Sometimes, the things that shape history come in small packages. Take the tulip for example. The Dutch went crazy over them causing a tulip mania in the 1600’s. People bought and sold bulbs at prices beyond all reason. It was a national obsession–until the market suddenly crashed faster than a blind tightrope walker during an earthquake. Forever after, however, the tulip has been synonymous with Holland. But…
Nope, and to see what happened we need to go back in time. Way back, like before Einstein lost his hairbrush, even before Caesar made his first salad. We’re going back to when the Turks were just a bunch of nomads.
There we are on the cold rough slopes of the Tien Shan and Pamir mountains that enclose China in the north-west. Despite the climate and unfavorable growing conditions tulips managed to find places to nestle and grow. Now imagine you’re roaming through those desolate mountains with your family. You’ve been wandering through the winter, and with all the moaning and whining coming from your family, you’re wondering if you will live to see the spring.
As you cross the mountain slopes, piercing cold winds chill you to the bone, and the falling snow stings your face like tiny daggers. Behind you the kids are fighting, and you hear the voice of your complaining wife:
“Let’s move to the Tien Shans you said, lots of open space you said, the fresh air is good for the kids you said.”
You’re wondering how fast she would roll down the mountainside if given a little push, when you notice a pop of color halfway down the slope. “Look over there,” you yell back to your despondent brood, “See that bit of red and yellow in the distance?”
“McDonalds! McDonalds!” The kids yell.
“No, tulips—do you know what this means?”
“Yeah,” says your teenage son kicking into the snow. “No Big Mac.”
“This is better than a Big Mac, or even super-sized fries. This is a sign of spring—we’ve survived the winter!” Just as the words leave your frostbite-blue lips the sky begins to clear, birds begin to sing, and your wife and kids suddenly love you madly. And all because of an itty-bitty tulip.
Ok maybe it wasn’t quite like that, but the tulip was a welcome sight at the end of a long cold winter. In a hard barren world, that small splash of color was a symbol of fruitfulness and the continuity of life; it was a promise of hope. No wonder the tulip was such a big deal to the Turks.
As the nomadic Turks spread west, they continued to encounter the tulip. Their love for the wild flower grew until it became a symbol of protection, perfection and never-ending love. Once Unified as the Ottoman empire, they carried their tulip devotion with them as they went about conquering and pillaging. Finally they landed right on the doorstep of Constantinople.
After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Sultan Mehmed had the city rebuilt. Afterall, things had started to decline even before he got there, and with all that sieging and sacking things got even messier. Buildings were updated, potholes filled, and walls mended. Of course he needed a palace built that would rival anything in the west. Oh, and gardens. Lots and lots of gardens. How else would he get that comfy homey feel? When everything was complete he could stroll through no less than 60, and those were just the private ones. His love for gardens was so strong, he would toil away in them himself. And to whom did he give shining star status? Our little tulip of course.
“Oh tulip, my beacon of hope,” he said. ” I will love you forever. You will be mine, and I will be your Mehmed.”
Yes many men who ruled the Ottoman empire, tyrannical despots though they be, had a fancy for dabbling in the horticultural arts. The Ottomans thought of heaven as a vast garden. In it were fountains and pavilions, refuge and solace. Blanketed in flowers, it would be more beautiful than anyone could imagine. Flowers, therefore, took on an almost holy status, and of all the gods of the garden, the tulip was one of the holiest. Why, even its name was holy. In Arabic the world for tulip, lale just happens to have the same letters as Allah. Now if that’s not destiny, I don’t know what is.
The tulip reached new heights under Mehmed’s great-grand son Suleyman the Magnificent. Previously there were laws forbidding artistic representations of living things, but by now they were relaxed. Tulips became one of the most frequently seen motifs in Ottoman art. They popped up on tiles in the palace and imperial mosques. Suleyman even had his robes and undies decorated with tulips. No wonder he was magnificent!
By the mid-16th century, tulips were no longer reserved for the Sultan, and it’s image was copied onto all sorts of items, including prayer rugs and saddle covers. The women who sewed them offered them up as prayers for husbands who were off fighting in the wars. It was at this time that the first hybrid tulips were seen. Possibly mixed with wild tulips from the area around the black sea, the new tulips weren’t nearly as short and squat as their rugged ancestors. New bulbs were coming in from all parts of the empire until eventually there were about 1500 varieties of what became known as Istanbul bulbs.
Considering the power of the Ottoman Empire, foreign ambassadors would have been common visitors to Istanbul. They might have even been a little nervous as they first passed the niches in the palace gate where cut off heads of any offending parties would be on display. Maybe their collars felt a little tight as they then passed the executioners fountain. The fountain was pretty handy since executioner was an additional duty of the gardener. He could clean his blade and get the dirt off his hands at the same time. Now that’s efficiency.
Finally past all that blood and guts nonsense, the ambassadors would have had a glimpse of some of the Sultans tulips. They must have thought it a strange dichotomy. There stood the man who ruled the empire at the height of its power. He captured strongholds, crushed nations—and had an overwhelming fondness for soft delicate flowers.
One of the ambassadors intrigued by the strange exotic flower was Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq. If Busbecq’s time as an ambassador taught him anything it was that it’s important to share. So when he took some of the seeds home he shared with the botanist Carolus Clusius, a professor in Holland. Clusius planted Busbecq’s seeds with results that grabbed the attention of the Dutch. Thus the tulip flame passed from the Ottomans. Don’t feel too sad for the Turks though, because the tulip still thrives in Turkey today. In fact every year Istanbul has a tulip festival. This year’s ends April 30th, so if you’re quick you can still go and take a look at the 26.5 million tulips planted around the city.
So now you know the true history of the tulip. Are you surprised? Did you know about the connection between tulips and the Turks? Let me know in the comments below.