Question: I appear on palace walls, a sultan’s underwear, and Turkish jetliners. What am I?
Since at least the 12th century, tulips have been brightening the landscapes of what is today Turkey. Because they thrive in mountainous regions with moderate climates, they proliferated in the former Persia for several centuries, but it took the love of a sultan to make them central to the Ottoman empire. In the mid-15th century, Mehmed the Conqueror began to rebuild Constantinople to his liking, and what he liked was flowers. His favorite was the tulip, which appeared in many of the 60 gardens he planted.
When your Sultan launches a trend himself, naturally it takes off, and his descendants only fueled it. Mehmed’s grandson planted 50,000 bulbs around the palace in the 16th century, and his great grandson, Suleiman the Magnificent, wore his passion for tulips literally on his sleeve, as they adorned his robes. What’s more, he even had them stitched into his underwear. Beyond the rulers, tulip designs were woven into textiles, painted onto ceramics, and even used to adorn mosques (which previously had forbidden any depictions of living things).
Around that time, an Austrian ambassador first witnessed the tulips of Turkey and spread the word. It took some convincing but the Ottomans let a small number of bulbs be transported to Europe each year. Two centuries of European tulipmania ensued (eventually making tulips the symbol of the Netherlands as well). While Europe began clamoring for more colors and “broken” tulips (ones with variegated color patterns), Ottomans preferred specific standard colors (red most of all) with names like “Light of Paradise,” “Matchless Pearl,” and “Fountain of Life.”
By the early 18th-century, the sultans decided they didn’t want to share the treasure anymore. Sultan Ahmed III banned the sale of tulips outside the capital along with the export of Turkish bulbs to other lands. Anyone found guilty of disobeying was permanently exiled, and tulips were briefly considered more valuable than humans. The era of Ahmed III’s rule has become known ever since as The Tulip Period—though, in fact, tulips have never left the heart of Turkish culture. Every spring, 30 million tulips are planted for Istanbul’s Tulip Festival.
Tulips Across Time: 10 Facts About Turkey’s Favorite Flower
- Turks have associated tulips with mysticism since the beginning, naming the flowers lale, the letters of which have the same Arabic numerical value as both Allah and hilal, the crescent that is the icon of Islam.
- The walls of Seljuq Sultan Kayqubad the Great’s 13th-century palace were outlined in polychrome tiles emblazoned with tulips.
- In the 13th century, poet Rumi wrote verses about tulips in his poetry, including the famous line “my heart is a field of tulips that can’t be touched by age.”
- Lale (as the tulip pattern is also known) is one of the central motifs of ebru, the 15th-century Turkish art of paper marbling.
- In the late 15th century, Ottoman warriors wore talisman shirts into battle for good luck, with tulips on one side and verses from the Qur’an on the other.
- Tulips were a common motif during the 15th-17th century heyday of Iznik ceramics from Anatolia.
- 18th-century Ottoman painter Levni depicted members of the Ottoman court holding tulips in his miniatures.
- In the 18th and 19th centuries, red tulips became associated with romance, based on the legend that the flower sprang up from the drops of blood shed by a man who killed himself over love.
- Turkish airlines, established in the 1930’s, emblazons the bodies of its planes with a pale gray tulip.
- When Istanbul bid to host the 2020 Olympics, its logo was a tulip, which beat out four other contenders in a public vote, showing that the flower’s place in culture remains assured.
Keep your eyes peeled for tulips in the decorative arts of this ancient land when you experience New! Turkey's Magical Hideaways with O.A.T.