Thanks to their overall good state of preservation, the city walls of Nicaea provide an outstanding visual testimony to the history of the city throughout the Byzantine period. Alongside with its interest for military history and architecture, the artistic, symbolic, and aesthetic value of the walls is also to be highlighted. Their history goes back to Antiquity: Nicaea had been provided with a fortification as early as in the Hellenistic era, as Strabo reports. The enceinte was enlarged in the late 3rd century when it received its present shape. The present inner wall dates to this latter phase, although it has undergone many restorations and rebuilding, following earthquakes and sieges, up to the 11th century. Later, during the reign of the second ruler of the Laskarid dynasty, John III Vatatzes (1222-1254), the walls were strengthened with a second circle, concentric to the former, in an arrangement that was inspired by the Theodosian walls of Constantinople. The most striking feature of the Laskarid re-arrangement of the outer wall of Iznik is that a number of figural spolia (i.e., pieces of ancient sculpture, stone carvings and reliefs, recovered from ancient monuments) were reused as an element of the decoration of its main gates. This case is particularly interesting, in so far as Iznik is one of the richest examples surviving, in terms of the variety and size of the materials displayed, which must have created the strongest visual impact, as is still to be seen on two of the extant gates, the “Istanbul Kapı” and “Lefke Kapı”. In 1204, when the Latins conquered the city of Constantinople, the territory of the empire broke up into several independent states (the main ones in Epirus, Trebizond, and Nicaea). In the “empire of Nicaea” took refuge, members of the imperial court and the patriarch, so that the city came to be considered, in the collective imagination, as “temporary capital”, replacing Constantinople until the latter will be taken back by the Byzantines: as was to happen under Michael VIII Paleologus in 1261. While the exiles were awaiting the recapture of the city, the whole Byzantine tradition was recovered here. Authors and philosophers, who followed in the retinue of the Laskarids, provided the intellectual support. In Nicaea they recreated an environment, which they tried to make as similar as possible to the “Paradise lost” beyond the Marmara Sea: from the legal system to the imperial ceremonial, everything referred to the model of Constantinople, as well as to the millenary heritage of Bithynia. Written sources on this aspect are numerous, both on the Byzantine (such as Theodore II Laskaris and Theodore Metochites) and on the Western side (e.g., the later works of travellers to Ottoman Anatolia). Artistic activity flourished, and we know that the emperors undertook a program of embellishment and restoration of the city, although the archaeological remains are difficult to interpret. Such activity was not limited to architecture, but also extended to other media, such as wall painting, marble sculpture, manuscript illumination and weaving. Nonetheless, given how little else survives, the city walls are certainly the most relevant testimony of the architectural and artistic taste of this milieu. The aesthetic idea of displaying ancient sculpture on the city gates in Nicaea might reflect a historical situation where the revival of Antiquity – strategically arranged at key-points of the city – could be used as a tool of self-legitimacy, although it can be difficult to decipher the precise reasons that lay behind the selection of specific spolia.
Bevilacqua, L. (2020). Antiquity Revived in Byzantine Nicaea: The City Walls and Their Figural Decoration in the Thirteenth Century. In Iznik/Nicaea on Its Way to Become UNESCO World Heritage Site (pp. 560-576). TUR : Bursa Kültür A.S..