Winter 2015
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III. TRAVEL

Anatolia: From the Red River to the Blue Mosque

Avanos, Turkey; Photo: Eduardo Belinchon de la Banda

Avanos, Turkey; Photo: Eduardo Belinchon de la Banda

The Kizilirmak, or the Red River, is Turkey’s longest river, rising in the foothills of Mount Kizildag and winding its way north hundreds of miles to empty into the Black Sea. The old city of Avanos overlooks the river near its origin in the historic region known as Cappadocia, a mountainous plateau covered in sloping ridges and rounded peaks of volcanic rock formed from the ancient river’s erosion. The river clay in Avanos is a deep red color due to a high concentration of minerals, which makes for high-quality earthenware pottery, the city’s primary industry since 1700 BC, when the Hittites settled there. Today, Avanos is a mass of family run potteries producing mostly souvenirs—ornately painted ashtrays, mugs, chess sets, and traditional Hittite wine jugs, unusual vessels shaped like rings to be carried on the shoulder. In cavernous shops, potters perform demonstrations of the traditional Hittite kick-wheel techniques for tourists who afterwards can also attempt the machine and be taken through the firing and glazing process.

Neighboring Avanos is the stratified, underground city of Ozkonak and the pristine, 13th century Seljuk caravanserai, Sari Han. (Han is the Turkish name for a building type functioning as a trading post and overnight inn.) This small, porous city and fort-like building of ochre walls and a paved courtyard represent the beginning of the evolutionary line of ceramic art in Turkey, culminating in the shimmering blue and green domed mosques of the late Ottoman Empire.

Uchisar, Turkey

Uchisar, Turkey

Ozkonak, discovered by a local farmer only forty years ago, once housed 60,000 people. It is composed of two overlapping networks: one, of neatly carved galleries, connected by pedestrian tunnels spread out over ten floors (four of which are open to the public today) and two, of a micro-network of smaller tunnels used for ventilation when the city was sealed up against enemies. This sort of natural architecture or negative architecture, depending on how one sees it, required no adornment. The interior was the exterior was the landscape; it was all more of the same—rock, and all that was needed for protection of the elements were rolling doors of the same substance. Ceramics at this point were utensils, often decoratively painted with intricate geometric patterns, used for storing and serving food and drink. The colors of the vessels were warm, with a deep red-brown or mustard yellow paste as background to red, black, and white painted designs. The other cities of Cappadocia—Uchisar, Goreme, and Zelve, were sculpted similarly by the river, but most dwellings were above ground in ridges and rocks the size of houses capped with darker roof-like flat and pyramidal rocks, known as fairy chimneys.

In the 12th-century, when the Iranian Seljuk Sultans arrived from their capital of Konya, the landscape changed drastically, as art and architecture began to flourish under their rule. The short but golden era of their empire called initially for the fabrication of caravansarais where there was little else for miles to facilitate trade, and in these structures, ceramic tiling made its appearance. The Seljuks also built mosques, medreses (theological academies), tombs, and palaces, all of which were clad with protective bricks and tiles. Bricks were glazed in turquoise, cobalt blue, violet, and black, and were molded in a variety of shapes from hexagonal, to triangular, square, and rectangular to comply with a multiplicity of kaleidoscopic arrangements. Tiles were made from a paste that was harder and more yellowish than that of bricks but were likewise glazed in turquoise, cobalt blue, violet, and sometimes green, and were occasionally painted with floral motifs and Kufic or Thuluth calligraphy. Complicated tile mosaics (in which tesserae were cut to shape rather than pre-formed) were employed interiorly, especially in mihrab niches, domes, and vaults. The tiles were pressed onto wall and ceiling surfaces in panels after being arranged glazed-side down and coated with a whitish mortar. Outstanding examples of Anatolian Seljuk buildings decorated with mosaic tile are Karatay Medrese (Konya, 1251), Alaaddin Mosque (Konya, 1220), Gok Medrese and Mosque (Sivas, 1271), the Malatya Grand Mosque (1247), and Ince Minareli Medrese (Konya, 1264).

Ince Minare Medrese

Ince Minare Medrese

Seljuk Developments
Extensive Seljuk palaces received the unique treatment of two types of tiles developed in Iran and Iraq. Star and cross-shaped minai tiles, employed in the Alaeddin Kiosk in Konya, are of a larger assortment of colors than what can be found in mosques and medreses, including variations of red, brown, black, and white in addition to the regular turquoise, blue, violet, and green. Also introduced were luster tiles, which were used to cover the walls of the complex of residences composing the Kubadabad Palace (Konya, 1236). These triangular, square, rectangular, and hexagonal tiles were produced with an overglaze technique in which plant motifs and social scenes were painted with a mixture of silver and copper oxides onto a previously glazed and fired surfaces, then fired again at a lower temperature, to achieve a range of lustrous earth tones. Subsequently, new techniques were invented by the Anatolian Seljuks, such as the sgraffito technique, in which tiles were allowed to dry to leather-hardness and then carved with designs; and the slip technique, in which the design is painted onto a red-paste surface using diluted white slip for a slightly molded effect.

As advancements in ceramic art were being made, the landscape of Anatolia was populated with sprawling caravansarais, which grew reflexively ornamental. Several towns across Turkey owe their names to caravanserais built there: Alacahan, Duragan, Hekimhan, Kadinhani, Akhan, and Sultanhani, where the largest was completed in 1278. Like the Sari Han, constructed contemporarily, the Sultanhanı is a wall-structure fortifying an open courtyard, but on a much larger scale, extended from its original design to enclose in total over 40,000 sq-ft of space. In addition, the building includes a square stoned kosk mescidi, the oldest example in Turkey, at its center, and a domed mosque on its second floor supported by carved barrel-vaulted arches.

Sultanhani

Sultanhani

The replacement of column and beam supported roofs with massive singular domes and fields of domes organized in grids in Seljuk mosques at this time marks the emergence of the Bursa Period (1299–1437). The Holy Mosque in Bursa was altered to consist of 20 domes, for example. The period also evolved in Edirne, the last Ottoman capital before Istanbul, and here mosques were combined by the Ottomans with a diversity of other building types—soup kitchens, hospitals, tombs, etc. represented by the Fatih Mosque (1470), Mahmutpasa Mosque, the Topkapı Palace, which housed the dynasty for 400 years. Here, also is evidenced the merging of Seljuk and Ottoman ceramic art methods of production and decorative motifs. The sgraffito and slip techniques continued to be used in conjunction with new Ottoman techniques, such as the cuerda seca, in which a design is stamped or etched into paste and filled with a mixture of beeswax or vegetable fat and manganese oxide, then burned away during firing, to leave sharp contours and outlines for painting. Fine examples of cuerda seca tiles are to be found at the Bursa Green Mosque (1419-1420) and Tomb (1421-1422) the Mosque of Murad II (Edirne, 1436), the Tiled Kiosk (Istanbul), and the Tomb of Prince Mehmed (Istanbul, 1548).

Iznik
Ceramic production began to reach its height in the late 15th and early 16th century in the city of Iznik, where artists were sent by the Ottoman court to produce utensils and tiles for the palace. A departure from Seljuk traditions of both technique and design, the well-known “blue-and-white” style associated with Iznik quickly developed and eclipsed Seljuk tiles in popularity. By utilizing a fine, pure white paste and firing at temperatures as high as 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit, artists were able to generate a hard material comparable to light porcelain–a newly desired material being imported from Ming Dynasty China. The designs, thinly contoured in slip coatings, were painted flawlessly in shades of cobalt blue, predominately, with compositions of foliage, arabesques, and Chinese clouds.

The Blue Mosque; Photo: Simon Chorley

The Blue Mosque; Photo: Simon Chorley

In the late 16th century, there was a strong surge in the demand for tiles from Iznik to supply the extensive building programs initiated by Suleyman the Magnificent (1520-1566) and carried out by his successors. Colors then were cobalt blue, turquoise, green, black, brown, and the famous orange-hued tomato or bole red appeared for the first time in Suleyman’s great mosque, the Suleymaniye (1557). The Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Istanbul, known as the Blue Mosque (1616), alone contains 20,000 tiles from Iznik.

This mosque, a major tourist attraction today, represents the Iznik ceramic industry at its height and decline in the mid-16th century. Modeled after Suleymaniye, the building encloses a large forecourt, the size of the mosque itself, surrounded by a continuous vaulted arcade. The interior of the mosque, at its lower levels and at every pier, is covered with tiles in more than fifty different tulip designs, which grow more exuberant with representations of flowers, fruit and cypresses from the ground up. (These tiles were made under the supervision of the master potters Kasap Haci and Baris Efendi from Avanos.) In the course of construction, the quality of the tiles produced for the project declined sharply—today, colors are faded or have changed—red has turned to brown, and green into blue, whites have become mottled, and glazes are dull and cracked. This was due to the sultan’s imposition of fixed prices on tiles in a period of inflation; potters could not afford to continue producing high quality wares for the prices regulated by the empire. The original tiles deteriorated to the point of requiring replacement, and sections of the interior were covered in tiles recycled from the harem in the Topkapı Palace, recovered from the building when it was damaged by fire in 1574.

The Iznik ceramic industry also suffered due to the loss of patronage by the Ottoman court and increased importation of Chinese porcelain, which eventually led to its total demise. Potters found new markets outside the Ottoman Empire in Cairo, where their tiles were used in the Aksunkur Mosque (1652), and Greece in the Monastery of the Great Lavra (1678) on Mount Athos. Nevertheless, there was a decline in the volume of pottery produced, and by the 18th century, the ceramic industry in Iznik had died out completely. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, only weak revivals in other cities, like Kutahya, kept production alive across Anatolia. Today, ceramics are being produced by factories in Iznik, Istanbul, and Bursa, and small potteries in towns like Avanos, but for the most part, in attempt to revive tradition, not advanced it, which is unfortunate considering the material’s availability, versatility, and long-lasting beauty.

—Ashley Booth Klein