Time travel through history of pottery in Kütahya, Turkey

Time travel through history of pottery in Kütahya, Turkey

ATHENS, Greece (AA): Kütahya in western Turkey has been attracting tourists from all around the world thanks to its unique pottery production that stretches to the 15th century.

In a tribute to the history of the city’s pottery, the Benaki Museum of Islamic Art in Athens recently hosted an exhibition with magnificent pieces from the city that take viewers on a colorful journey into the past.

Adorning the exhibition, which ended last month, were pieces with bright motifs of cobalt blue, turquoise, yellow, red and green giving a tiny taste of the handcrafts of the city.

Several historical events influenced but also interrupted the production in Kütahya, including the Balkan wars, World War I and the Turkish War of Independence (1919-1923), but its reputation as a distinguished center for pottery endured.

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The “Souvenir of Kütahya” exhibit at the Benaki Museum, Athens, Greece, June 17, 2021. (AA Photo)

Dinos Kogias is an Athens lawyer by profession, but out of his passion for the pottery of Kütahya, he has researched the history behind it for decades.

Kogias became a researcher and curator of the “Souvenir of Kütahya” exhibition at the Benaki Museum. Along with other researchers, he founded a center called Diktio dedicated to the collection, research and study of modern Greek, Ottoman and Balkan ceramics.

“Even as a boy, I wanted to know the story, what was hiding behind every piece I saw,” he told Greek daily Kathimerini in an interview.

He started his collection of objects and archival material from Kütahya several years ago, spurred by the acquisition in 2002 of some ceramics from Kütahya with Greek inscriptions.

Telling Anadolu Agency (AA) that he knew of the existence of such vessels from references he saw elsewhere, Kogias explained, “But when I first held them in my hands, I realized that they are a special category of ceramics, important evidence of a historical and collective past that we have now forgotten or simply do not know.”

Inspired by the glazed motifs and through 129 original, fascinating and colorful items shown in the exhibition, he gave his account of the unknown and richly endowed pottery of Kütahya and its influences.

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The “Souvenir of Kütahya” exhibit at the Benaki Museum, Athens, Greece, June 17, 2021. (AA Photo)

Kütahya’s pottery was very much influenced by the pottery of Iznik, in northwestern Turkey, which enjoyed a worldwide reputation, and only after its decline did Kütahya rise in fame.

Kogias told AA how “after the decline of Iznik pottery in the 18th century, Kütahya’s workshops flourished, producing a wide variety of pottery and tiles, often with obvious influences from Chinese and Japanese porcelain and pottery from Iran and Europe.”

In her book “Kütahya Tiles and Ceramics,” Hülya Bilgi, the director of Istanbul’s Sadberk Hanım Museum, mentions several times how much the pottery made there was influenced by the Far East but also from Iznik.

However, Kütahya’s pottery and ceramics were distinct from Iznik in the kinds of items produced in the 18th century, Bilgi said.

An attempt was made in the last quarter of the 19th century by artisans to revive the distant past by copying 16th century Iznik drawings, while the beginning of the 20th century saw a new boom period from mass orders for mosque monuments and other building coverings as part of the First National Architectural Movement, which incorporated elements of Ottoman and Seljuk architecture, Kogias outlines in his book “Souvenir of Kütahya: Imprints of History on Kütahya Pottery (late 19th – early 20th century).”

According to Kogias, the most important workshops of this period were those of Hafiz Mehmed Emin Efendi, the Hadji Minassian brothers and David Ohannessian, who often collaborated to fulfill large orders.

At the western end of the city, Minas Avramidis was the most important representative.

However, World War I was at the city’s doorstep, bringing with it a devastating impact on the city’s economy, and many workshops were on the verge of bankruptcy due to understaffing, a lack of orders and a general halt in trade and government procurement, Kogias said.

“After the Greek army occupied Kütahya on July 4, 1921, the Greeks were impressed by the city’s porcelain, making it very popular, and with the reopening of workshops, the first ceramics with Greek inscriptions appeared with the phrase ‘Souvenir of Kütahya,’” he explained.

Many of the items ended up in Greece, brought by Greek soldiers, which explains why much of the pottery bears commemorative inscriptions such as “Souvenir of Kütahya” along with the initials of the owners.

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The “Souvenir of Kütahya” exhibit at the Benaki Museum, Athens, Greece, June 17, 2021. (AA Photo)

Yolanda Crowe, an independent scholar studying the local ceramics, said in a scholarly article that “archaeological finds in Kütahya and several harbors such as London and Amsterdam as well as aboard shipwrecks have proved the popularity of Kütahya cups and saucers around the world in the 18th century, displaying a variety of designs.”

“There are over 70 pieces in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, offering the possibility of studying the ceramic production of this relatively small Anatolian town on the Anatolian plateau, some hundred kilometers southeast of Bursa and Iznik,” said Crowe.

According to Kogias, most of the ceramic items were everyday items like trays, cups, teapots, plates, vases and water bottles, but also bigger ones like tables.

Several mosques have also been decorated with tiles and ceramics from the city.

When the Greek occupation of Kütahya ended, most of the city’s Armenian or Greek origin inhabitants started their move through Mudanya in Turkey’s Bursa province and Eastern Thrace, including the European side of Istanbul, into the Greek city of Thessaloniki.

Most of them settled in the capital Athens, Piraeus, Thessaloniki and other cities in the regions of Macedonia and Thrace in northern Greece. From 1923, pottery workshops and factories were established where Greek and Armenian refugee artisans from Kütahya worked, continuing the ceramic tradition of their homeland.

After the end of the war in Kütahya, young Turkish craftspeople and former students of the pottery of the Ottoman era in the city collaborated to reopen the workshops, and similarly, gradually revived the pottery of their homeland in Turkey’s Republican era.

In 2016, the ceramic art of Kütahya was registered in UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, while in 2017, the city was included in the UNESCO Network of Creative Cities. Today, Kütahya remains the largest ceramic production center in Turkey, with exports to many countries.

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