The figure read 490000 on a single day. For once this wasn’t a number that reflects the sad state of the planet, indefinite wars and pandemic, this is a number of discerning travelers who visited Asia’s largest tulip gardens in Himalayan city of Srinagar in Indian administered Kashmir on April 2 this year.
The floral news reminded me, my unexpected encounter with the first tulip, a decade ago on a breezy spring morning at the promenade of Lake Geneva; a goodness that’s still so fresh. Such is the draw of tulip, a seasonal flower ushering spring which time and again has created fanciful obsession on either sides of Mediterranean and Atlantic!
Back trailing The Flower
In its botanical demeanour, the genus of Tulip had a hundred species which multiplied in thousands over the last few centuries from Iberian Peninsula to farthest in China and Japan. Although within the vastness of Eurasia and Balkans tulips had grown freely in the wild enmassé cultivation began only in mid 11th century of Constantinople’s Macedonian region; part of Seljuk Empire.
Seljuks were fond of tulips and called the flower ‘Kefe Lale’ and Kavala Lale (Lale meaning flower in Turkish language, Kavala a location in Macedonia). Consequently, tulips got added as a preferred motif in their royal palaces and shrines.
To this spirituality got added. Melvana Rumi, by far the most referred Persian, Anatolian Hanafi Faqih, an Islamic scholar mystique referred to full bloomed tulips as “saddest of smiles” and a later Sufi Seyyid Fahim Arbasi too thought of inverted tulips as symbols of sadness and death, instructing his disciples to plant them around his tomb.
The mystique interpretation of tulips across Islamic empires could be well unending, but its centrality lie around its proximity to God representing the oneness of God (Allah) as it only blooms into a single flower from a lone seed and stem.
The Mortal Connect – Of Leisure and Consumption
The emperor if a visionary can build a regime of distinction and this was true of Suleiman The Magnificent (1520 – 1566 ) who ruled for forty-six years transforming Constantinople into a powerful empire.
Tulips attained an altered meaning at this time. Beyond their physical presence in lavishly laid out gardens and personal spaces, tulip was the most seen and pursued motif in architectures including all kinds of tile work and pottery adorning the walls of royals places and residences of nobilities, and mosques.
At its artistic best, manifestation of tulip was included in calligraphic works of the time, a further step to ‘Avni”s (non de plume of emperor Mehmet II) anthology of poems. A flower lover, Mehmet the poet-ruler had included beauty of tulips in his poems by him.
Suleiman’s court was visited by many ambassadors from Europe flagging off the beginning of tulip diplomacy. One such diplomatic visitor was Ogier Ghiselin de Busbeq or simply Busbeq an ambassador from the court of Ferdinand I emperor of Habsburg who landed in Istanbul in 1544.
On his return it is believed that Busbeq may have taken back tulips bulbs with him. Whether there is a merit in this story is debatable but Busbeq surely noticed tulips during his stay along with other flowers like narcissus and hyacinths. Not much later tulips were first cultivated in Europe’s Bavaria present day Germany, a part of the Habsburg empire.
Even before Ottomans sensed how addictively Europeans were attracted to their own flower kafe lale, the mania in Europe was building up.
First under the spell were Venetian traders contributing their bit by reaching tulip bulbs to Italy.
Soon the first ever illustration of tulip was sketched by Pier Andrea Mattioli, an Italian naturalist, physician in 1570. But more interesting is perhaps how Mattioli got hold of the new flower.
Mattioli was Ferdinand I’s personal physician and knew about Busbeq’s failed attempt to acquire the codex of handbook of medicine De Meteria Medica. Mattioli’s personal account reveals about the cult medicines handbook and how Busbeq got Lilac to Europe for the first time.
How far-fetched would it be to think that Busbeq got the tulip bulbs as well, after all Mattoli did paint both a lilac and a tulip but named the latter wrongly as narcissus.
But for most it was Carolus Clusius a botanist who popularized tulip first in Holland and then across Europe. The botanist is also credited as alter priest of high octane ‘tulipomania’ who had planted the first tulip bulbs initially in Vienna’s Imperial Botanical Gardens in 1573, and later the instructional garden of Leiden University in 1593 where he was employed as director.
Soon tulip was everywhere in the Netherlands and beyond.
A strange curiosity and addiction grew around tulips, which Dutch perceived as much ‘exotic’ as the spices, cotton, saltpetre or coffee which their East India Company were bringing back from the Indies. Other East India companies of the English and French were not far behind and hence tulip spread to France, and England as well.
Palatial houses, lavish gardens with exotic plants from Levant became a lifestyle trend. While France and Holland were pitted against each other in their obsession with tulips, hardly did anyone know that Tulip will return to its country of first love propelling the most distinct craze in just about another hundred years.
It is in these days Tulip trade got itself associated to huge speculation and promissory notes, overnight becoming a currency compelling Dutch government to lay down trading restrictions on the sale of bulbs. By 1637, the trade collapsed leaving its permanent artistic imprints on Dutch paintings, timeless portraits of tulips, a distinct element of Dutch Golden Age.
The Final Epoch Of Tulip
Tulip mania died its natural death in Europe, but tulips were not to disappear from the public imagination. Like a full circle of heightened love, the flowers once again caught the fancy of the Turks between 1718 and 1730. It was the reign of Sultan Ahmet III and his grand Vizier Ibrahim Pasha.
A poet and a calligraphist, Ahmet was an intellectual with a refined taste who decided to go for changes and reforms and the Treaty of Passarowitz (1718) acted as a watershed moment for the regime to draw new energy. Together with Ibrahim Pasha, the emperor built an era of peace and stability, of artistic excellence, leisure and consumption like never before.
They planned a new Istanbul which reflected reforms in architecture, arts, gardens or floriculture and industrial production of the times. State buildings, madrasas, gardens and mosques bore changes and a different look; with Yeni Valide Mosque and Sultan Ahmet Fountains being constructed during this reign.
Till today Yeni mosque has elaborate muqarnas and decorative tile work with extensive designs of tulips. Industrialization was happening too – with foundation of Islamic printing press laid, and numerous carpet, ceramics and paper factories opening up.
Interestingly tulips, unlike earlier captivated, the fancy of one and all in Turkey. Soon tulip was both the marker and the currency. It represented social status, worldviews, ideas of leisure and openness to a life of luxuries, unprecedented in Ottoman history.
An integral motif to everything ornamental, tulip was all over; from marble, stones, ceramics to clothes, fabrics, carpet and rugs, crockeries, cookware to illuminated Holy Qur’an, manuscripts, divans (poetry collections), songs, idioms and even Ramadan mahyas.
Abdülcelil Celebi Levnî (1680-1730), by far the most famous miniaturist of Ottoman history drew tulips. Succinct, elegant, unapparelled they adorned Levanî’s Album Paintings and Surname -i- Vebbi, a book of ceremony that recorded the fortnight long circumcision ceremonies of the Sultan’s five sons.
Coffeehouses were catalytic to literary manifestations of the time; poems and songs with tulips as their themes were conceived these cafes in earnest company of Turkish coffee.
Such was the importance of tulips that Sultan Ahmet ordered a private tulip garden next to his Imperial harem – the seat of his private life overlooking the Sea of Marmara.
Surely a story of flowery obsession, no wonder 490,000 visited Tulip Gardens in Kashmir on a single day!
Nilosree is an author, filmmaker.