Sunday, December 1, 2013

An Architectural and Ceramic Tour of Istanbul - Part I

In 2010 I received an offer of a free, second, round-trip airline ticket to anywhere if I used my mileage to purchase the first ticket. I surprised my wife with two business class tickets to Istanbul in the spring of 2011. Istanbul had been one of those places we both wanted to visit ever since we "discovered" Iznik pottery and tiles. I had purchased Edda Renker Weissenbacher's A Self-Guide to Iznik Tiles in Istanbul (2004) a few years before and used it to plan our itinerary for the week we planned to stay in Istanbul. We wanted to visit as many of the major museums and mosques as possible, but, of course, with limited time, we were unable to see all that we wished.

Our hotel, the Adora, was in the Sultanahmet District--the old city--the center of the main tourist area. Outside our hotel window, in the rear of the hotel, was a small cemetery which was organized in 1509.

I took every opportunity to walk around Sultanahmet and photograph the sights. I discovered the area post office--the PTT building, and on the street behind it, a small, tile-covered mosque, Hobyar Cami, built in 1473.

Except for the major streets traversing Sultanahmet, many were almost impassable for auto traffic.

A side street near our hotel.

Hudavendigar Cadde was the main street near our hotel. A short walk or tram ride brought you to Sirkeci Terminal.

Sirkeci Garı (Sirkeci Terminal) in Istanbul. Designed by August Jachmund, a Prussian architect. It was the first example of "European Orientalism" architecture and opened in 1890. (İstanbul_Sirkeci_Terminal
Sirkeci Terminal was the main train station in Istanbul where Agatha Christie's "Orient Express" ended its journey. (The original Orient Express was decommissioned in 1977, but the Venice Simplon Orient Express, a luxury tourist train utilising restored coaches used during the 1930s, still makes the run once a year.)

The track where the Orient Express arrived. There is a small Orient Express Museum in the terminal building to the left. (Color photos courtesy of Michael Padwee unless otherwise noted)

There was a tram station around the corner from our hotel, Gulhame Station, and one stop from there were the Sultan Ahmet Cami (the Blue Mosque) and the Ayia Sophiya. 

Iznik Ceramics

Iznik is the Turkish name for an ancient city known as Khryssopolis (before 316 BCE), then Antigonea, and finally Nicaea. In the beginning of the Ottoman Period (1331 - 1922 CE) Nicaea was named the capital by Orhan Gazi, and was renamed Çinizlik, short for Çinili Iznik, "where tiles are made". (Edda Renker Weissenbacher, A Self-Guide to Iznik Tiles in Istanbul, self published, 2004, p. 4)

After Sultan Selim I conquered Tebriz in 1514, "Persian artists and craftsmen were Iznik and Istanbul, where [...they] invented the radiant "Armenian bole"...or "coral-red" color..., and achieved the peak of the tilemaking tradition. It is referred to as the best (or second) period, 1550-1585. [...A] great number of ceramic kilns were built in İZNİK, and wonderful ceramic tiles were produced...for palaces mosques, and other buildings." (Edda Renker Weissenbacher, A Self-Guide to Iznik Tiles in Istanbul, self published, 2004, pp. 19-20)

Second (or "Best) Period Iznik tiles from the Rustem Paşa Mosque in Istanbul. (Tashin Öz, Turkish Ceramics, Turkish Press, Broadcasting and Tourist Deptartment, Istanbul, c.1953, Plate XLIII)

"[While the] best tile-making period (emphasizing coral-red, turquoise, and blue) lasted from 1550 to 1585[,] the years before it (1453-1550) are referred to as the first period (mainly using green, yellow, and dark blue); consequently, the period 1585 to the middle of the 17th century (primarily blue and white tiles) is known as the third period. After that, when quality had declined greatly, came the fourth period of İZNİK." (Edda Renker Weissenbacher, A Self-Guide to Iznik Tiles in Istanbul, self published, 2004, p. 23)

The Blue Mosque

Worshipers washing their feet before entering the Mosque.

The central courtyard.

In 1609 Sultan Ahmet I began construction of his mosque. He ordered the craftsmen of Iznik to only produce tiles for his mosque, thus depriving Iznik tile-makers of many customers and commissions until the mosque was completed in 1616. Iznik craftsmen lost customers to Italian and Chinese potteries, and many [potters] left Iznik to work elsewhere. Iznik's pottery industry went from 300 kilns to nine kilns at the completion of the mosque. The mosque got its name from the blue Iznik tiles that clad its walls. (Edda Renker Weissenbacher, A Self-Guide to Iznik Tiles in Istanbul, self published, 2004, p. 70)

"Two hundred sixty windows let in a flood of light, so you can easily admire the glowing, predominantly blue and azure green tiles on the walls... . Tiles on the gallery walls, with their stylized flowers, are especially enchanting... ." (Edda Renker Weissenbacher, A Self-Guide to Iznik Tiles in Istanbul, self published, 2004, p. 71)

Aiya Sophiya

Aiya Sophiya or Hagia Sophia, the Church of the Holy Wisdom, was built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian and his wife, Theodora, as a great Basilica,  from 532 to 537 CE on the site of two previous Hagia Sophia churches that had been destroyed. The architects of the basilica were Isidorus the Elder, who preserved the writings of Archimedes from obscurity or possible destruction, and Anthemius of Tralles. The materials used for Hagia Sophia were brought from all parts of the Empire. Columns were brought from many older buildings and used here. Marble and stones were quarried from different locations and transported to Istanbul. Although the church was consecrated in 537, the central dome had to be rebuilt in 558 after an earthquake destroyed it. Also, the original mosaics were not completed until after 565, and these were destroyed by the "iconoclasts", the "image-breakers", sometime between 726 and 842, when icons were held to be idolatry. New mosaic murals were created after the age of Iconoclasm, but were covered in whitewash, which, unintentionally, acted to preserve them, by the Ottomen Sultans after 1453. (İlhan Akşit, Hagia Sophia, Akşit Kültür ve Turizm Yayincilik, 2010, pp. 11-28)  

One of the decorated domes. Figures of angels or Seraphim, are seen on the edges of the dome.

Some of the highly decorated columns and another dome to the right.

Tile work above marble walls and arches.

A painting of the incomplete mosaic below.
Some of the salvaged Christian mosaics. In this panel Mary and John the Baptist are asking Jesus to forgive mankind. (Aksit, p. 64)

In this mosaic, dating from 1042, Christ is flanked by Emperor Constantine IX Manomachos and his Empress Zoë, each of whom are shown donating to the church. It is assumed that the original heads of the flanking figures were scraped off an earlier mosaic and the heads of the 11th century Emperor and Empress added to it. (Aksit, pp. 88-93)

If you walked a few blocks behind the Gulhame tram station, you'd pass the entrance to the Archeological Museum and the Çinili Köşk (the Tiled Pavilion of Sultan Mehmet II, now a ceramics museum). Then, after walking up a steep hill, 

you arrived at the entrance to the Topkapi Palace and Harem.

Outside the entrance to Topkapi.

Topkapi Palace and the Harem

Topkapi Palace was built by Sultan Mehmed II from 1460 to 1478 CE. Its basic design was a series of courtyards and gardens around which were offices to conduct state business, the pavilions and buildings that were the residence of the Sultan, and buildings that were residences for court employees. The Topkapi Palace was organized into two sections--the outer palace and the inner palace, of which the Harem was part. (Hande Eagle, ed., Topkapi, Bilkent Kültür Girişimi Publications, 2010)

Entering Topkapi through the Imperial Gate.

The Second Courtyard looking toward the Gate of Salutation. The Court of the Kitchens is to the right, and the Imperial stables are to the left (both not in view).

Also, Hagia Irene was in the courtyard to the left. Hagia Irene, built by Constantine I in the fourth century CE, is reputed to be the first Christian church built in Istanbul.

To the left, just before the Gate of Felicity, stands the Imperial Council or Domed Chamber, built by Suleiman the Magnificent. It was the seat of government  from the 16th century on.

A tiled council chamber.

After entering the Third Courtyard through the Gate of Felicity, you enter the Audience Hall, where petitions were received by the grand vizier, and decrees adopted by the Imperial Council were presented by the grand vizier to the sultan.

Also in the Third Courtyard are the Sultan's Library, and the Museum of the Prophets which contains holy relics, and the entrance to the Harem.

Entrance to the Privy Room/Museum of the Prophets.
Photos were not allowed to be taken inside the building.

Entrance to the Harem.

Once you enter the Harem, you are met by tiles everywhere.
These Cypress trees represent the Tree of Life.

"The Harem contains more than 300 rooms, nine bathhouses, two mosques, a hospital, dormatories, and a laundry. The basic plan of the Harem consists of consecutive courtyards surrounded by and interspersed with living quarters, rooms, pavilions, and service buildings." (Eagle, p. 52)

Part of the Courtyard of the Black Eunuchs. The eunuchs were charged with guarding the Harem, and many of the eunuchs' quarters opened onto this courtyard. By the end of the 16th century the Black Eunuchs were one of the more powerful groups in the household.

The dormitories of the Black Eunuchs are behind the windows.

The Courtyard of the Queen Mother. Construction of the women's apartments, which surrounded this courtyard, was started in the 15th century and continued into the 16th century.

Some of the tile work in the courtyard.

The apartment of the Queen Mother (the Vȃlide Sultan) "has a strong rococo décor and is hung with numerous landscape paintings. The apartment has tiled walls at floor level, fireplaces and fountains in each of the rooms, and numerous floral decorations." (Eagle, p. 64)   

Part of the Queen Mother's apartment (with costumed mannikins).

A tiled dome in the apartment.

Some of the painted landscapes in the Queen Mother's apartments.

Tiled fireplace in the Queen Mother's apartment.

The Privy Chamber of Sultan Murad III is one of the most architecturally artistic rooms in the Harem. It was constructed by the court's chief architect, Sinan, in 1578-79, and the walls were clad in second (best) period Iznik tiles. A band of verses from the Koran Ayet el Kürsi (the Throne Verse) are inscribed in white on a blue tile background around the chamber.

The Privy Chamber of Sultan Ahmed I (below), built in 1608, is clad mainly in green and blue tiles. The windows and doors are decorated with mother-of-pearl inlays. This is the sultan who practically destroyed the Iznik tile industry when he built the Blue Mosque.

Privy Chamber of Ahmed I.

The Privy Chamber of Sultan Ahmed III, also called the Fruit Room, was constructed during the Tulip Period of Ottomen decorative arts, 1718-30. "This new style, which can be considered naturalistic, was reflected in all of the architectural works of the period, whether in painting or calligraphy or in work done in plaster or marble relief. (Eagle, p. 72)

Paintings of fruits and flowers cover the walls of Ahmed III's "Fruit Room". 
A tiled fireplace is on the right.

The Twin Pavilions (below) were constructed in the 17th century, and became the Apartment of the Crown Prince in the 18th century. The interior is decorated with 17th century Iznik tiles.

At the entrance to the "Golden Road", the hallway where the sultans threw gold coins in the air as they passed the women who lined the passage, is a famous tile panel depicting a landscape with tents.

We ran out of time and the Museum was closing. We did not see all the rooms in the Harem, nor all the pavilions in the rest of Topkapi. 

The Archeological Museum and the Çinili Köşk

A short walk from the Topkapi Palace are the Archeo- logical Museum with its outdoor, architectural salvage garden, and the Çinili Köşk, the Tiled Pavilion, now a ceramics museum, which was built in 1472. 

The Archeological Museum contains many ancient Middle Eastern treasures, such as a series of Sumerian wall sculptures.

Front facade of the Tiled Pavilion, the Çinili Köşk.

"The main entrance to the pavilion is in a recessed alcove with an arched vault. ...The calligraphy in the vault...shows a severely stylized kufic script in large letters with dark blue contour [...reading] 'In God, I Trust'. The border band which surrounds the vault is decorated with two intertwining scrolls. 

"The white scroll bears palmettes and rectangular cartouches in kufic script with the word 'Allah' alternating with those containing the word 'Mohammed'. 

A frieze of Persian script below part of the "In God, I Trust" kufic script.

"Above the door and covering three faces of the alcove in a large frieze there is a calligraphic script in Persian rendered in white sülüs letters overlapping with nesih-sülüs subordinates in yellow. The inscription praises the building and confirms that it was completed in September 1472." (Alpay Pasinli and Saliha Balaman, Turkish Tiles and Ceramics Çinili Köşk, A Turizm Yayinlan Ltd. Şti., 1991, p. 8)

Inside the Çinili Köşk are many ceramic treasures of the Ottomen Empire. Above is a tiled window facade from the Haseki Hürrem Sultan Medrese in Istanbul, c. 1540. After the tiles were shaped, the designs were etched or printed on the clay, and the tiles were fired. Glaze was added later, and the tiles fired again. The blue and white plate below was produced about the same period--the first quarter of the 16th century, and was from the Yildiz Palace.

An Iznik reproduction of a "lotus bouquet" dish of the Chinese Ming Dynasty. It differs from the original Chinese design. (Pasinli and Balaman, p. 48)

The Peacock Fountain, below, was made in 1590 during the reign of Murad III (1574-95). The peacock, tulips and plum branches were popular motifs at the time.

The tile mihrap, below, "comes from the Imaret of Ibrahim Bey II from Karaman. The edifice was finished in 1432 and is regarded as the most important monument of the Karamanoğlu State (1256-1483). Its tiles are executed in the cuerda seca technique." (Pasinli and Balaman, p. 10)

A polychrome ceramic mosque lamp made as a gift for the inauguration of the Mosque of the Grand Vizier Sokollu Mehmet Paşa in Istanbul, built by Sinan in 1571-72. (Pasinli and Balaman, pp. 82-83)

There were other types of tile work displayed in the museum. In the second half of the 12th century, during the Anatolian Seljuk Period, the Minai glazing technique was used on tiles. Designs in blue, purple, green and turquoise were applied in underglaze and fired. Then, yellow, red, black, white, and sometimes gilt were applied, and the tiles were re-fired at a lower temperature.

These fragments originally were parts of square tiles. They are underglaze-painted in green and blue and overglaze-painted in red, black and yellow on a white ground. The tiles were further enhanced with gilding. The tiles were excavated from the Pavilion of Kiliç Aslan II (1156-92) in Konya. (Pasinli and Balaman, p. 18)

The Persians developed an over-glaze lustre technique by using mixtures of gold, silver, copper dust and metal oxide known as perdah on a matt-white glaze, and firing the ceramics at a low temperature. The Kashan tiles below are from the second half of the 13th century to early 14th century Ilkhanid Period.

Seljuk lustre tiles, second half of 13th century. The first tile of the second row shows two concentric eight-pointed stars and is decorated with underglaze cobalt blue and lustre (perdah) on an opaque white ground. The middle tile is decorated with lustre and monochrome cobalt blue glaze on an opaque white ground. (Pasinli and Balaman, pp. 22-23)

Below are fragments of a mosaic tile panel from a mihrab (niche) from the second half of the 13th century. Turquoise, black and purple tiles were cut to fit the design and then tapped into place on a bed of gipsum.

After Iznik declined in the quality of its tile production, Kütahya, which had been second to Iznik in ceramic quality, produced tiles that did not match its ceramic wares in quality. "Tiles were painted with polychrome underglazed on a white ground and covered with a transparent colourless glaze. Their decorative repertoire tries to imitate the naturalistic flowers of 16th and 17th century Iznik prototypes, but fails. (Pasinli and Balaman, p. 106)

Non-representational Kütahya tiles in the Tiled Pavilion.

Another city that produced ceramics and tiles from the mid-18th to the mid-19th centuries was Çanakkale. In the second half of the 19th century, Çanakkale's production became crude and more utilitarian.

Çanakkale tiles in the Tiled Pavilion. They seem very similar to the Kütahya tiles above.

This ends the first part of my ceramic tour of Istanbul. The second part will discuss the Grand Bazaar, the Spice Market, the Rustem Paşa, Yeni Valide and Süleymaniye Mosques, and the Dolmabahçe Palace, among others.


"A Walking City for the 21st Century"

© Poliedro

On November 3 the website contained an article about Manuel Dominguez' plans for a city that moves. "In a world where people live more mobile lifestyles than they have for centuries, cities are facing a problem they rarely planned for: their citizens move away. When jobs and resources start to decline, modern cities, such as Detroit, suffer difficult and often wasteful processes of urban contraction. In contrast to this, Manuel Dominguez’s “Very Large Structure,” the result of his thesis project at ETSA Madrid, proposes a nomadic city that can move on caterpillar tracks to locations where work and resources are abundant." (more here) This has been a recurring theme in science fiction, but now it is being taken seriously.


  1. Wonderful page! Thank you for posting these photos. The original tile work on the exterior of the PTT/Post Office, in Sirkeci, was made by my grandfather, the Armenian Kutahya ceramist David Ohannessian, toward the end of the first decade of the 20th century. The architect was Vedat Tek, an exponent of the First National style of architecture.They collaborated on several buildings in that period. Best wishes, Sato Moughalian

    1. Thank you, Sato, for this information. I am sure that you are proud of your grandfather's work.