Magazine article Insight on the News

Intoxicating Turkish Tile

Magazine article Insight on the News

Intoxicating Turkish Tile

Article excerpt

When things get hectic in Istanbul, tourists can escape to a charming artists' village.

Istanbul's Asian side used to serve as an escape valve for locals and tourists visiting the bustling metropolis, but the area has fallen victim to commuter sprawl. Keyif, the Turkish term for an aesthetic, almost intoxicating sense of relaxation, has become more elusive in this exotic city.

Iznik, however, remains keyifli, both visually and culturally The town, about two hours from Istanbul by ferry and bus, traces its roots back to ancient Greece. But it was the Otto-mans who bequeathed Iznik with it's most lasting legacy -- the making of tile known as cini (the Turkish word for "China," pronounced CHEE-neh).

Despite its curious name, cini can't be traced to the Far East. Legend has it that a sultan became so obsessed with the beauty of Chinese porcelain that he set out to create his own version. Iznik became a state-supported artists' colony where craftsmen could concentrate without interruption in a quiet environment. And the nearby hills contained an array of clay and mineral deposits necessary for the art.

All Ottoman sites of renown such as the Blue Mosque in Istanbul and its 21,000 pieces of tile -- reflect cini decor. Eventually, however, the debt-ridden Ottoman court withdrew its patronage, forcing craftsmen to seek markets abroad -- a severe blow for Iznik, which never recovered from its dependence on the sultanate. By the late 17th-century, according to travel accounts, the town's 300 cini establishments had dwindled in number to nine.

Iznik remains proud of its heritage, however, and maintains an archaeological museum, known as Nilufer Hatun Imareti, that houses a marvelous cini collection. Here are relics that represent not only creative development, but episodic points in Ottoman history. Dull Byzantine pottery brightened into cobalt blue and white during the late 1300s and early 1400s, the Ottoman Empire's formative years. A century later, artisans introduced Persian-derived turquoise. During the 16th century, they perfected red tile work, still a particularly difficult color for today's cini revivalists. Less striking items from the 1700s reflect Ottoman decline, when tile makers began to incorporate human and animal figures previously forbidden by Islamic law. …

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