Iznik (Nicaea) Tiles, Plates, and Pottery: “Çini”

Iznik (Nicaea) Pottery Overview

Iznik (Nicaea) tiles, plates, and pottery are a kind of ceramic made of clay containing kaolinite, silica, and a significant rate of quartz. The making of Iznik/Nicaea pottery is relatively straightforward. Once the clay is given the desired shape, it is placed in an oven for the first time, allowing it to harden. Afterward, the potteries are decorated with unique designs and drawings, which often include tulip imagery – a symbol of indulgence, first popularized during the Ottoman Empire.
Once the drawings are added, the finished product is covered with glaze and placed in the kiln once again to ensure that the designs retain their lively colors and shapes for a long time.

cini-sphere cini-dish
Iznik Tiles Iznik Sultan's Caftan Iznik Spheres Iznik Decorative Dishes

Quartz, in particular, is essential to ensuring that the final products stand the test of time by hardening and becoming more resilient to damage. The inclusion of the mineral, which constitutes up to 85% of the pottery provides additional gloss and shine.

Why this extended discussion of quartz? Because quartz is a semi-valuable stone and ensures strength and resilience. It is relatively easier for pottery not containing quartz to be broken. The main difference between Iznik/Nicaea potteries and ceramics is the percentage of quartz used in their content. Unlike ceramics, Iznik/Nicaea potteries use quartz in all four pieces of its composition: 

  1. The raw material often referred to as the "bisque"
  2. The lining that allows for drawings to easily be made on the surface
  3. Colors added using metal oxides
  4. The glazing layer on top
cini-painting-coloring cini-glazing
Bisque Contouring Painting Glazing

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Steps involved in the making of Iznik/Nicaea Pottery  

  • Preparing the dough: Dough mixture with high proportions of quartz is kneaded by hand.
  • Placing the dough in a mold: The kneaded dough mixture is placed by hand inside wooden molds prepared in advance.
  • Drying: The dough is then to dry in room temperature.
  • Kiln drying-1: The dried dough is kiln dry in 900°C (~1652°F) in special ovens. The resulting product is referred to as a “bisque”.
  • Lining: The lining is poured over the bisque to form the layer that will house the design features of the finished pottery. Bisque that have been lined are left to dry in room temperature.
  • Preparing the drawings: The designs made on sketch paper are perforated using a specialized pen. These templates are then placed on the product and coal dust is sprinkled through the perforations onto the pottery. 
  • Contouring: The designs transferred onto the pottery via the coal dust are rendered clearer using brushes and black paint.
  • Painting: The designs are colored in using paint with metallic oxide properties and left to dry in room temperature for a couple days.
  • Glazing: The pre-prepared glazing mixture is poured over the dried pottery and left to dry.
  • Kiln drying-2: The second and final rounding of kiln drying is once again conducted at 900°C (~1652°F) after the glaze has dried off.

Techniques used in the design of Iznik/Nicaea Pottery 

While there are five different ways of making Iznik/Nicaea pottery, the most common techniques used in Iznik are the “underglaze” and “overglaze” methods.

  • Underglaze: A lined bisque is embellished with colorful designs and placed in an oven after getting glazed. This was the most common technique used at the Seljuk Dynasty and the Ottoman Empire.
  • Overglaze: A matte glaze is applied to the bisque, the drawings are made, and the pottery is placed in kiln. Created by the Seljuks, this technique was perfected by the Ottomans.
  • Minai: The dough used in this technique is made of small pieces having a hard structure. In this approach, both the underglaze and overglaze techniques are used. Colors like blue, turquoise, green, and purple, which tend to be more resistant to high temperatures, are used under the glaze; while colors like black, white, red, and gold – which tend to be less resistant to high temperatures – are used over the glaze. This results in a polychromatic surface on the pottery.
  • Luster: A variation of the overglaze technique, the luster method results in a metallic glow on the surface of the finished pottery. After being glazed with white, blue, purple, or green colors, the bisque is kiln dried. The resulting material is once again placed in kiln in low temperature after getting painted with a silver alloy. The luster effect imbues the yellow and brown colors with a unique sparkle as the pottery is heated up. 
  • Mosaic: Primarily used to decorate the interiors of madrasas and mosques, the molds are created in the spaces the tiles are meant to be placed. The rear surfaces of the cooked tiles are cut out conically according to the designs made. The tiles are then placed into the mold in a way that ensures that the glazed surfaces are face-up. Finally, mortar is poured over the product and the tile is placed in the desired location.
Alaeddin Mosque
Kubadabad Palace
Karatay Madrasa

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The place and importance of Iznik/Nicaea pottery in traditional art

For the most part, Iznik/Nicaea potteries, tiles were used to decorate the interiors and exteriors of architectural structures like mosques, palaces, and mansions. As a result, potteries and tiles mainly fall into one of two groups:

  • Wall tiles (Kashi) 
  • Plates, vases, tankards, jugs, and bowls (Evani) 

The importance of tiles and potteries and the decorative images thereupon can be summed up as follows: 

  • Colorfulness and vivacity
  • Ease of covering large surfaces
  • Resilience
Wall tile  Seljuk pottery examples

A short history of Tiles and Potteries

Potteries originated in China when the art of pottery was first devised, most bricks and pots were made simply of clay and did not contain any glazing. In an effort to keep liquids from escaping containers, the artisans attempted to cover the exterior of the pottery using material roughly similar to glass. These first attempts at solidifying the potteries paved the way for more resilient pots and bricks.

The Sumerians were the first to transition from the glass-based method to using glazing, followed by the Assyrians who continued the technique. A number of Sumerian and Assyrian monuments were actually constructed with bricks using this glazing technique. Soon thereafter, Iran adopted the technique and began constructing palace walls with glazed bricks. Towards the end of the 12th century, the arrival of the Mongols in Iran caused a lot of the artisans to flee to the Seljuk dynasty. This resulted in the tiles and potteries tradition getting passed on to and adopted by the Seljuk Turks.

Tile and Pottery making among the Turks 

As noted earlier, tile and pottery making made its way to Anatolia by way of the Seljuks and was especially popular in interior spaces in the form of glazed bricks. The Ottomans later perfected the art of tile and pottery making by shifting production from bricks to glazed plates and tiles.

Anatolian Seljuk era of tile and pottery making:

The first development in the Anatolian Seljuk era saw the application of the glazed brick technique and the production of flat-colored tiles. The colors used at the time were cobalt blue, eggplant purple, turquoise, and black. The bricks made in these colors were used in a variety of angles (i.e. horizontal, vertical, zigzag, or diagonal). 

Another important development by the Seljuks was the creation of the mosaic technique. This novel method allowed for plant motifs and printed text be placed on the tiles, allowing for myriad geometric compositions. The colors used were identical to the ones on flat-colored tiles and continued to be employed until the mid-16th century.  

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Wall Tile
From Seljuk era
Wall Tile
From Seljuk era
Wall Tile
From Seljuk era
Geometric Application
From Seljuk era

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Ottoman era of pottery making:

Around the turn of the 15th century, the colorful glazing technique began to be used by the Ottomans. An important aspect of this technique was the use of red dough with white lining. The designs were then either printed or carved onto the surface of the ceramic and covered with colored glaze. Turquoise, cobalt, lilac, yellow, black, and gold colors were the preferred with which the artisans drew intricate plant motifs, geometric shapes, and text using the script of the time.

The Ottomans were first introduced to Chinese porcelain around 1450-1480. As it became more and more difficult to come by porcelain imported from China shortly after this era, the Ottomans began switching to local production of pottery and focused on increasing the quality of the products. The resulting shift also caused the production of pottery to use white dough. The corresponding era in the early 16th century first saw the creation of the blue-white technique. The most important feature of this technique was the fact that the potteries were built using white and hard dough. As alluded to earlier in our discussion, the primary contributor to the additional hardening was the substitution of higher amounts of clay in favor of quartz, which gave the dough its white and hardened qualities. Consequently, the history of Iznik/Nicaea potteries is often split into two eras: the eras of red and white dough.

Though to a small degree, the Ottomans also used green-white and brown-white applications for the dough at the end of the 15th century. As a result of this search for new colors, the now-famous version of “turquoise” finally made its appearance. Up until the discovery of the technique that allowed artisans to use black in the designs, contouring was done using lighter or darker variants of the colors on the inside.

Inspecting the potteries made in this era closely, it is fairly easy to spot the influences of Chinese porcelain on the Ottoman variants. However, in addition to copying the Chinese styles and designs, pottery makers also began incorporating their own “rumi” and “hatayi” designs. 

The “rumi” design was used extensively from the 15th century through the end of the 16th century. The rumi design was either used to adorn the entire pottery or as a highlight in one section. The “hatayi” design, which couldn’t be used alone, featured twisty leaves and flowers. 

Rumi Hatayi

Towards the beginning of the 16th century, four new motifs began being employed:

  • The loop, which was inspired by Buddhist symbolism depicting two snakes wrapped around each other,
  • The stylized dragon, which held and to this day continues to hold an important place in Chinese art and mythology,
  • Ru-yi, which was also inspired by Buddhist symbolism as a supplementary figure,
  • Zencerek (chain), which is a design used to distinguish the various compositions on the pottery from one another.

Around this era, white surfaces are often preferred to cobalt blue surfaces. “Hatayi designs” are very common among these potteries, samples of which can be found on display at some important museums like the British and the Victoria & Albert Museums.  

The second half of the 16th century ushered in a new way of tile making through the use of red underglaze. In this era, the tiles are most commonly made in the form of square tiles for use in buildings. Sinan the Architect’s use of tiles in his architectural works also slowed down the production of other ceramics for use as plates and potteries. In what is arguably the most glorious era of Iznik/Nicaea tile and pottery making, the most commonly used colors become cobalt blue, green, black, turquoise, brown, and coral red. On many pots and plates, galleon, fish, and animal designs proved popular. The most impressive examples of these potteries can be found in the Suleymaniye Mosque, Rustempasha Mosque, and the Tomb of Kanuni Sultan Suleyman.

This era also saw the popularization of the “Tugrakesh style,” referred to as “Halic isi”, inspired by the signature of the sultan.

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Wall Tile
Rustempasha Mosque
Wall Tile
Suleymaniye Mosque
Wall Tile
Tomb of Kanuni Sultan Süleyman
Tugrakes style

Following the second half of the 17th century, pottery production slowed and was eventually disrupted due to the Ottoman Empire’s economic decline. The most glaring fall in the quality pottery was reflected in the waning colors, followed by the quality of the glaze. Eventually, the designs themselves began displaying signs of carelessness. Production of Iznik/Nicaea pottery ceased with the closure of workshops by the 18th century. 

After remaining dormant for several hundred years, the 21st century saw the combined efforts of the Turkish government and private foundations revitalizing the art of Iznik/Nicaea pottery making. This culminated in the creation of about 45-50 workshops in production today.

Differences between Iznik and Kutahya Pottery 

The primary material used pottery dough is quartz. While Iznik/Nicaea pottery is composed of about 80-85% of quartz, Kutahya pottery use a substantially smaller amount of the material. The two variants also differ in terms of color: Iznik/Nicaea pottery primarily use blue, green, red, and turquoise, whereas Kutahya pottery tend to be polychromatic.

If you're interested in purchasing your very own Iznik/Nicaea pottery, please click here.

If you're interested in purchasing your very own Iznik/Nicaea pottery, please click here.



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