the paste was partly dry the foliate rim would have been sculptured by hand.

The fritware body coated with a thin layer of white slip. It has a similar composition to the pasty paste used for the body, but the ingredients are finely ground. It is likely that an organic binder was also added such as tragacanth gum. In Abū'l-Qâsim's thesis, it is probable that a frittware pot would be allowed to dry in the sun before being decorated, but a biscuit would be placed on the Iznik ceramics.

The pottery was painted with pigments that had been mixed with glass frit and ground in a wet quern. For some designs the outlines were pounced through a stencil.

In the early period only cobalt blue was used for decoration. The cobalt ore was probably obtained from the village of Qamsar near the town of Kashan in central Iran. Qamsar had long been an important source of cobalt and is mentioned by Abū'l-Qāsim Qamsarin in his treatise. From around 1520 turquoise (copper oxide) was added to the palette. This was followed by purple (manganese oxide), green, grey and black. The distinctive bright bole red was introduced in around 1560.The red slip containing iron oxide was applied in a thick layer under the glaze. Even after the introduction of a range of different pigments, vessels were sometimes still produced with a restricted palette.

The wares were glazed with a lead-alkaline-tin glaze, whose composition has been found from analysis to be lead oxide 25-30 percent, silica 45-55 percent, sodium oxide 8-14 percent and tin oxide is used frequently to make the oxide opaque at 4-7 percent of the oxide. However, Iznik remains in solution in the glaze and is transparent," he said.

Abū'l-Qāsim described the use of earthenware saggars with a fitting lid. Although Miletus ware bowls were stacked in the kiln one on top of the other separated by spurs, the lack of spur marks on İznik fritware suggests that saggards were used. Firing was done in an updraft kiln, to about 900°C.

Iznik Blue-and-white ware (1480–1520)

In the last years of the 15th century, master potters of Iznik began to produce blue white fritter ceramics with patterns clearly influenced by the Ottoman palace in Istanbul. There are no surviving written documents that provide details on how this came about. In the Iznik pottery, the Tokapi palace was mentioned in the imperial kitchens, which was mentioned earlier, in which the purchase of 97 ships was recorded in 1489-1490. 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 1506-7.

The ceramics of Kütahya has been applied to early 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 "One of the leading designers of the Imperial Palace in Istanbul," probably the oldest surviving Iznik fryer objects dating back to 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 background. The vessels have separate of Ottoman arabesque and Chinese 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.

Although the use of cobalt blue on a white floor and the shape of large plates have been influenced by Chinese porcelain from the Yuan and Ming dynasties, the early Iznik fritware dishes were far from being direct copies of Chinese motifs. In some pieces, the decorations used in the Ottoman Rumi design, such as the front of a large rimmed rimmed charger in the Chinese Koşk Museum.

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 background and a greater use of floral motifs. This mosque is four mosque lamps from the tomb of Bayezid II, built in Istanbul between 1512 and 13.  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 at least a tradition of hanging ceramic lamps based on the 13th century in the mosques.

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: Süleyman the Magnificent

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 (1520–66), 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 seem to have been made for display because they have perforated toe holes for hanging pottery pieces, 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 late 16th century, he used a repertoire of stylized lilies, carnations, roses and hyacinths in quatre fleurs style.

Iznik Golden Horn ware (c. 1530 - c. 1550)

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 background 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 (c. 1540 - c. 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 Rock initiated 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'l-Ula (AD 1549). The lamp is decorated in green, black and two shades of blue. The design includes pale blue cloud-banks, small-scale 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 background. 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)

The most valuable product 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 was the oldest object with the bole red ornamentation that would be a characteristic feature of iznik tiles and ceramics. The red on the lamp is thin, brownish and uneven. A few surviving iznik plates that use bole red colouring are believed to date from the same term.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 ceramics.

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 1651-52. 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.