Blog 20 13/11/2015 A Flower Fit for a Sultan: The Tulip in Ottoman Art.

Posted in on 13 November, 2015 in News

A Flower Fit for a Sultan: The Tulip in Ottoman Art.

Levni. ottoman love of flowers

Levni. The Ottoman love of the tulip.

For the Ottoman gardener, the tulip was regarded as the holiest and most precious of flowers, and only the rose, narcissus, carnation and hyacinth were considered worthy enough to be planted alongside it. All other flowers, however rare, were considered ‘wild’. The garden is central to the Muslim vision of paradise – an endless garden of delight filled with pavilions and fountains and carpeted with flowers of a beauty unequalled on earth. The Turkish word for tulip is lale, the same letters which form the word ‘Allah’. When in bloom, it bows its head – modesty before God. Pious Muslims treated flowers almost as holy relics and often wore blooms in their turbans yet the tulips of the early Persians and Turks were still wild. To be a gardener in those days guaranteed a swift passage to Heaven as all flowers were thought to belong to heaven and gardeners were sure to go to Paradise to continue their work.

Tulip on marbled paper

Tulip on marbled paper

It is thought that the first tulips originated in the Pamirs, (Russia’s Roof of the World) and in the foothills and valleys of the Tien-shan Mountains where China and Tibet meet Russia and Afghanistan. These tulips had narrower petals and were much shorter than modern tulips. They were predominantly blood-red and were venerated by the tribes that inhabited this area. As pastoralists, the Turks would have encountered these tulips. For them they were the heralds of spring representing life and fertility. As they moved westwards, the tulip went with them. It is unknown when the first cultivation of tulips began but we do know that by 1050, they were already venerated in Persia and in the gardens of Isfahan and also in Baghdad. One of Omar Khayam’s best-known verses uses them as a metaphor for perfect female beauty and later poets also used the tulip as a symbol of perfection. The poet, Musharrifu ud-din Sa’di, mentioned it in his ideal garden and another great poet, Hafiz, likened the sheen of the flower’s petals to the bloom of his mistress’s cheek. Rumi noted it had the saddest smile, as unlike the rose, it did not leave behind a fragrance.
Synonymous with eternity, the tulip’s delicacy and blood-red colour was of symbolic importance for Persians. One legend tells how Prince Farhad was deeply in love with the maiden, Shirin, and on learning that she had been killed, hacked at his own body with an axe. Blood from his wounds dripped onto the barren earth and from each drop sprang a scarlet flower – a symbol of his perfect love. Hundreds of years later, the wild red tulip remained a favourite Persian token of undying passion.

iznik tulip large 2

Iznik tile with tulip

Tulip 1

The tulip in Ottoman texiles.

The tulip first appeared in nomadic art when the Seljuk tribes arrived in Turkey at the end of the 11th century and seized Anatolia from the Byzantines. Drawings of them have been found on tiles excavated from the 13th century palace of Alaedin Kaikubad in eastern Anatolia. By this time the Seljuk Turks had developed the Roman taste for empire building having inherited the lands they called ‘Rum’. When Osman of Sogut swept into Thrace and The Balkans and later established the Ottoman Empire in 1345, we know that they also venerated their gardens and regarded flowers as sacred yet no contemporary paintings of tulips were depicted during the early years even though they appeared in textiles. In the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts in Istanbul, there is a cotton shirt belonging to a fallen general, Beyazid, Sultan Murad’s second son, who fought at The Battle of Kosovo in 1389. It was found in his tomb and is known to have been worn under his armour. It is decorated with verses from the Koran on the front and embroidered with tulips on the back. Talismans of tulips have also been found from this period which suggests the tulip was used as a protection against evil.

Sultan-Mehmed-II the Conqeror

Sultan-Mehmed-II the Conqeror

In the 15th and early 16th centuries, the restrictions on depicting living representation in Muslim art was relaxed and the tulip began to appear in Ottoman illustrations of The Garden of Eden. By the time Sultan Mehmed took Constantinople, the tulip was still unknown in Europe but was firmly established in Ottoman culture. After the Fall of Constantinople, one of the first things the Ottomans did was to plant gardens in the many empty spaces that existed. With splendid views of the Bosporus, they planted lush pleasure gardens, terraced with vines, fruit trees and flowers. For European visitors, this contrasted with the formal gardens of Italy, France and England. Constantinople of the Ottoman Empire, with its religious tolerance unheard of in Europe, good manners, good taste and coffee houses, was a city of culture at the centre of which was the Abode of Bliss, better known as the Topkapi Palace.

Tulip 3

Iznik tile

Mehmed himself was a passionate gardener who collected rare plants from throughout the provinces. Yet with such culture we see the opposite side to this when one day, Mehmed discovered that one of his prized cucumbers had been stolen and had the palace gardeners brought before him and disembowelled one by one, in the hope of ascertaining which one of them had eaten the cucumber. This contrast between cruelty and beauty, in this case an enthusiasm for exquisite palaces and gardens, has always intrigued me, in particular the fact that the palace gardeners – bostancis’, doubled up as executioners. The bostancis at the Topkapi numbered almost a thousand when Suleyman the Magnificent lived there. Not only were the Ottomans creative with their gardens, they were equally creative with their modes of execution. The bostancis’ were the ones who sewed condemned women into weighted sacks and dropped them into the Bosporus, and wearing their traditional uniform of white muslin breeches and cut-off-shirts exposing muscular chests and arms, it was they who heralded death by strangulation for many Ottoman subjects through the ages. When very senior officials were sentenced to death, they would be dealt with by the bostanci-basha, (the sultan’s head gardener) in person. A peculiar custom of the time was a race held between a condemned notable such as a vizier or chief eunuch, and the man commanded to kill him. As soon as the sentence was pronounced, the condemned man was given a head-start to run through the gardens to the Fish-House Gate which stood at the other end of the Topkapi. It the man arrived before the head gardener, his punishment was commuted to banishment. If, on the other hand, the head gardener was waiting for him, he was executed and his body thrown into the sea. Apart from this, the bostancis’ led a quiet life growing and decorating the palace with cut flowers.

early 18th century Ottoman Cushion

Early 18th century Ottoman Cushion

It was under Suleyman the Magnificent that the tulip began to be cultivated. The new tulips, of which it was said there were as many as 2,000 varieties in its heyday, were first thought to have been cultivated by a cleric, the Sehulislam Ebussad Efendi, from a variety found in the Crimea. Their colours ranged from vermillion, russet, to sulphur. When Mehmed IV came to the throne he established a commission of experts to name and register all the varieties. In accordance with the Ottoman love of culture, they were given evocative names in Persian as this was the language of the court, and Arabic: ‘Increase of Pleasure’; ‘Instilled of Passion’; ‘Rose of the Dawn’; The Matchless Pearl’; ‘Diamond Envy’; ‘Cloth of love’; ‘Rose of Youth’; ‘Fountain of Life’; ‘Meadow Beauty’; and so on. When they ran out of poetic names, others were called ‘Cobbler’; Garden Yellow’; Red Mustache’; ‘Big Red’ and ‘Little Red’.
By the 17th century, the Ottoman vogue for growing ever more refined tulips, now known as the Istanbul Tulips, had reached an obsession. The most beautiful were deemed to be svelte with long, dagger-like petals tapering to a needle-sharp point. In June 28, 1726, the most expensive was ‘The pomegranate Lance’ which sold for $600. Two years later, it sold for $2,400. Second to this was the appropriately named ‘Sahipkiran’ (literally ‘Owner-Breaker’ or ‘Bankrupt’) which sold for $1,400.

Flowers in a Vase Jan van den Hecke, 1652

“Flowers in a Vase” Jan van den Hecke, 1652

During its heyday, tulips were a commodity to be traded and none took up this more than the Dutch. Tulip mania in the Netherlands lasted from 1633-7, a mere four years. But as with all commodities, there is a boom and bust and by 1639, hundreds of merchants faced bankruptcy. The trading frenzy coincided with the Dutch Golden Age and was more about money than culture as it was in Turkey, but given the prevailing Dutch nature for strict Calvinist values at that time, one wonders what could have possessed so many to bet their life savings on these bulbs. A single bulb might have changed hands from $40,000 to $80,000.
After this, the Ottoman Empire went through a period of instability but returned with renewed vigour during the reign of Mehmed IV (1647-1687). Mehmed was a renowned horticulturalist. When he died, his son, Ahmed ascended the throne.

Ahmed III

Sultan Ahmed III

Sultan Ahmed III inherited his father’s love of the tulip and having been locked away all his life, was now at liberty to indulge his passions. With his accession in 1703, tulip mania began again. It was to last thirty years. In true Ottoman style, Ahmed devoted his time to organizing festivals with elaborate gardens on a scale that would put MGM’s lavish epics to shame. Palace confectioners were made to spin edible sugar bowers 18ft in length so that guests could nibble on the foliage, and there were artificial trees up to 60ft. tall made of wax and wire and covered with flowers and jewels, and tortoises wandered about through flower bed illuminated by candles fixed on to their backs. Tulip festivals took on two successive days during the full moon in April and guests were forbidden to wear clothes that did not harmonize with the blooms. To avoid further calamities among trading partners, selling tulips outside the city walls became a crime. Eventually, this hedonism gave way to reality. The Ottoman Empire was struggling. Taxes, wars and famine in the provinces caused disarray resulting in Ahmed’s demise. After ordering the bostancis’ to present the heads of the Grand Vizier and the Grand Admiral (who was transplanting tulips at the time), he abdicated in favour of his nephew, Mahmud I, thus saving his own head.

Garden scene of Sultan Ahmed III

Garden scene of Sultan Ahmed III

Sadly none of the legendary Istanbul Tulips survived. They were destined to fall into obscurity alongside other horticultural plants which have contributed so much to various cultures, i.e., sylphium, a spice once known to Greeks and Romans for its medicinal properties and so valuable it was stored alongside the gold and silver in the treasury. Like the tulip, was its hefty price tag to blame for its demise or did fashions simply change? Whatever the reason, we should be eternally thankful for today’s world seed banks. The Istanbul Tulip may no longer exist but we do have the next best thing, a priceless manuscript entitled Lale Meomuasi (Tulip Album), prepared in Istanbul in 1725. Much has been documented about tulips and the growers, but illustrations are rare. The Tulip Album was sold by its owner, Ekrem Hakki Ayverdi (1899-1980) to get money to publish his own book on Ottoman architecture. In the 1960’s it disappeared abroad and resurfaced in 1987 when a Swiss botanist remembered seeing it in a private library in Belgium. The artist signs himself as Mehmed Bendegah (Mehmed, servant of the ruler). Some of these fifty exquisite illustrations depict the most famous of all Istanbul Tulips – ‘The Pomegranite Lance’ (red), and ‘The Source of Light’ (yellow).

Miniture from AhmedIII

Miniature from the time of Ahmed III

At the end of Sultan Ahmed’s reign, the tulip was no longer in vogue. Other flowers had taken its place. In Holland, the Dutch began to cultivate bulbs, gradually building up a steady business again. Sadly, for most people today, the tulip is associated more with Holland than it is with Turkey, but for all students of Turkish art, the tulip remains the defining flower of the Ottomans.

Excerpts from The Embroiderer
As the sun rises the next day, the sound of hoof beats galloping through the scrub becomes louder and louder. A blood-bay stallion approaches the thicket of wild fig. The horseman is agile. In an instant, he lifts the tiny bundle onto his saddle and gallops away through the trees. A Painted Lady butterfly flutters over the ground where the infant had lain. Nearby, the bright red wild tulips unfurl their petals to the morning sun and a quiet peace descends over the monastery.

Chapter 2:
Although the business now employed several hundred workers, from dyers and spinners to embroiderers, it was always known as Dimitra of Smyrna’s Embroidery Atelier. Commissions would be carefully wrapped in a woven fabric known as a bohça, and sent out to the far reaches of the empire. The wrappings themselves would be embroidered. Bohças that left Dimitra’s atelier always carried her signature ‘leitmotif’ which was a blood-red tulip embroidered discreetly somewhere within the design

Chapter 24: Dimitra’s Memoir.
“I remember that it was a beautiful spring day and I felt a sense of elation as we made our way along a well-trodden pathway until we halted at the top of a rocky outcrop. From there I saw for the very first time the famous monastery that I had heard people say once belonged to the Christians. Uncle Yasim-Ali told me that at one time it was possible to see wonderful mosaics of such splendor equaled only by those of the Haghia Sophia. I was saddened to see that much of it now lay in ruins. We proceeded to the far side of the monastery, eventually dismounting next to a wild fig tree where we lay for a while, soaking up the beauty of the afternoon. The air was filled with the sweetness of blossom and wild herbs and all around me, as far as the eye could see, was a profusion of dark red tulips. Uncle Yasim-Ali told me that it was only in spring that one could experience such a wonderful spectacle. In such peaceful surroundings, I fell asleep.
When I woke, Nillufer was standing nearby, flicking her tail angrily at the iridescent-blue horseflies that pestered her. The breeze had dropped and in the stifling heat the sound of cicadas was deafening. Sitting up, I saw that I was alone. At first I thought nothing of it, thinking that Uncle Yasim-Ali had taken Malik for a ride and didn’t want to wake me, but when he failed to return, I became worried, frantically running around and calling his name. In the distance I saw Malik standing next to a collapsed section of the monastery wall. He struck the earth violently with his feet and snorted loudly. The creature’s eyes were filled with terror. On the ground next to him lay the body of Uncle Yasim-Ali. A pool of blood was seeping from his abdomen into the earth, mingling with the petals of dark red tulips. In his hand was a dagger, its mottled pale jade hilt covered in blood. Overcome with grief, I fainted.”

“Tulipmania: The Story of the world’s most coveted flower and the extraordinary passions it aroused”
“Jean-Baptist Vanmour: An eyewitness of the Tulip Era”
“Cornucopia” The Turkish Garden Issue 1997.

Buy The Embroiderer

The Embroiderer
The Embroiderer is a beautifully written novel spanning the 19th and 20th centuries, set against the backdrop of the Greek War of Independence. It was published on 5th November 2014 and is available to buy in paperback and as an ebook.

You can order from all good bookshops and online retailers.
Purchase directly from the publisher here:

Cornucopia is the award-winning magazine for connoisseurs of Turkey.
The Embroiderer can also now be purchased from the Cornucopia web site.
Cornucopia: Turkey for Connoisseurs.




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