Tulips from Istanbul

Spring is a beautiful season in Turkey. The weather is not necessarily all you might wish, but when it’s good, it’s very, very good.  Even the concrete megalopolis of Istanbul puts on a fine show, as trees break into blossom and green leaf. For the last seven years the Metropolitan Council has sponsored a tulip festival in April – this year is the 8th annual event, and according to reports, 14.5 million bulbs of 270 different varieties have been planted in parks, verges and median strips around the city.

Apart from the spectacular colour the blooms are bringing to the lives of city-dwellers, the project must have created employment for a goodly number of nursery-workers, gardeners, drivers, landscape designers, manufacturers of irrigation systems, middle managers and who knows what other peripheral occupations. There are even new opportunities for museum curators and academics. One feature of this year’s festival has been the establishment of a tulip museum in Emirgan Park beside the Bosporus on the European side of the city – with funding provided for research.

Turkey’s wild flowers have an international reputation amongst those in the know. Apart from the deep layers of history, sites connected with the early development of Christianity and the glory days of Islamic civilisation, tourists visit Turkey, especially in spring, for  its natural wonders, particularly the beauties of its endemic flora. Poppies, pansies, daisies, primroses, crocuses and a myriad other wildflowers grow in abundance and turn on vivid displays in this season. Most commonly cultivated tulips, I am told, derive from the genus tulipa gesneriana, which grows naturally in Turkey, and was brought to Europe from the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century.

It’s an interesting plant, the tullip. Much of its dazzling colour variety, apparently, is the result of a disease, a non-fatal virus – a kind of benign tulip version of yellow or scarlet fever, perhaps. While some people have an allergic reaction to the leaves and petals,  tulip bulbs, it seems, can be eaten in safety. They can, in fact, be dried, pulverised and used to make a kind of bread, as, I understand, some Dutch people were obliged to do during the dark days of the Second World War. The flavour, however, was not sufficiently appealing for the practice to catch on, and most Dutch citizens these days prefer to admire the flowers and eat bread from the local bakkerij. Nevertheless, some insist that a petal or two adds a little je ne sais quoi to a fresh salad, and true afficionados claim to have made an acceptable tulip wine.

Not the Ottomans, though, as far as I can learn. Wine drinking is generally frowned on in traditional Muslim societies, and, while the upper echelons of society may have fancied a drop from time to time, they tended to stick with the grape variety, the vine being also native to the region, and its fruit in plentiful supply.

Paper marbling with tulip
The word ‘tulip’ itself comes to us from the Persian language via Ottoman Turkish. Somewhat perversely, we didn’t borrow their  word for the actual plant and flower, which is ‘lale’ in both languages. What we got was the Persian word for a turban, that wended its way slowly through several European tongues like Italian and French, mutated and deformed as it went – in a process similar to that undergone by our word ‘mosque’. In Persia, the tulip was intimately bound up in art and literature with romantic love and passion, especially of the unrequited kind – a theme also much admired in Turkish tradition. Islamic societies tended to avoid depicting the human form, or even animals – a prohibition attributed to reaction against the Orthodox Christian practice of kissing and praying to pictures and statues, which Muslims viewed as idolatry. As a result, Islamic art makes much use of geometric designs and stylised floral patterns. The Ottoman ceramic tiles and porcelain ware that reached their highest form in the 16th and 17thcenturies often featured tulips, along with carnations, roses and daisies. In recent years the art of marbling (ebru) has experienced a resurgence of popularity, with those floral motifs being incorporated into the traditional swirling patterns.

It is not known for certain who first introduced the tulip to Western Europe. It is known, however, that the flower was a gift from the Ottomans, as were coffee, Turkish carpets and the art of making fine porcelain. Two gentlemen in particular tend to receive credit for the introduction. The first is Ogier Ghislain de Busbecq, a Frenchman who served as ambassador from Ferdinand I to the court of Suleiman the Magnificent in the mid-16th century. Now I know it’s not strictly relevant, but I just have to tell you about Ferdinand. He was born in Spain to an interesting couple referred to by historians as Joanna the Mad and Phillip the Handsome (so I guess she wasn’t that mad). Ferdinand himself compiled an impressive CV during his life, holding, at various times, the titles of Archduke of Austria, King of Bavaria and Hungary, King of the Romans and Holy Roman Emperor.

But getting back to de Busbecq, he was apparently a man of eclectic interests, renowned as one of the pioneers of travel literature, compiling a vocabulary of an obscure Germanic dialect known as Crimean Gothic, and turning up lost gems of classical literature while rummaging through Ottoman libraries. He was fascinated by Anatolian flora and fauna, and sent tulip bulbs to his friend Charles l’Ecluse, a doctor employed in the service of the Habsburg Emperor, Maximilian II. L’Ecluse succeeded in getting the bulbs to grow, first in Vienna, and later, after, after taking up a post as professor at Leiden University in 1593, in the Netherlands.

Tulips were an instant hit in Holland. The Dutch seem to have a knack for growing unlikely plants in their inhospitable northern clime. I learnt recently that they have supplanted Spain as Europe’s largest exporter of tomatoes; and I hear plans are afoot to take over the supply of bananas from Ecuador, with large-scale production of pineapples and coconuts to follow. But I digress. We were discussing the popularity of tulips in the Netherlands in the late 16th century, and indeed, so popular were they that, by 1637 they had resulted in a major financial crisis – a classic ‘bubble’ that later became a case study much loved by students of the ‘dismal science’.

The story goes that popularity of and demand for tulip bulbs caused the price to rise in proportion to their scarcity on the market. Entrepreneurs with an eye for a fast guilder moved out of other less lucrative operations (such as selling marijuana in the days before the Dutch legalised it) into the tulip bulb business. Inevitably, stockpiling occured, and soon a bustling futures market developed, with prices skyrocketing to unimaginable heights – at least to primitive folk unaccustomed to dotcom booms and suchlike phenomena characteristic of more advanced civilisations. At the peak of tulipmania the price of a bulb increased twenty-fold in a month. Some speculators were selling up their worldly possessions to invest in tulips and make their fortunes. One optimistic soul is reputed to have exchanged ‘two lasts of wheat, four lasts of rye, four fat oxen, eight fat swine, twelve fat sheep, two hogsheads of wine, four tuns of beer, two tons of butter, 1,000 lb. of cheese, a complete bed, a suit of clothes and a silver drinking cup’ for one particularly desirable bulb.

Well, as you might have expected, it all ended in tears, certainly for those who failed to get out in time. The ‘bubble’ burst in the winter of 1636/7, many investors lost their shirts, not to mention their beds, swine and hogsheads, and the economy was thrown into depression for several years. The Dutch continued to love tulips, albeit in moderation, and learnt a healthy respect for the dangers of speculative ‘bubbles’.

The Ottomans, meanwhile continued to paint pictures of tulips inside the domes of their mosques, and secretly present yellow blooms to beloveds who would never love them back, in an altogether more restrained fashion. That all changed, however, on the accession of Sultan Ahmet III in 1718. The next twenty-two years are known in Ottoman history as Lale Devri (‘The Tulip Age’), a time when the social elite adopted the tulip as its symbol of status and wealth. Ahmet is an interesting example of the cosmopolitan nature of Ottoman society, born in Dobruja, on the border between modern Bulgaria and Romania, his mother being an ethnic Greek, and his two wives, French. His reign was also a time when the Ottomans began adopting an openness towards Europe, perhaps recognising that their own greatest days of glory were in the past. Nevertheless, Ahmet was the last Ottoman Sultan to have significant military success against Russia – and during his reign the printing press was belatedly employed for the production of books in Ottoman Turkish. Imperial architecture underwent a major change at this time with the adoption of baroque influences on mosques and other monumental buildings. One of my favourite mosques in Istanbul is Yeni Valide Camii, which was built for Ahmet’s mother in the seaside township of Üsküdar on the Asian coast of the Bosporus.

I can’t leave this discussion here, because I know I will once again be criticised for pro-Turkish, pro-Muslim favouritism, so I’m going to share with you a little snippet of information I learnt about my Christian forebears, in particular, John Calvin, one of the key figures in the Protestant Reformation of the 16thcentury. His doctrine, known as Calvinism, underpins the Presbyterian Church among others, and its main principles can be recalled to mind by use of the simple mnemonic TULIP:

T – for Total Depravity, which means we are all sunk deep in sin and cannot save ourselves from hell and damnation.
U – for Unconditional Election, which means that God has already decided who He’s going to save, and nothing you or I can do will change His Divine decision.
LLimited Atonement. Essentially, Jesus died for us sinners, but only those on God’s special list will get the benefit.
IIrresistible Grace. If you’re on that list, God’s gonna get you, whether you want to be saved or not.
PPerseverance of the Saints – If you’re on that list, you’re on it for good and all. Do what you like, you can’t get off it.

Well, I don’t know about you, but it seems to me if you believe in TULIP, you’re living in a pretty fragile glasshouse, and you’d better not throw stones at anyone else’s religious beliefs.

To end on a more positive note, if you get along to that museum during this year’s Istanbul Tulip Festival, you can download an app on your smart phone which will read barcodes on the blooms and identify their names and special features. If you leave your address with the organisers, I’m told they will send you a tulip bulb. No lasts of rye or tuns of beer required – just free, gratis and for nothing.

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