Iznik is a small town in northwestern Turkey, on the eastern shore of Lake Iznik. It is the modern successor of the important Byzantine city of Nicea (or Nicaea), where the famous Council of Nicea was held in 325 AD.
History of Ancient Nicea
Founded in the 4th century BC by the Macedonian king Antigonus I Monophthalmus, Nicea was an important centre in late Roman and Byzantine times.
In 325 AD, the great Council of Nicea was called by Constantine the Great, who had converted to Christianity a decade earlier and replaced official persecution of Christianity with official support. The Council of Nicea was the first ecumenical (worldwide) council of the church and the first of Seven Ecumenical Councils recognized by most Christian denominations as having doctrinal authority. Around 300 bishops from across the Christian world attended.
The main reason for the council was the dispute over Arianism, the doctrine that Christ was not equal with God but a lesser divine being, but the assembled bishops also dealt with the date of Easter and various matters of church administration. The Council was originally planned to be held in another city, but Constantine moved the location to Nicea because of its favorable weather and, most importantly, proximity to his palace in Nicomedia (modern Izmit).
Another important council was held at Nicea in 787 to deal with the iconoclastic controversy (the dispute over whether the use of icons was appropriate or constituted idolatry). This is known as the Second Council of Nicea and the Seventh Ecumenical Council. It concluded that icons were worthy of veneration but not worship, and restored their use in the Byzantine Empire.
The Seljuk Turks captured Nicea in 1081 and renamed it Iznik. It was recaptured by the Byzantines in 1097 during the First Crusade, under Emperor Alexius I Comnenus. After the Crusaders captured Constantinople in 1204, the "Empire of Nicea" was founded. It served as a political and cultural center for 50 years, from which a restored Byzantium arose under Michael VIII Palaeologus.
Nicea was besieged and conquered in 1331 by the Ottoman Turks, who built the Green Mosque (1378–91). Iznik's prosperity was damaged by the competing growth of nearby Istanbul as an Ottoman centre after 1453, but revived in the 16th century with the introduction of faience pottery making. Iznik subsequently became famous for its magnificently beautiful "Iznik tiles," which decorate mosques and palaces throughout Turkey (see photos of the Blue Mosque as an example).
After the tile workshops were transferred to Istanbul c. 1700, Iznik began to decline. Its economy suffered a further blow with the construction of a major railway bypassing the town. Today, Iznik is a small market town and administrative centre for the surrounding district, with a population of about 15,000.
The Second Vatican Council in 1962 described Iznik as a third 'holy city' after Jerusalem and the Vatican for Christians.
What to See at Ancient Nicea
Several monuments from the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman ages are well preserved in modern Iznik. Nicea's Roman and Byzantine city walls, 14,520 feet (4,426 m) in circumference, remain almost entirely intact around the city. They were built in 300 BC by the Greek Lysimachus, then ruler of the town, and were frequently repaired by the Byzantines and Ottomans. The main gate is the Istanbul Gate, on the north side, decorated with a carved relief of fighting horsemen.
Nicea had an ancient theater, built between the lake and Yenişehir Gate. It was built by the Proconsul of Bythinia, Plinius, in 112. By the 13th century, it was turned into a mass grave. Archaeological excavations have revealed that a church, palace, Ottoman ceramic workshops and tile kilns were constructed within it.
The First Council of Nicea was held in the Senatus Palace, which sadly now lies beneath the waters of Lake Iznik.
The highlight for religious travelers and historians are the ruins of the 4th-century St. Sophia Cathedral, the site of the Second Council of Nicea. It is located in the town center. Renamed Orhan Ghazi Mosque in 1331 and badly damaged by earthquake and fire, the building was restored by the famous architect Sinan in the 16th century. The ceiling of Haghia Sophia has collapsed but much still remains. On the wall of a grave room is a fresco of Christ and there are surviving mosaic pavements on the floor.
The 14th-century Green Mosque (Yesil Camii) is named for the green tiles adorning its minaret. The original tiles have now been replaced by inferior copies.
The Iznik Archaeological Museum is across from the mosque. One of Iznik's nicest historical buildings, the museum is housed in the Kitchen of Lady Nilüfer (Nilüfer Hatun Imareti). The imaret (kitchen) was set up in 1388 by the wife of Ottoman ruler Orhan Gazi, as a hospice for wandering dervishes. Visitors enter through a spacious five-domed portico, which leads to a central domed area flanked by two more domed rooms. The museum's collection consists mainly of Roman antiquities and glass, supplemented with some recently-discovered Seljuk and Ottoman tiles.
Quick Facts on Ancient Nicea
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- Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service - "Iznik"
- DK Eyewitness Travel Guide to Turkey (Dorling Kindersley, 2006; UK edition), p. 160.
- Skylife (Turkish Airlines) - "Iznik" by Halil Ibrahim (reprinted by Ataman Hotel)
- Photos of Ancient Nicea - here on Sacred Destinations
Map of Ancient Nicea, Turkey
Below is a location map and aerial view of Ancient Nicea. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.