History of Nicaea

With a cultural heritage spanning over 2400 years, the city of Iznik is located approx. 135km east of Istanbul on the eastern shore of picturesque Lake Iznik, known in classical times as Askania Limne.

How the city may have looked in its prime

Prehistory

Surrounded by ranges of rolling hills within the Bithynia (Marmara) region of Anatolia, there has been human settlement in this scenic area since prehistory. This is attested to by discoveries of several mounds and tumuli around the city with traces of civilization dating back to 2,500 BC to the Cicekli, Karadin and Cakırca tumuli mounds close to the city.

While the origins of the first recorded inhabitants is uncertain, it is said to have been colonized by an ancient people, the Boetiaeans, of uncertain origin said to be from central Macedonia. They named the settlement ‘Helikare’ or ‘Ancore’ prior to the migration of Thracian tribes in the 7th century BC. The word ‘Khryseapolis’ (Golden City) was also stamped on coins minted in the city at that time.

Hellenistic Period

According to geographer Strabo, the town was re-founded in 315 BC by Antigonos, one of the generals (Diadochi) of Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C), naming it Angitonia, after himself.

Following Antigonus’ defeat and death at the Battle of Ipsus in 301 BC, the city was captured by another of Alexanders former Generals, Lysimachus, who renamed it Nicaea (Νίκαια, also transliterated as Nikaia or Nicæa), in tribute to his wife Nicaea, who had recently died.

This ushered in the Hellenistic period of the city’s history during which time the settlement was planned as a rectangular city. It had four gates, and all its streets intersected one another at right angles in accordance with the Hippodamian plan, so that from a monument in the town center all four gates could be seen. Around 190 BC the city was the birthplace of the acclaimed astronomer and mathematician Hipparchus. One of the founders of trigonometry, he is also credited with inventing the astrolabe for navigation and is considered one of the greatest ancient astronomical observers and, by some, the greatest astronomer of antiquity.

During this period Nicaea also attracted many artists and writers. The 1st Century BC grammarian and poet, Parthenius of Nicaea, the author of Metamorphoses, introduced the Callimachaen elegy to the Romans. From various Greek sources he also edited the “Book of Sorrowful Love Stories”. He is also credited with teaching Greek to the Roman poet Virgil during the reign of the emperor Augustus.

Roman Period

The city became part of the Roman province of Asia in 72BC and enjoyed a long period of expansion and prosperity under Roman rule becoming one of the most important urban centres in the Roman province of Asia Minor.

The city was partly destroyed by fire but was restored with increased magnificence by Pliny the Younger, during his tenure as governor of Bithynia in the early 2nd century AD. In his writings Pliny makes frequent mention of Nicaea and its public buildings and during his residence in the city (111-113AD) made many improvements, particularly to the city’s gymnasium and theatre. He was also concerned about the activities of the Christians in his Provence and wrote to the emperor Trajan for advice. Trajan counselled him not to hunt them down. Those accused and convicted should be punished while those who repented and made sacrifice to the gods, including the Emperor, should be pardoned.

After being severely damaged by an earthquake in 123AD the Emperor Hadrian visited the city and began to rebuild it. The new city was enclosed by a polygonal wall of some 5km in length although construction was not completed until the 3rd century. Unfortunately, the new set of walls failed to save Nicaea from being sacked by the Goths in 258 AD.

Early Christian & Byzantine Period

By the 4th century, Nicaea was a large and prosperous city, and a major military and administrative center. In 313AD Constantine became the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity and 12 years later, in 325AD, convened the First Ecumenical Council attended by something over 300 plus bishops from all over the empire to formalize the fledgling Christian belief system. The city gave its name to the resulting statement of belief, used to this day, in most major branches of Christianity – the Nicene Creed.

The city was hit again by two major earthquakes in 363 and 368, and as a result, coupled with competition from the newly established capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, Constantinople, it began to decline thereafter. Many of its grand civic buildings began to fall into ruin, and had to be restored in the 6th century by the Emperor Justinian I.

The Seventh Ecumenical Council was also convened in Nicaea in 787 to finally deal with the controversy concerning the use of icons and art in religious worship. This council was held in the church of Hagia Sophia, constructed by the Emperor Justinian over the ruins of the former church dating back to the 4th century. This Church was demolished after another severe earthquake in the 11th century but was quickly rebuilt as a basilica with three naves. The church is still located today at the center point where the roads leading to the four main gates meet and is not to be confused with the other more famous Haggia Sofia in Istanbul also build by the Emperor Justinian.

Seventh ecumenical council, Icon, 17th century, Novodevichy Convent, Moscow

In 1081 the city fell to the Seljuk Turks, recent arrivals into Anatolia from central Asia, following the collapse of the Byzantines in eastern Anatolia at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 – a battle regarded as one of the most decisive in medieval European history. The Seljuk Turks renamed Nicaea to Iznik and made it the capital of their possessions in Asia Minor until 1097, when it returned to Byzantine control, after a long siege, with the aid of the First Crusade. During this time, it was the capital of the Sultanate of “Rum”, “Romans” in Turkish.

After the fall of Constantinople to the European crusaders of the Fourth Crusade in 1204, and the establishment of the Latin Empire, Nicaea escaped Latin occupation and maintained an autonomous stance. From 1206 on. It became the base of Theodore Laskaris, who in 1208 was crowned “Emperor” there and he founded the Empire of Nicaea. The Patriarchate of Constantinople, also exiled from Constantinople, took up residence in the city until the recapture of Constantinople in 1261. Although Nicaea was soon abandoned as the primary residence of the Nicaean emperors and began to decline in importance, the period was a lively one in the city’s history. Frequent synods, embassies, and imperial weddings and funerals continued, while the influx of scholars from other parts of the Greek world continued to make it a center of learning as well.

Ottoman Period

In 1331 the city was captured by Orhan Ghazi, founder of the new Turkish Ottoman dynasty, who made it his capital. In 1402 the city was captured and sacked by the Mongol leader Tamerlane (Timur) but, after the Mongol retreat from Anatolia, shortly thereafter, fell once again under Ottoman control. The city then entered a period of reconstruction and artistic development.

Large deposits of kaolin, feldspar and silicon, needed for the production of ceramics, were discovered close by and the Sultan Mehmet Celebi (Mehmet I) brought skilled craftsmen to the city from Iran who specialized in faience pottery. Under their tutelage, the celebrated Iznik Ceramic Industry was created. Within 80 years (early 16th century) the city had over 300 workshops producing iconic tiles which were used to decorate great palaces and religious buildings all over the Ottoman empire, including the Mosque of Omar in Jerusalem.

By the end of the 16th century, after a war between the Ottomans and Iran, the Iranian craftsmen were exiled to Rhodes. Without their skills the quality of Iznik ceramics went into decline. When part of the city was burned in 1605, many of the remaining craftsmen left the city and settled in Kutaya, a city famous for ceramic industry today.

During the following centuries the city continued to decline until it became little more than a village dwarfed by its ancient walls. In 1922, during the war with Greece the city suffered great damage with many of its ancient buildings being completely destroyed and it became largely what it is until recently – the melancholy shadow of a once great city.

Today

The city is today rediscovering its rich history and in 1962 the Second Vatican Council described Iznik as the third holiest city after Jerusalem. In the 21st century much restoration work has begun both in the city and on its ancient walls.

In 2014 the ruins of a 1600-year-old basilica, some 30m offshore, were discovered in the lake itself at a depth of 3 meters. The outline of the building is clearly visible from the air and it is believed to be the late 4thC early 5thC ruin of a basilica dedicated to St. Neophytos, and early Christian martyr in the city. Plans for an underwater museum are being considered for the site.

Severe earthquakes have resulted in the subsidence of the eastern shore of the lake over time

Additionally, new craft ceramics workshops are opening in the city to cater to the growing tourist trade and the city is progressing towards becoming a center for both Tourism and Faith Tourism.