Nicaea, Byzantine City

Anthony Bryer takes a visit to Nicaea; The seat of early Church Councils and, for a while, of the Byzantine Emperors, it has a history stretching from the reign of Alexander the Great to the present day.

Those who fly from Istanbul to Ankara see first on the distant horizon the heights of Bithynian Olympus, which once swarmed with Byzantine hermits, and then, closer to the left, the factory chimneys of Nicomedia, the modern Izmit. The aircraft soon crosses the Ascanian Lake, a great inland sea, and flies directly over one of the most impressive aerial sights in Anatolia at its eastern shore: Nicaea.

From the air a pentagon of massive double city walls, three miles long, stand out like the crown to which a late Byzantine eulogist compared them. Huddled amid gardens in the centre of the ruined city are the roofs of the modern village of Iznik. Six ancient roads snake into the mountains: east to Dorylaeum and Ancyra (Ankara), west to Cius, Nicaea’s port on the Propontis, and north to Nicomedia and through the gorge of the Dracon to Helenopolis and ‘Civetot’, the ferry stations for Constantinople.

There is evidence for very early settlement by tnc Ascanian Lake, but traditions differ upon when and how the site at its eastern end grew; certainly some of the earliest colonists came from the Greek mainland. In the fourth century B.C., Antigonus, one of Alexander’s generals, named the place Antigonia; soon after 301 B.C. Lysim-machus renamed it in memory of his wife, Nicaea. In 208 B.C. it became the capital of the kings of Bithynia, but Nicomedia supplanted it, beginning a rivalry between the two cities that passed into ecclesiastical history and lasted until well into the Middle Ages.

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