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Let us have fun,
let us all dance and play,
for it is tulip time!

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Aynalıkavak Kasrı with tulips

Paeans to the tulip resounded in the air. In İstanbul, in the early 18th century, the Sultan and the populace rejoiced in music, festivities, parades and dances. Countless tulips of all varieties with such poetic names as Blue Pearl, Light of Dawn, Ruby Drop and The Divine Throne adorned the Ottoman imperial capital. It was a period of peace, lavish entertainment and creativity. An early 20th century historian gave it the name of The Tulip Age. This perfect name will endure, because it encapsulates the spirit of a halcyon epoch of about twelve years during which the tulip was the symbol of the sensuality of the creative arts... and the joy of life as an art.


In the reign of Sultan Ahmed III, following more than four centuries of war, conquest and defeat, the Ottomans suddenly decided to enjoy la dolce vita. The ruling establishment turned away from military engagement and diplomacy to wallow in wine, women and song. Carpe diem: Seize the day. All they wanted was to create Paradise on Earth - the pleasure Principle became their doctrine. The French Ambassador, de Villeneuve, reported that the Turkish Court seemed perpetually bent upon some new excursion, continually filing by in gorgeous cavalcades or floating upon the waves of the Bosphorus or the Golden Horn. In eight months, after repeated requests, he was able to see the Grand Vizier once - and the famous Grand Vizier Damat İbrahim Paşa from Nevşehir talked to him only about tulips.

tulip5.jpg (28801 bytes)Tulips were ubiquitous - not only in the gardens of the Topkapı Palace and of wealthy people, but also in the backyards and window-sills of the houses where the poor lived. Artists glorified this time-honoured Turkish flower on tiles, fabrics, embroideries, miniature paintings, book illuminations, head-dress and slippers, rowboats and tombstones, painted glass and household utensils. As a leitmotif, it enlivened all the creative genres.

The tulip, indigenous to parts of Central Asia Minor where the Turks had already held sway for many centuries, stood as the premier flower of the Ottomans. It even acquired a religious significance because, in the Arabic script that the Ottoman used, the name of the tulip, lâle, bears a resemblance to Allah. The etymology of the word tulip, however, may be traced to dulband, or turban, which European and British travellers likened to the shape of the flowers.

This Turkish flower was already cherished in Ottoman gardens, visual arts, and classical poetry by the time Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent ascended the throne in 1520. His supreme judge, perhaps the greatest legal mind of Ottoman Islam, Ebussuud Efendi had a passion for flowers, especially for tulips. In 1554, Ambassador Busbecq came to the court of Süleyman the Magnificent as the envoy of Austrian Emperor and was struck by the varieties and the vibrancy of flowers in the Ottoman imperial capital. He wrote:

We saw everywhere an abundance of flowers... The Turks are so fond of flowers that even the marching troops have their orders not to trample on them.

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Aynalıkavak Kasrı with tulips

Busbecq was especially astonished to see the tulip, a flower unknown to Europeans. He took some bulbs with him back to Vienna where, in 1559, the Swiss botanist Konrad Gesner saw garden tulips for the first time, and the first picture of the tulip, which he described as a big reddish flower similar to a red lily, appeared in his Book of Garden Flowers in 1561. Later the celebrated Dutch botanist Clusius obtained a number of bulbs from Busbecq, developed many new varieties - and in a few decades, tulips had triumphantly fired the European imagination. In the 1630, a craze often referred to as Tulipomania swept through Holland. Vagaries of the tulip trade resulted in vast fortunes made or lost. Yet, the aesthetic experience of tulips has endured in Holland for more than 350 years now.

tulip6.jpg (16260 bytes)The Tulip Ottomania erupted as the second decade of the 18th century drew to a close. Ottomans were breeding their own varieties and importing dozens more from Holland and elsewhere. By the mid 1720s they had close to 900 varieties each bearing a special name. A later document states that there were as many as 1.750 varieties. Some were sold for 1.000 gold pieces each. When a foreign ambassador brought but lost a special new breed intended as a gift for the Sultan, town criers strolled through İstanbul streets offering a huge reward, a fortune, to finder. It was never found – or never turned in.

But the creative spirit as well as the excesses of the Age dwarfed the tulip fields. Festivals were held lasting the proverbial 40 days and 40 nights. İstanbul, the ancient city that already boasted of 25 centuries of sovereign history, kept vibrating with the sounds, sights and pleasures of the revelries organized for its wealthy residents and sometimes for the entire populace. A chronicler reports that 1.500 cooks prepared for 100.000 people a day sumptuous food made of 16.000 chickens, geese and turkeys and 15000 cauldrons of meat pilav were consumed.

At night 15 to 25 thousand lanterns illuminated the city and 5000 to 7000 firecrackers decked the skies. Music, dance, mock battles, comedy, acrobatics, magic shows, javelin games, torch pageants- an inexhaustible diversity of entertainment.

During the day, parades with fascinating floats and displays went through the ancient hippodrome and some of the main avenues. Guilds of artisans, one after another presented their works and wares. The whole city was enchanted.

The spirit of the age revelled in new lilting compositions, in miniature paintings (particularly those by the greatest stylist Levni), in dazzling decorative arts, in erotic and hedonistic poetry, especially the cheerful verses of Nedim (who rhapsodised: Let’s laugh and play, let’s enjoy the world to the hilt.)

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Miniature from the Tulip Age

In about twelve years, the Tulip Age gave new direction and brave new dimensions to many Ottoman arts. This was also the period which intensified relations with Europe. İstanbul witnessed the emergence of European architectural styles-and Ottoman influence would lead to the European fad that came to be known as Turquerie. The Tulip Age also ushered in the printing press for the publication of books in the Turkish language. Impetus was given to science, libraries, translation, and intellectual exploration.
All the merriment in the world could not distract the poverty-stricken people. Too much circus and not enough bread led to a plebeian uprising, and the Sultan was toppled. In 1730 the Tulip Age came to an abrupt end. But the glory of its arts endures - and the love for tulips.
By Prof. Talat S. Halman
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