Driving down Bağdad Avenue in Istanbul, I see a wide boulevard lined with familiar international fashion brands and local designer labels, shopping malls, department stores and chic cafes and restaurants. I have not come to shop, however. I’m here to visit the tile makers of the İznik Foundation.
“There are 20,000 İznik tiles inside the Sultan Ahmet Mosque,” says local historian Faruk Hanedan. “Their bright colors give it the English name of the Blue Mosque. İznik once made all the tiles for the Ottoman Court but, when the court declined in the late 17th century, the secret of their production was lost.”
At the İznik Foundation, I meet Professor Işıl Akbaygil who was responsible for their revival. She shows me some, their quartz base giving them a silken, sensual feel under my fingers. Professor Akbaygil was an archaeologist when she became obsessed with the beautiful remains she was finding on digs at İznik and determined to rediscover their secret. “It took three years and we almost gave up,” she says. “Then we discovered it almost by accident. Because they are made of quartz, a semi-precious stone, they are very expensive to make. Each tile is handmade and even now, when we use electric kilns instead of wood, takes about 70 days to produce.”
This symbol of the Ottoman Empire at its height is now exported around the world, with the ancient floral or geometric designs – Islam forbids the portrayal of living creatures – modified into modern forms. Architect Zaha Hadid and Turkish artist Murat Morov are among the artists who have produced new İznik designs and the tiles can be seen in major public works from Paris and UAE to Tokyo and beyond.
“It is the only true luxury manufactured good that comes from Turkey,” says Dr Akbaygi. “If you look at the leading luxury brands, such as Rolex or Gucci, they share certain characteristics, namely history or heritage, a handmade side and also durability and İznik tiles have all that.”
They also illustrate how modern Turkey is looking east and to its Ottoman roots, rather than solely to the west as before, for its identity.