The tulip is eastern. As eastern as Judaism, Christianity and Islam. As bashful as a blushing bride, as flustered as a beautiful girl showered with compliments. The six-petaled tulip is everywhere, high, low, north and west.
Mehmed the Conqueror took Istanbul in the tulip season. But there were no tulips in the city at the time, for the Byzantines were not acquainted with that flower. It was the Turks who brought the tulip on their horses from the steppes of Central Asia and took it with them wherever they went.
Following the conquest, the Conqueror in time organized colorful lantern processions with tulips on the banks of the Golden Horn every year when tulip season rolled around. Later, the alluring tulip was incorporated into celebrations of the conquest in entertainments staged along the banks of Sadabad (the Sweet Waters of Europe). It was thanks to this that the Ottomans came to love Istanbul more every year, making its millennia-old history their own. More than that, they also loved the flowers of their new homeland and, admiring their beauty, grew tulips alongside them in the same flower beds, just as they assimilated the different styles and ways and the people of different races and religions they encountered in their new home. But still the tulip occupied a special place and played a determining role, for it embodied the symbols of Islam. It could be written with the same Arabic characters as the word ‘Allah’ or turned into the word ‘hilal’ (crescent). Consequently the tulip was stamped on the forehead of Istanbul like a mark of eastern identity and came to be perceived as such over the centuries.
THE TULIP IS EASTERN
The tulip is eastern, as eastern as Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The tulip is as bashful as a blushing bride, as flustered as a beautiful girl showered with compliments. The six-petaled tulip is everywhere, high, low, north and west. The tulip signifies patience and constancy. Planted in October, it blooms in April. The tulip signifies love. A lover with black brand marks on his breast. An ardent lover on whose velvet head dewdrops land like lightning.
BELOVED OF POETS
Every civilization has certain objects that represent its essential character. Viewed from outside, they may appear as mere details, but in fact they are deeply ingrained in the public consciousness because they impact on all of social life. Such elegant indicators often manifest themselves in a nation’s particular areas of cultural and artistic achievement, becoming products of sound, fine taste and transformed into pleasures of an aesthetic nature. The tulip is just that flower for the Turks. Indeed, its name is synonymous with a tradition, an object of pleasure, a thing of beauty in the Turkish home. From excursions to the imperial tulip garden of Lâlezar and entertainments at Sadabad on the Sweet Waters of Europe to musical evenings at Çerağan and gatherings in the rose garden, the tulip was part and parcel of Ottoman social life. Poets adorned their couplets with metaphors borrowed from the tulip, and painters, paper marbling artists, engravers, wood carvers, marble sculptors, tile makers and many others adorned their paper, water, wood, metal, stones and clay with tulip designs, giving rise in the process to a civilization of grace and elegance.
EVEN MORE BEAUTIFUL UNDER THE OTTOMANS
Little cultivated and found more in the form of short, scrubby poppy-like flowers until the age of Suleyman the Magnificent, the tulip eventually arrived in the form of bulbs from places like the Crimea and Manisa, taking root in Istanbul soil as if it had reached the end of its journey, and becoming ever more beautiful, vital and ornamental. In subsequent periods it took on outstanding shapes and colors as an adornment of exclusive gardens. After the ‘Lâle-i Rumî’, or Istanbul tulip, first grown in those years, tulips hit Istanbul’s markets under hundreds of names, bound together in bunches with gold, silver or silk thread, and always held in high favor either as a crown on the head or an adornment behind the ear. Eventually even the highest ranking men of state were competing with each other to grow tulips, while gardener-scholars spent their lives striving to produce a new strain each year (Suleyman the Magnificent’s famous şeyhülislam, Ebussuud Efendi, being one of them). Gardens, vineyards and the Istanbul countryside were literally bursting with flowers, but still the Ottomans never stopped growing tulips. Indeed the surplus tulips grown in the palace ‘lâlezar’ (tulip garden) were sold in the city’s markets and the revenues used to meet certain palace expenses or to aid those in need.
Istanbul today has rediscovered the tulip, but unfortunately Holland and Canada now have a corner on the international market!
WORD GAME WITH TULIPS
Come, let us now play a word game with tulips. Let us first picture in our mind’s eye every word that was used to name the tulips that bloomed in Istanbul’s gardens, and try to imagine, for example, the color red in one of the ‘Spring Morning’ variety, or the shape of an ‘Oil Lamp of the Night’. Let us then lose ourselves in thought and wake up asking profound questions, such as: Is there anyone who is not reminded of heartache upon seeing the ‘Heart’s Wound’ tulip? Anyone who does not start humming the sad folk song ‘Pullu yemeni’ upon seeing an ‘Allı Yemeni’ tulip? And what about the sense of splendor and opulence that characterizes the ‘Sultan’s Sword’ variety? Or the “Grief of Mourning’, the ‘Cup of Felicity’ and the ‘Lunar Eclipse’, which correspond to all the declensions of life itself – the pain of separation expressed in the blood red ‘Longest Night of the Year’, or the fiery torch of the ‘Heart’s Nest’!
Our forefathers strove to express every aspect of their lives in tulip metaphors. Not content merely to stick a tulip in the folds of their turban or behind their ear, they worked it, color by color, thread by thread, into their very hearts.
BY ANY OTHER NAME…
The famous Austrian traveler and writer, O.G. Busbecq, who came to Istanbul as an ambassador in the time of Suleiman the Magnificent, says in his memoirs that the word ‘tulip’ in the western languages (tulipa in Latin, tulpe in German, tulipe in French, tulip in English, tulipano in Italian and tul’pan in Russian) was pronounced ‘tulipan’ by the Turks and was related to the word ‘tülbent’, which referred to the length of muslin they wrapped around their heads as a turban. Busbecq also says that Europe came to know the tulip through the Ottomans.
According to one of Istanbul’s oldest urban legends, a young man just out of puberty once sank into chair opposite Busbecq, who was sitting at an outdoor coffeehouse in front of the Hagia Sophia one spring afternoon. A tulip was dangling down over the young man’s ear from his turban. Most probably he had stuck the tulip behind his ear to proclaim his love for a girl by the name of Lâle (meaning tulip): ‘Lale! / You put me in this state / If my heart goes on like this / I’ll end up in the madhouse / I entered this state because of love for you (Said Bey)”, and later forgotten it was there. Busbecq was neither aware of the Turkish custom of sticking a flower behind one’s ear, nor had he ever seen such a flower in his own country. Approaching the young man, he pointed to the tulip and asked in a heavy, foreign accent: “Sir, what is this? And the young man, thinking he was being asked the word for the cloth he had wound around his head, replied, ‘Tül – bent!’ (muslin), clearly enunciating each syllable so the foreigner could understand.
In the days that followed, Busbecq packed a box of manuscripts he had purchased from the Istanbul book market to send to a friend in Holland. Before handing the crate over to the ship, he enclosed a few tulip bulbs and the following note among the volumes:
‘Dear Friend! These bulbs will give you flowers the color of rubies. The Turks call them Tulipan!”
The tulip triggered the world’s first speculation-based economic crisis! In the period known as Tulip Madness, tulip bulbs became excessively over-valued, and when the market suddenly collapsed, dealers lost everything. During this time, when commercial agreements, real estate sales and rentals were all negotiated in tulip bulbs, certain bulbs went for ten times the annual income of a skilled artisan.
İskender Pala Skylife Magazine (Turkish Airlines) April 2010