The story of an obsession

[~ 5 minutes]

Listening to: Devaldi, Istambul’s Night

{Versión en español, aquí}

Let’s make an experiment.

Choose five people and ask them, What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when hearing or reading the word tulip?

When I did it, the unanimous result was… Holland.

Because that’s what the Netherlands are to us: windmills and tulip fields.

Dutch tulip field by Pepa Llausas
You’ll have to picture the windmill. The tulips are impressive enough by themselves, aren’t they? (Photo courtesy of Pepa Llausás)

Some may even be familiar with Tulipomania, possibly the most (in)famous economic bubble in history. For a few decades at the turn of the 17th century, Dutch society’s common sense apparently went out of the window, and a market for tulip bulbs valued at exorbitantly stupid prices grew and grew until it burst… or so the story goes.

Although there’s more to tulipomania than these facile interpretations, I won’t be talking about European tulip stories today.

Because these elegant flowers are tightly woven into another country’s history —one we don’t hear much about, despite owing them both this flower’s arrival into our gardens, as well as its name in many Indo-European languages.

Can you guess which country I’m talking about? Here’s a clue…

Turkey-Tourism-logo

Looks familiar to anybody?

If you have visited the (sadly notorious these days) Eastern Mediterranean shores, you may recognise it as the logo featured on Turkey’s postcards and brochures (another rather unmissable clue is the word Turkey on the logo itself. I know, the country has changed it recently; the new version has tulips hidden in it as well, but they aren’t as in-your-face as this one, so I’ll stick with the old one here).

Nowadays, mentioning Turkey equals turbulent political drama, controversial decisions, suffering and tragedy unfolding in the Middle East.

Centuries ago though, Ottoman Turkey was the stuff of awe-struck wonder —or revulsive fascination. Or both.

The Ottoman Empire had coffee, and cafeterias; they had magnificent gardens, with dazzling flowers unknown to Western eyes. They had horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) and lilacs (Syringa vulgaris) and mock oranges (Philadelphus coronarius) and crown imperials (Fritillaria imperialis)… and, of course, tulips.

Not all tulips originate from Turkey; a single glance to the species list under the genus Tulipa will suffice to illustrate how widely scattered across Eurasia they are: T. mongolica, T. turkestanica, T. uzbekistanica, T. cretica, T. hungarica… Be as it may, European’s idea of The Tulip, as well as the first bulbs that reached Europe at the end of the 16th century, were very Turkish indeed.

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You could think that tulips made the Dutch go a bit soft in the head because they were novel and rare and mysterious; ergo the Turks should’ve been vaccinated against such follies—tulips naturally grew in their backyards, after all. And yet it happened: these flowers kindled a passion that flared higher and brighter than its Dutch counterpart, to the point that tulips lend its name to a historical period known as “the Tulip Era”, Lâle Devri (1718-1730, although it may also be understood as sultan Ahmed III’s entire reign, from 1703-30).

If this wasn’t bizarre enough, pay close attention to the dates: you’ll see this Era came about nearly a century after the Dutch tulipomania. Indeed many of the tulip varieties circulating during those years —up to 12,000!— had been apparently imported from Persia… and the Netherlands.

Turkish Pottery piece with tulip motif (notice the pointy petals…)
Pottery piece with tulip motif (notice the pointy petals…)

Renowned for its extravagance and decadence, everything during the Tulip Era revolved around satisfying the court’s every hedonistic whim. As it often happens in such cases, it ended with popular revolts and the deposition of sultan Ahmed III. Still, it was fun while it lasted (for the aristocracy, at least): there were annual festivals in the tulips’ honour, and midnight parties literally brightened up by tortoises roaming amidst the tulip beds with lit candles strapped to their shells.

Now, wild parties aside, there are two anecdotes that I find quite curious:

1 | Europeans liked their tulips cup-shaped, with rounded petals (and, often enough, ‘broken’ and ‘feathered’, such as the parrot tulips). The Ottomans, however, liked theirs dagger-shaped.

Turkish tulips have sharp, pointy petals, both in the garden and in artistic representations. We may often find lale as motifs on pottery and marbled paper (ebru, in Turk), on ceramic tiles, dishes, cups and trays; they even inspired the shape of their traditional tea glasses:

Tulip-shaped Turkish tea glass

However, Turkey’s most international tulip is probably the grey one that appears on every aircraft of Turkish Airlines:

flyingtulip-signed
(In)conspicuous, but present.

2 | History tells us that the first tulips arrived from Turkey in the 16th century, but… what if tulips arrived in Europe long before the onset of tulipomania and far from the Netherlands — but with the Islamic conquest of the Iberian peninsula instead?

Granted, nobody appears to have fallen into mania-mad love with tulips in Al-Andalus, and it never became part of the Andalusi garden culture later inherited by the peninsular crowns after the Reconquista.

If they indeed arrived with the Moors, they slipped out of anybody’s notice along with them. Sigh.

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Let me finish with a brief etymology note.

I mentioned that the tulip owes Turkey its name; however, you might have noticed that the Turkish word for the flower, lale, doesn’t have much in common with the words we use to refer to the bulb. My mistake?

Not quite. Or rather, yes, but not mine —at least so says a theory concerning how the tulip got its name in the West.

The fault would lie with an anonymous European traveller visiting the Ottoman Empire’s domains; on stumbling across a man with a tulip stuck in the folds of his turban*, the traveller would’ve asked the Turk (… perhaps with the aid of a translator?) about the name of such wonderful flower. The man would’ve courteously replied that the word was türbent, and they all happily carried on with their business, not realising there had been a misunderstanding: whereas the question had been about the flower, the answer referred to the turban itself.

*Apparently a common decoration for Ottoman men in 16th century Anatolia. Who would’ve guessed.

Regardless of the anecdote’s historical veracity, the etymological kinship between our <tulip> and the Turkish word for turban (itself related to the Persian dulband) is well established.

And so, misunderstanding or not, the flower is stuck with the name of an oriental head covering, a fair wink to a sophisticated culture where tulips were once loved to the point of political madness and revolution—far, far away from the windmills, milk cows and flowering fields of the Netherlands.

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References&Resources

Much has been written about the tulip, being such a famous flower; the ones I’ve had the pleasure to read are Anna Pavord’s excellent The Tulip, as well as the chapter devoted to this flower in Michael Pollan’s book The botany of desire. On tulipomania, I devoured Anne Golgard’s Tulipomania.

I haven’t been able to come across much information concerning Lâle devri(and the tulip’s frustratingly elusive role in the whole thing); I found maddeningly brief mentions in books on the Ottoman empire, such as Webb, C. and Webb, N. 2009. The Earl and His Butler in Constantinople: The Secret Diary of an English Servant among the Ottomans. IB Tauris, London & New York: 59-60.

The references about the tortoises as living-lamps during midnight parties, I’ve found in several places, among which Kia, M. 2011. Daily Life in the Ottoman Empire. The Greenwood Press Daily Life Through History Series, Greenwood: 12.

A list of species currently included within the genus Tulipa may be consulted via The Plant List.

If you want to see what a dagger-tulip (no, this is no official name; it’s just a nickname I use to talk about them) looks like, you can check out some pictures over here.

On Al-Andalus and the hypothetical Ibero-Muslim Tulip, it’s all in Hernández Bermejo, J. E. and García Sánchez, E. 2009. Tulips: An Ornamental Crop in the Andalusian Middle Ages. Economic Botany 63 (1): 60-66.

And, last but not least, the anecdote on how the tulip might’ve gotten its name, I double-checked it with the (very complete) article by Christenhusz, M. J. M. et al. 2013. Tiptoe through the tulips – cultural history, molecular phylogenetics and classification of Tulipa (Liliaceae). Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society 172: 280–328.

Illustrations

The most beautiful tulip pictures are from Pepa Llausás, who kindly gave me permission to use them: the Dutch tulip fields, the orange beauty featured on the header image, and as I couldn’t resist, I’ve included another one down below. Just dreamy.

Turkey’s old logo, from here.

All other pictures (erm, yeah; tea glass, flying tulip, and pottery tile tulip) are by Yours Truly; if you want to use them, just let me know!

Dutch tulip beds by Pepa Llausás

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4 thoughts on “Tulips, Turbans & Turks

    1. I think that, as long as one steers clear of tortoises and angry peasant mobs, tulip-love can bring much beauty and joy to one’s garden with no dramatic consequences ; )
      (Much as I like the dagger-petaled Turkish ones, I believe I’d like to begin with parrot tulips myself. One day soon… in the meantime, I console myself drinking tea in a tulip-shaped glass!)

      Like

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