One place that does not figure on most tourists’ itinerary of Turkey is the little town of Iznik. Small, unimportant, difficult of access, there is little to commend it apart from its quite remarkable history.
Of course, if you consult the history books, it is very unlikely that you will find any mention of Iznik, for the town has been obscure ever since the Turks captured it and gave it a new name. However if you look up “Nicea”, you will find yourself swamped with information, chiefly about the two great church councils held in the town.
The first of these, in 325 AD, was called by the emperor Constantine in order to settle the dispute that had arisen in Egypt regarding the nature of God. An Alexandrian deacon called Arius had started to teach that Jesus was only a man, chosen by God and elevated to a high position after His death and resurrection. Opposing him was his bishop, a wise man by the name of Alexander, who felt that such uncertain questions were best ignored.
Later, after the death of Alexander, Athanasius took up the cudgels, arguing the case for the doctrine of the Trinity with eventual success. Constantine, distressed by the disunity in the church which he had so recently embraced, summoned the bishops to meet at Nicea, where the matter was thoroughly discussed, the emperor himself taking an active part in the council. The decision reached formed the basis of the Nicene Creed which is still professed by the majority of Christian churches today.
Less auspicious was the second council of Nicea in 787 AD. For many years the Orthodox church had been according an undue veneration to images and icons. Icons were reputed to be able to work miracles and some people went so far as to have icons act as “godparents” to their children. These practices, which bordered on the superstitious, provoked a reaction and the Emperor Leo III banned all images and icons, breaking statues, burning icons and whitwashing the frescoes on church walls.
His immediate successors continued this iconoclastic policy but in the end the forces for the veneration of images proved too strong. Possibly their champion, the Empress Irene, felt in need of all the intercession she could get, for her personal life fell considerably short of the ideal. She called a council of the eastern bishops who obediently declared that holy images should be adored and venerated and anathematised all who disagreed.
The remains of Nicea are quite impressive. The city lies on the eastern shore of a large lake and is still largely confined within the Roman walls. It is an eerie experience to drive thorough the ancient gates and imagine what the quiet street ahead must have looked like when it was thronged with the dignitaries of the church and their crowds of attendants.
A little way down the main street, on the left, there are the roofless ruins of the Church of St John in which these councils took place. The first impression is that considering the number of bishops involved, the building is remarkably small. It is a basilica: that is to say, it has a central nave flanked by an aisle on each side. There are the remains of mosaic on the floor as well as marble paving slabs, there is an apse at the far end, with a stone platform in front of it. Presumably the altar stood there at one time.
The Turkish Antiquities Department has erected an informative sign outside the building, entrance to which is free (or was when I last visited). An attendant occupies a small room near the entrance and sells postcards and souvenirs to the occasional visitors.
The last time I was there I was annoyed to discover that I was not the only visitor. There was a group of Europeans lounging casually around on the platform, right in the way of the photographs I wished to take. Quite why they were there I could not make out, as that end of the building was in shade; however I assumed that they were a lecture tour of some sort, for there was a man in jeans talking to them in a quiet voice.
As I approached, however, I noticed that several members of the group had gathered up sticks and twigs which they were holding unostentatiously in their hands. With a jolt I realised that the sticks were all being held so that one crossed the other to form a crucifix. Only then did I look more closely at the “lecturer” and spot the clerical collar and the small silver cup half-hidden in his hand, over which his fingers made the merest flicker of the sign of the cross.
Down by the lakeside, where cafes set out their tables to take advantage of the cool breeze blowing across the water, the remains of ancient walls and piers could be seen. In the opposite direction you come to the east gate of the city, up which you can climb. From the top you can clearly see the double walls which protected this important city.
Almost as interesting is the aqueduct which carried water to Nicea. Its arches come striding across the fields towards the city wall, but there is only a small hole in the wall to allow access for the water. Presumably the city architects were well aware of the danger of hostile persons creeping into the city via the water channel.
Outside the city on the road south there is a tall tower-like building which contains the tomb of a Muslim hero who died fighting against Nicea. Quite why this particular gentleman should be so remembered I was not able to discover.
Visitors to Iznik can now hope to see even more remains, for in July of this year excavations in the area of the Roman theatre began. The theatre was built by Trajan in the second century AD and, as befits the construction of a soldier, the stage is decorated with reliefs of military equipment. In addition, Dutch archaelogists are working in a tumulus outside the town where they hope to discover evidence for some of the earliest agriculture in this part of the world. Finally, Dr Oktay Aslanapa of Istanbul University has found the ruins of an ancient pottery on a piece of waste ground next to the Baths of Sultan Murad II in the middle of Nicea. This particular ceramic factory appears to have operated from Greek times down into the Ottoman era.
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