Spring is officially here. The rewards of a long winter are becoming apparent, trees are budding and in blossom, the grass is popping up a vibrant green and in Istanbul, spring is synonymous with the arrival of the tulip. The 9th annual International Tulip Festival is underway in Emirgan Park where the largest tulip beds can be viewed.
Visitors to the park can take in the vast varieties of tulips as well as hear music, view photograph exhibits and even purchase bulbs to take home. But you don’t have to go there to see the tulips, this year 20 million tulips have been planted with 211 different varieties in just about every park, walkway, roundabout or greenspace you can imagine. The city is bursting with color and beauty, there is more than 1 tulip for each inhabitant of this magnificent city.
While 211 is an impressive number of varieties, at the peak of the Ottoman ‘Tulip Mania’ there were 1800 varieties, each with its own unique Ottoman name. That’s correct, the Ottoman Empire was the original cultivator of tulips. Tulips are indigenous to eastern Turkey and the central Asian steppe. It was an Ottoman ambassador who first introduced to the tulip to Europe in the late 16th century. From there the Dutch tulip mania was spawned and from that point forward the tulip has been known as a Dutch flower. Turkey is looking to take back their throne as it were hence the International Tulip Festival was born.
The original Tulip Period took place under Sultan Ahmet the Third from 1718-1730, many classify this as a relatively peaceful and carefree time where the Ottoman elite enjoyed great leisure and decadence. Sultan Ahmet was known to throw some fantastic parties, he was an admirer of the tulip and had great gardens planted. Legend has it that on the evenings he threw soirees he had tiny lanterns attached to tortoises who slowly meandered through the flowers lighting the blossoms for his guests whimsy.
However, the Tulip Period can also be characterized as the Ottoman renaissance time. Great reforms began to take shape as the Ottoman state began to look to the West, recognizing Europe as a model. A shift began towards architecture, technology, art, literature and of course, gardening. The Empire began to trade military ideologies for scientific ones. During this period printing began to be established as libraries were built and texts on the subjects of astronomy, philosophy and physics started to be translated into Turkish. Innovations were accomplished in many fields. The tulip is a symbol of this glorious time in Turkish history and thus much art and poetry from that era honors the tulip as its subject. Turkey is now in the midst of its tulip resurrection leading many of us here in Turkey to wonder, ‘What will this era be known for?’.