The Ottoman Dynasty was founded at the end of the 13th century when an Oghuz Turkish tribal leader by the name of Osman Gazi rebelled against the Seljuk Turks in northwest Anatolia. Osman Gazi, known as ‘Ottomano’ in Italian and hence the Anglicization ‘Ottoman’, then embarked on a series of campaigns, continued by his successors, which by the end of the 14th century had expanded into a transcontinental empire comprising much of the Balkans to the north, Egypt and North Africa to the west, and the Caucasus and Anatolia to the east.
However, it was only after the capture of the Byzantine capital of Constantinople by Sultan Mehmet II in 1453 that the Ottoman culture entered it’s Golden Age, reaching its zenith under Mehmet’s great-great grandson, Sultan Suleiman I, or Suleiman the Magnificent as he is known, who ruled from 1520 to 1566 CE.
Typical of the Islamic world of that time, Chinese blue-and-white porcelain was greatly valued in Ottoman lands, though the collapse of the Timurid Empire and the upheavals that rocked Central Asia from the late 15th century disrupted imports of Chinese ceramics. It was almost certainly due to royal patronage that the pottery workshops in the town of Iznik in western Anatolia, which hitherto had been producing unassuming earthenware pottery, began manufacture high quality ceramics to fill demand for Chinese ware. Painted with cobalt blue under a transparent glaze and incorporating Chinese motifs alongside traditional Ottoman Arabesque patterns, this type of Chinese-inspired ware was known and chini.
Yet chini was not just a cheap rip-off of Chinese ceramics. Izniq potters had no access to the type of clay used to make porcelain so instead used stone-paste (also known as fritware) of a type that had been employed in the famous Persian tile-making centre of Kashan since the 13th century. Stone-paste is composed of quartz, finely ground glass (frit) and small amounts of clay. Once fired, it provides a strong and smooth white base which, when underpainted in cobalt and given a tin glaze, resembles Chinese porcelain. Stone-paste is not as malleable as porcelain and so molds were often necessary in the manufacture of stone-paste Izniq tableware. Unlike porcelain, though, it is eminently suited to tile production.
By the middle of the 16th century, the Iznik potters’ colour palate had expanded from just cobalt to include turquoise, emerald green and red. With the vast building programme financed in large part by the spoils from the capture of Constantinople, huge quantities of Iznik tiles were manufactured. The Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, begun in 1459, is lavishly adorned with Iznik tilework, as are many of the Ottoman mosques in the city, including the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, popularly known as the ‘Blue Mosque’, which has more than 20,000 Iznik tiles in its interior revetment.
Iznik ceramics reached their apogee during the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent, with enormous demand from court for tiles. Among his many projects, Sultan Suleiman ordered a massive restoration programme for the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem which saw the outside of the building completely enveloped in Iznik tilework. Enormous quantities of Iznik tableware were also made for Suleiman’s court, to be given as gifts to foreign dignitaries. It is interesting to note that there are virtually no examples of Iznik ceramics in the royal collection in the Topkapi Palace, though there are more than 30,000 pieces of Chinese ceramics. This may suggest that, even at its finest, Iznik ware was still considered inferior to Chinese porcelain.
As a result of a sharp decline in royal patronage after Suleiman’s death and an imposed pricing system that disadvantaged the Iznik potters, Izniq ceramics went into seep decline toward the end of the 16th century. With Central Asian trade routes reliable once more, Chinese porcelain was again imported into the Ottoman Empire in large quantities. The last dated piece of Izniq ceramics, a low-quality tile manufactures for the export market, is from the year 1678. With technical knowledge and practical skills no longer being passed from father to son, Ottoman Iznik chini production had ceased completely by the end of the 17th century and the technical knowhow for its manufacture lost.
It was not until recently and only after considerable scientific analysis of bases, glazes and pigments along with much experimentation in firing, that Iznik-style ceramics have been produced once more of a quality to match those manufactured during the craft’s heyday in the 16th century. Six panels composed of these modern Iznik ceramic tiles can be seen in the north cloister of the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat and are a beautiful sight to behold.
CLIVE GRACEY –