All images © by Roberto Piperno, owner of the domain. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org. Text edited by Rosamie Moore.
Page added in September 2003.
Nicaea, today Iznik, is located on the shore of a lake close to the Asian coast of the Marmara Sea, in the historical region called Bithynia. The area around Nicaea was, and still is, very favoured from an agricultural viewpoint. Unlike many other historical towns of Turkey and in particular nearby Bursa, Iznik has not seen a large increase in population and it is still enclosed within its ancient walls.
The shape of Nicaea is a clear indication of the Roman influence. Two streets cross the town and meet at a right angle. They are north/south and east/west oriented and end with a monumental gate. Although Nicaea had been inhabited since time immemorable, an earthquake destroyed it in AD 123 and the town was redesigned and rebuilt during the reign of Emperor Hadrian.
Most likely the town was rebuilt without walls, because the borders of the Roman Empire were far away and no one thought an enemy could threaten Nicaea. In 267 however the Herules sacked Athens and the Roman emperors promoted the construction of walls to protect cities and towns from similar raids. Emperor Claudius II (268-70) fortified Nicaea by building walls having a length of five miles. The gates incorporated pre-existing triumphal arches. The western gate is lost.
The Roman walls were damaged by earthquakes in the VIth century and parts of them were rebuilt by Emperor Justinian and they were strengthened in the next century when the Arabs threatened Nicaea (and Constantinople). The walls were fortified by more than a hundred towers.
The Byzantines were able to resist the Arabs mainly because of the invention of the Greek fire a mixture of sulphur, tow, resinous timber and other easily inflammable substances. These Byzantine flame-throwers had the shape of dragons to additionally frighten the enemy. Mainly used for igniting ships, they proved very useful in igniting the movable towers and the other engines used by the assailants during the siege of a town.
The ruins of the aqueduct which supplied Nicaea with water are visible immediately outside the eastern gate. Openings in the walls, next to the gates, provide access to the town to cars and trucks. The ancient gates are reserved for pedestrians or local traffic.
In 1203 the Venetians were asked to intervene in a dynastic quarrel at the Byzantine court. In order to help their candidate to the throne they asked the Fourth Crusade to reach Constantinople. The crusaders occupied Galata and the Venetian fleet went on parade before the maritime walls of Constantinople. Emperor Alexius III fled to Walachia and the previous emperor (Isaac), with his son Alexius IV, who had asked for help, was again put on the Byzantine throne. But the party hostile to the Latins resented the concessions that the new emperors had to make to those who had helped them. Their leader strangled Alexius IV and appointed himself emperor (Alexius V). He then offered the crusaders an enormous amount of gold to convince them to leave, but the Venetians in turn convinced the crusaders to put an end to the unreliability of the Byzantine rulers. On April 12, 1204 the crusaders occupied Constantinople and declared Baudouin of Flanders Latin Emperor of Constantinople.
The most important Byzantine families had large possessions in the provinces and after the fall of Constantinople they fled there: the Comnens, with the help of the Georgians, founded the Empire of Trebizond on the eastern Black Sea coast, the Angeloi managed to retain most of Epirus, the Lascaris founded in Nicaea an empire which claimed to be the legitimate heir to the Byzantine Empire.
The first emperor of Nicaea, Theodor I, decided to strengthen its capital by building an external wall, at a distance of 20-30 feet from the existing one. In Nicaea it is possible to easily compare the different techniques used by the Romans and the Byzantines.
The Nicaean emperors made an attempt in 1236 (with the help of the Bulgarians) to seize Constantinople, but they had to give up. They were however able to enlarge their possessions and later on to acquire Epirus and through marriages to gain the support of some European rulers.
In 1261 some Latin prisoners leaked information to the Byzantines of Nicaea that the Latin Emperor with most of his army was away from Constantinople. The prisoners were freed and sent back to Constantinople, but they had been bribed so that once in Constantinople they would open its gates to a small army sent by the Emperor of Nicaea, Michael VIII. On July 27, 1261 Constantinople fell again and the Byzantine Empire was restored.
It was however a very different empire, with an oversized capital. It was more similar to Genoa and Venice. It had a sizeable fleet and trade was its main resource. The troops were almost totally mercenaries. What was typical of the ancient empire was the ability to play the powers which threatened the Byzantines one against the other.
The Romans built a theatre in Nicaea. Because the land is flat, they did not have the flank of a hill to help them, so the whole building was sustained by powerful arches. Over the centuries it was used for different purposes and the steps where the spectators sat were badly damaged. Excavations found parts of the proscenium in pretty good shape.
Nicaea played a significant role in the history of Christianity when in 325 and in 787 it hosted two of the seven ecumenical councils recognized by all churches. Both councils dealt with the conflict between the western and the eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea and both councils failed to reach an agreement accepted by all. In 325 Christians living in the east (Syria, Egypt) leaned towards a Christianity influenced by other monotheistic religions prevailing in that area (Mithraism, Zoroastrism), while Christians living in the west, including Greece, preferred interpretations which had more points of contacts with the pagan religions which had a plurality of gods. The council condemned the doctrine of Arius of Alexandria who denied full divinity of Christ, but his followers, who included also some of the barbarian tribes at the borders of the empire, did not accept this decision and Christianity, which had just been recognized as a legitimate religion in 313, had its first dramatic split.
The second council was held in 787 in the church of Haghia Sophia at the centre of Nicaea. The issue which was to be debated was related to the appropriateness of use of images in religious worship. The Byzantine Empire was split between iconoclasts (breaker of images) and their opponents. Emperor Constantine VI favoured the worship of images, but was confronted with the fact that the iconoclasts prevailed in Constantinople; he then decided to hold the council in Nicaea where the iconoclasts could not influence the bishops and he could exert his own direct influence. Again it was a contrast between the east (influenced by the Muslim ban on images) and the west, where the worship of saints (and of their images) was largely spread. Notwithstanding the name of the church (Sophia=wisdom), the conflicting views were not resolved and reciprocal accusations of being pagan or Muslim increased the differences. Constantine VI piloted the council to its desired conclusion, which allowed use of images for worship purposes, but the fight between the two parties went on with the usual toll of atrocities which mark religion wars. The matter surfaced again in Europe in the XVIth century and it is still debated.
About 1300 the Byzantines of Bithynia made their first acquaintance with the Ottomans, a Turkoman tribe, led by Osman I (hence the name of Ottoman). The Ottomans were vassals of the Seljuk emir of Kastamonu and they had been settled by the latter near the border with the Byzantine Empire so that their raids in search of booty would not affect his possessions. Osman gained control of the passes leading from the central Anatolian plateau to the plains of Bithynia. Cavalry was the strength of the Ottomans. They were known for their skills with bows and spikes. The Byzantines most likely underestimated their potential and did not react adequately when the Ottomans occupied the town of Yenisehir between Nicaea and Bursa, where they established their capital and began a more settled existence. The Ottomans then moved towards the Marmara Sea and they severed land communications between Constantinople and Bithynia. Again, because the Byzantine had easy access to Bithynia by sea and the Ottomans had no fleet, the "fait accompli" was tolerated. In 1321 however Osman attacked the port of Mudanya and the last connection between Bithynia and Constantinople was broken.
Bursa fell to the Ottomans in 1326, Nicaea followed, without resistance, in 1331. The Ottomans set their capital in Bursa which was embellished with several mosques and other buildings. Nicaea became a quiet provincial town until 1514, when Selim I, the Cruel, brought a group of artisans, skilled in the manufacturing of ceramics, from Tabriz in Azerbajgan. For more than two hundred years Iznik (Nicaea) had a great reputation for its blue-greenish ceramics.
In my attempt to take a close picture of the ceramics of a fine minaret of Iznik, I came across a nest of storks. In Turkey storks have a definite liking for ancient monuments. I found them also on the top of Roman columns in Ankara and in Silifke.
Clickable Map of Turkey showing all the locations covered in this website (opens in another window).