Although now synonymous with Holland, and thanks to the popular song, more specifically Amsterdam, the origins of the tulip actually lie further east. A clue to the geographical origin of the ‘Tulip’ lies in its etymology. The English word tulip developed from the Ottoman Turkish dülbent, or in its anglicized form tulipan. On visiting the seat of Ottoman power in Constantinople (present day Istanbul), European travelers and diplomats marveled at the vast formal gardens surrounding the imperial palaces and their beds of roses, carnations and most of all, the exotic and diverse varieties of lale, the favored flower of the Ottoman Court. Such was the popularity and potency of the lale flower, that courtiers often decorated their elaborate muslin turbans, or dülbent, with a single lale, which lent European visitors to dub the flower tulipan, which later became tulip!
Tulips first made their way to Holland in the 16th century when the ambassador of Emperor Ferdinand I to Suleyman the Magnificent, Oghier Ghislain de Busbecq, returned to Holland from Constantinople with the first bulbs. Suleyman adored tulips and wore elaborate silk robes embroidered with stylised depictions of the flower; it was his love of tulips which led to the flower being adopted as a distinctly Ottoman artistic motif. Under Suleyman’s patronage the empire entered the golden age of artistic development. This included a vast building program of monumental palaces and mosques, their interiors lined with thousands of Iznik tiles, many featuring the tulip in various compositions.
The Ottoman craze for tulips reached its peak under the rule of Sultan Ahmed III, a period which came to be known as Lâle Devri; the tulip period. It was during this time that the Sultan’s son-in-law, Grand Vizier Nevşehirli Damat İbrahim Pasha, embarked on a new policy to grow the commercial power of the empire, placing commodity culture at the heart of public life. Rare and exotic tulip varieties began to reach exorbitant prices and in this new culture of conspicuous consumption grand tulip festivals were held in palace grounds on a scale never seen before. These opulent displays of imperial wealth and power featured gardens carpeted with tulips; tulips adorned towering, sculptural planters and ceramic vases. Caged birds sang, spectacular mirrored lanterns illuminated the gardens and tortoises with candles mounted on their shells roamed the gardens.
The excess of Sultan Ahmed III’s court soon made him unpopular and he was deposed after a mob uprising in 1730. A sultan was crowned and ‘tulipmania’ soon waned. Despite this, the tulip has remained part of Ottoman and Turkish art and culture to this day. Annual tulip festivals are still held in Istanbul and still pull in the crowds. The tulip features as part of the logo for the Turkish tourist board and Turkish airlines…