B.5. Iznik Evolves: 1520-1550:


Five tile panels decorate the façade of the Sünnet Odasi (Circumcision Chamber) in Topkapi Saray circa 1527-8, which have been described as some of the best examples of Ottoman tilework. Four of them are two pairs with designs in mirror-image, which must have been decorated using stencils, depicting a complex design of gigantic flowers, swirling feathery ‘saz’ leaves, and pairs of animals, one snarling at the other. They are framed by a scalloped arch with cloud-scrolls in the spandrels. The fifth is slightly smaller and contains a unique composition of a vase of flowers. All are painted in underglaze blue and turquoise, and each individual tile is over a metre high (125 cm/3.5 ft); they are painted with great skill on a flawless white ground, which shows a mastery of style and technical achievement to have successfully fired panels of such size. The design is carefully planned to incorporate the surrounding panels of the entrance façade.

It is possible that Sahkulu himself, who was one of the artists and craftsmen brought to Istanbul from Tabriz in 1514 by Selim I and was head of the court atelier (nakkash-hane) from 1526-56, designed these tiles: many of his drawings survive which show he was a master of the current style, and it was probably he who introduced the saw-like ‘saz’ leaves and writhing dragons to the Ottoman artistic idiom. We even know that Sahkulu was involved in ceramic production, as he presented as a gift to Sultan Süleyman "a dish and 6 small dishes". If he was not in fact the painter of these tiles, it is quite likely that he, in his capacity as head of the nakkash-hane at the time of the construction of the Sünnet Odasi, would have at least designed them, and supplied pounced stencils (nümüne) to the ceramicists.

There is also the question of whether the work for this building would actually have been done at Iznik, some hundred kilometres away. On this question, see the chapter on Necipoglu’s discoveries, of evidence for pottery being manufactured in Istanbul itself, based on Sultan Süleyman’s account books for the year 1527-8, a period of extensive renovation of the Topkapi Saray.

However, the Sünnet Odasi tile group is important as it links directly to Iznik in the design of contemporary vessels, and thus provides a chronology: for example, a blue and turquoise dish in Vienna has a central design of a sinuous bird among feathery swirling arabesque saz leaves and flowers, and thus is directly related to these panels.

The1520s is thus a period which sees the spiral-decorated ‘Golden Horn’ wares with their close link to imperial manuscript illumination, and the close relationship between imperial architecture (the Sünnet Odasi tiles) and pottery vessels produced at Iznik, and furthermore, an adaptation of Chinese porcelain designs represented by the collections of the Topkapi Saray: one must therefore recognise the close connection between the potters (whether based in Iznik or Istanbul) and the prevalent court style. How did this transmission take place, bearing in mind that it was a couple of days’ journey across the Sea of Marmara to Iznik? It is most likely that the nakkash-hane supplied designs, in the form of pounced drawings, while at the same time the Iznik potters must have taken these ideas and adapted them, since the mastery and originality displayed on many Iznik dishes of the 1530s do not seem to be based on flat paper patterns.

Thus the period 1525-50 sees a sudden leap forward in artistic achievement, which is accompanied by the technical achievements of expanding the palette to include manganese purple, a pale grey and an olive green colour. The designs are exuberant and imaginative, including saz leaves and hybrid flowers, artichoke-like globes on thick stems, elegant tulips, naturalistic sprays of hyacinths, pomegranates and roses, many of which spring from a leafy tuft and are vertically orientated. Other dishes have a centralised design, for example a rosette or arabesque surrounded by other similar motifs. There is also the frequent use of overlapping scales, which might derive from Chinese celadon.

Two fixed points allow the dating of this group: the first is a hanging lamp in the British Museum which has on its foot a series of inscribed cartouches of which six survive intact. They give the name of the decorator, Musli; a dedication to a Sufi saint local Iznik, Eshrefzade Rumi who has a shrine in the town; and a date which equates to 1549:

"…let that ocean [of esoteric knowledge] who is Eshrefzade in Iznik enjoy [any spiritual benefit]. In the year 956, in the month of Jumada’l-Ula. The painter [responsible is] the poor & humble Musli."

This lamp was found on the Haram in Jerusalem in the mid C19th, and must thus be associated with the refurbishment of the Dome of the Rock initiated by Sultan Süleyman in 1555 when, in his role as Caliph, he undertook the restoration of the Holy Places of Islam. It is decorated in blue-and-white with manganese purple and a pale greenish-grey, with bands of cloud-scrolls and arabesques, and carefully executed Qur’anic inscripns; the only light touches are a narrow ring of triple tulips on the neck the cursive inscription on the foot.

It is directly associated with a hanging ornament, now in the Benaki Museum, which was once suspended above the lamp in Jerusalem: it has an egg-like form, and its designs echo the interlacing arabesques of the lamp; it also has rosettes and cloud-scrolls, the use of purple and greenish-grey, and has narrow bands of triple daisies in cartouches. The top third of the ornament is plain, indicating that it was meant to be seen from below, and there is also some distortion from the firing, and scars from a kiln spur: this shows that even though the product did not emerge perfectly from the kiln, the investment in labour and materials was thought significant enough for it still to be used and not discarded as a ‘waster’ (many so-called wasters may not actually have been).

The painter, Musli, was obviously a master, and his two ‘signature’ motifs (olive-green arabesques or cloud-scrolls on a turquoise background, and tulips with three pointed petals) are seen on other Iznik dishes, the three great pedestal bowls in the British Museum, and a tankard. Also close to these in style is a series of tiles in the Ibrahim Pasha mosque at Silivrikapi, just inside the ancient walls of Istanbul: this was designed by Sinan in 1551 (he had become Chief Architect in 1538), and on the inscriptional lunette panels are delicately drawn tulips, carnations and other flowers in pale purple and turquoise. At the apex of one panel is a symmetrical knotted device similar to one on the central inscribed band of British Museum lamp. The use of dark olive-green ornament on a turquoise ground suggests that these tiles may be the work of Musli, and it is not surprising that Sinan should use the designer of Süleyman’s refurbishment at the Dome of the Rock.

Another group of tiles decorate the interior of the Yeni Kaplica baths in Bursa, which cover the walls and arched recesses around the central pool. They are mostly hexagonal, of 9 different designs, with tulips, arabesques and radial designs; there are rectangular border tiles with cloud-collar panels, and triangular tiles as fillers. The colours are the now familiar combination of blue, turquoise, olive-green and purple, though the exposure to the warm sulphurous atmosphere of the baths has meant they are very dilapidated. Three tile panels have inscriptions, but only one (above the outer entrance to bath) is legible: it is painted in blue and turquoise, and contains a dedication to Rustem Pasha, the Grand Vizier and son-in-law of Sultan Süleyman, and reads ‘bina-i Rüstem dara’, ‘the building of Rustem the prince’. Thie can also be read as a chronogram, whereby the date is calculated by adding up the numerical values of each letter, giving 1552/3 (AH 960). However, this is the date for the restoration of the baths and thus not the production of the tiles, and in fact the tiles and marble basins were removed from an older structure in Bursa (the Timurtash hammam which had dried up).

The significance of all these tiles c.1550 is that they bear witness to the emergence of tilework as a major industry at Iznik during the last years of Sultan Süleyman’s reign. Until the midC16th, Iznik was concerned mainly with the production of vessels, while an independent band of Persian potters in Istanbul had been exclusively employed for the decoration of royal monuments, including the Selimiye complex commissioned by Sultan Süleyman in commemoration of his father, and imaret dedicated to his wife Hasseki Hürrem (d.1539), and the tomb of his favourite son, Shehzade Mehmed (d.1548) [see Necipoglu].

Was this same group of Persian potters sent to carry out the restoration of the Dome of the Rock, completed 1556, which comprises all techniques in the contemporary tile-work repertoire (both cuerda seca and underglaze)? Perhaps this major project had a direct influence on the development of the Iznik industry as a source of tiles? It seems that the Dome of the Rock potters remained in the area, and were the reason for the development of a parallel Iznik-style industry in Syria, which never used underglaze red since this had not been developed when they left Turkey.

The first noteworthy achievement of the new Syrian off-shoot tile industry was the tiling of two iwans of Beit Janblat in Aleppo, with designs close to those they had developed at the Dome of the Rock. In Damascus, these potters worked on the Süleymaniye mosque (1550-54), Selimiye madrasa (1550-70), Dervishiye mosque and tomb (1574), Sinaniye mosque (1585), Sa’d al-Din zaviye (1574-96): according to Carswell, their tiles show the progressive development of a highly individualistic local style. Tiles imported from Iznik were also used for decoration, for example at the ‘Adliye (1566-7) and Bahramiye (1580-81) mosques in Aleppo.

A pottery industry also developed parallel to the Syrian tile industry, though surviving examples are much rarer; they are characterised by a particular shade of green which varies from light apple to dark olive, unlike the strident emerald of late C16th Iznik. The work of the Syrian tilemakers became increasingly feeble in succeeding centuries, though they were still employed to make replacement tiles, which are sometimes inscribed and dated, for those that had fallen off the C16th revetments of the Dome of the Rock.

top of the page   top of the page


Back || Contents || Next