Turbans and Tulips
Tulips come from Holland. Right? Wrong! Or at least, they haven't always.
Tulips come from Turkey, the only country in the world to call one of its
major eras of national history—the years 1700 to 1730—the "Tulip Period." And
how that era got its name . . . thereby hangs a tale.
Tulips, even in the early 18th century, were nothing new to Turkey. Along with
other bulbous plants such as the narcissus, the hyacinth and the daffodil,
tulips had grown there for centuries, both wild and domesticated for house and
garden. The Tulip Period took its name from an established hobby, which
started as court fashion, grew into a generalized fad and fancy, and finally
became an explosion of unrestrained international speculation in bulbs which
buyers never even saw.
It all began when tulips first went to Europe. In 1550, no one in Holland had
heard of tulips. Different varieties do grow wild in North Africa and from
Greece and Turkey all the way to Afghanistan and Kashmir. Very occasionally
they are even found in southern France and Italy, usually in vineyards or on
cultivated land, which has led some botanists to speculate that they may have
been brought back by the Crusaders.
The Persians were familiar with tulips, but they didn't domesticate them as
thoroughly as the Turks. For centuries they admired the flowers wild. Even as
decorative motifs in Persia, they were never as popular as the narcissus, iris
In Turkey it was different. The Turks cultivated them in flower beds and
window boxes and they used the flowers as patterns on textiles and rugs,
ceramic tiles, buildings and fountains and even, especially in the case of
women, on tombstones. Their name for the tulip was lale, but another Turkish
word, dulband, or "turban," is the origin of our English name, presumedly
because of the flower's shape.
For Ottoman officialdom in 16th-century Istanbul, gardening was a restful
hobby, cultivated as a respite from the pressures of the job. Miniature
paintings from that century show Turkish gardens to have had an air of relaxed
formality. Brick walls defined the borders; four posts marked the corners. On
one side a willow or wisteria might be trained up and over a trellis for
shade. Stepped terraces of brick or grass embankments led up in the center or
at one end to a fountain jetting water into a formal pool. There the Turks
planted tulips, marching them in red, yellow and variegated rows along the
walkways and up around the fountains.
One of the most notable Turks of the 16th century, the empire's supreme
justice, Ebu es-Suud Effendi, was a gardener and tulip hobbyist. One can
imagine him at the end of the day strolling quietly through his gardens beside
the dark flowing Bosporus, his long full robes brushing the brick path, draped
sleeves flapping gently in the evening air, his hugely wrapped white turban
bent down to the rows of small red turbans lifted up beside the paths.
Some evenings he might have been joined by his colleague Sokollu Mehmet Pasha,
the Grand Vizier, who also enjoyed gardens. Sokollu Mehmet not only kept a
garden of his own near Ebu es-Suud's, but also had one laid out for his
sovereign, Selim II, complete with garden house and tulip beds.
Then, in 1554, an Austrian with a curious mind and an appreciation of flowers
noticed the tulips on his way to Istanbul. He was Ogier Ghislain de Busbecq,
Austrian Emperor Ferdinand I's ambassador to the Sultan at Constantinople. De
Busbecq described them in a letter home.
"As we passed, we saw everywhere an abundance of flowers, such as the
narcissus, hyacinth and those called by the Turks tulipan, not without great
astonishment on account of the time of the year, as it was then the middle of
the winter, a season unfriendly to flowers. . . . The tulipan . . . have
little or no smell, but are admired for their beauty and variety of color."
De Busbecq carried seeds back to Vienna and a few years later, in 1559, Konrad
Gesner, the Swiss naturalist, saw garden tulips growing at Augsburg, Germany,
which he described as having "one large reddish flower, like a red lily." The
picture of a tulip in his gardening book of 1561 is the first known in Europe.
The blossoms not only excited the curiosity of European scholars, but also
that of enterprising florists. In no less than 10 years after de Busbecq had
carried the first seeds back, a trader in Antwerp, Belgium, had imported the
first shipment of bulbs from Istanbul; a year or two later they had reached
Holland. So the Dutch tulip was born.
This was an expanding Europe, a prosperous Europe of cheap credit, and money
to spend on luxuries such as tulip bulbs. Living in the Age of Exploration, it
was a Europe intensely curious about exotica from the East, and willing to pay
to own a piece of it. By 1600 tulips had been completely studied for possible
use for everything from the treatment of gout to cheap nutrition. The great
Dutch botanist, Professor Clusius of Leiden, met de Busbecq in Vienna,
obtained some seeds from him and, being an eminently practical man, raised the
bulbs with an eye to their food value. He ordered an apothecary to preserve
them in sugar. This idea, however, did not catch on. The Dutch never came to
eat tulip bulbs for pleasure and were only forced to eat them at all in the
darkest days of World War II.
As both medicine and food, tulips were failures. But with their extraordinary
ability to break and change color—due, we now know, to a tulip-loving
virus—they were fantastic for the garden hobbyist. The Dutch bred thousands of
varieties, made them a central motif in their paintings and, a few years
later, would go mad over them.
Tulips first reached England in 1578, but they seem not to have become popular
there immediately. They are not among the many flowers mentioned by
Shakespeare. Their popularity grew over the years, however, and Parkinson, the
author of the great gardening book known as Paradisus, published in 1629,
reports that it is "profitable for them that have a convulsion in their necke
(which wee call a cricke in the necke) if they be drunk in harsh (which we
call red) wine." In the reign of Charles I tulips gained enormous popularity,
surpassing the rose and daffodil, and a number of theologians, on account of
their great beauty, declared that they must be the "lily of the field"
mentioned in the Bible, where it says "Solomon in all his glory was not
arrayed like one of these."
In spite of the flower's growing popularity, however, "tulipomania," or tulip
madness, did not grip England as it soon would Holland. For this the poet and
essayist Joseph Addison, who first coined that word in a satire against tulips
in the Tatler, can probably be given credit. France, on the other hand, where
tulips are first mentioned rather late, in 1608, was seriously affected by the
craze, as Alexandre Dumas recounts in his novel The Black Tulip.
By 1620 tulips were regarded as de rigueur for every palace garden in northern
Europe. This fashion, established by aristocratic display, spread among
wealthy merchants with upward ambitions. The result, between 1634 and 1637,
was the first speculative horticultural boom and bust in European history.
Tulipomania is not too strong a word to describe what happened.
In Holland, one day in the early 1630's, a single Viceroy tulip bulb changed
hands. Its price, paid in kind, was as follows: two loads of wheat, four loads
of rye, four fat oxen, eight fat pigs, twelve fat sheep, two hogsheads of
wine, four barrels of eight-florin beer, two barrels of butter, 1,000 pounds
of cheese, a complete bed, a suit of clothes and a silver beaker.
The whole was valued at 2,500 florins. About the same time, one bulb of Semper
Augustus was sold for twice that sum, plus a fine new carriage and pair.
Another single bulb was considered a lavish dowery; a fourth was exchanged for
a flourishing brewery. In the end the market, weakened by heavy trading in
tulip futures—paper purchases of bulbs to be dug the following
summer—collapsed in a few scant months. Hundreds of fortunes were lost; the
court of Holland had to step in to restore fiscal stability.
Back in Istanbul, meanwhile, the tulip business went on almost as usual. True,
prices were up in response to foreign demand. And regularly the rumor would
make its rounds in the marketplace of an international cloak-and-dagger plot
concerning the elusive "black tulip," the one color no one could produce. The
florists' guild increased its membership, and more gardens were laid out.
At the palace, the demand for tulips remained high, and not only to serve the
Sultan's pleasure. The Ottoman Foreign Service was well aware of Europe's
taste for tulips. In 1651, nearly on the centennial of the bulb's introduction
in the West, the Turks sent another Austrian ambassador back to Vienna with
gifts, the most prized of which were 10 new varieties of the flower. In Europe
they were promptly given names like Maximilianus, Roses of Leiden, Herzog Max,
Van den Vilde and Belle Voir.
But although tulips were still special in Turkey, in the 17th century they
werecertainly not considered something to throw one's fortune away on, as the
foolish foreigners had. Not, that is, until the early 1700's, when what had
happened in Amsterdam 100 years earlier occurred again in Istanbul: tulip
Sultan Ahmet III, who ruled the Ottoman Empire from 1703 until 1730, liked
flowers. More than that, he liked garden parties. It wasn't long before his
reign began that the final Turkish seige of Vienna had failed, and the empire
was forced into the humiliating Treaty of Karlowitz (1699). By the terms of
this treaty the Empire was obliged to sign away to European powers large
pieces of territory in the Balkans. Istanbul was anxious to forget about war
and defeat. A peace party was in power and in the palace, and it was glad to
encourage the Sultan in his taste for entertaining. Better flowers than
battles, certainly. Society was ready to be diverted by a harmless fad, and
the fad that appeared was the tulip.
The spring palace garden parties were spectacular diversions. Days before the
big event, agents combed the local market for blossoms, thousands upon
thousands of them. Servants placed them in colored bottles strategically
located in the garden beds to supplement the plantings. They massed more
blooms in banks on wooden benches set about the open lawns. Evening parties
were the fashion, with lamps and candles placed along the paths and above the
beds. At one such party dozens of tortoises with small lanterns tied to their
backs plodded among the flowers.
Soon the city aristocracy entered the game, competing among themselves not
only for the most novel garden entertainment, but more seriously for the best
blooms. Tulip shows were held, often under palace patronage, with the
best-of-show tulip receiving a certificate of merit signed by the Sultan
himself—as well as a purse of gold.
A fad in any literate society brings out books; Ottoman Istanbul was no
exception. "How-to" books on gardening had been written before in Turkey; now
they appeared in numbers. Like old cook books, they make good reading today.
The Balance of Blossoms by Shaykh Mehmet Lalezari—his last name means Golden
Tulip—written in the 1720's, could have been published this year and most
garden fanciers wouldn't notice much difference between it and its neighbors
on their shelves.
"One must pay careful attention to the soil in which you plant your tulips,"
the author begins. His advice continues: don't use clay soil; it won't drain
and the bulbs will rot. Dig rich black soil from the lower southern slopes of
a nearby hill and put it through a sieve with holes no bigger than a hazelnut.
Then mix it with an equal part of sand or gravel. Dig out the top 1.2 inches
of your flower bed, cover the bottom with about six inches of medium-sized
stones and add enough of your new dirt to level the bottom surface at whatever
depth you plan on planting your bulbs. Lalezari has strong opinions about
soil. But note well, as did 18th-century Turkish gardeners reading him, that
what is good soil for tulips is not good soil for other kinds of bulbs.
What about fertilizer? Lalezari prefers rotted cow manure, though he points
out that some gardeners still swear by composted grape dregs, left over from
pressing. His contemporary, Ruznamcezade, a specialist in the narcissus,
writes in his Essay on Flowers that he agrees. "I prefer mixing one part of
cow manure . . . with four parts of soil and letting it stand three years
before applying. . . . Next is sheep manure, which is known to have nitrate in
it— but burns. Next is horse manure, then grape compost, which is good for
carnations but not much good for other flowers. . . . For me, no fertilizer
will do except old rotted cow manure from a village pasture."
Once planted, says Lalezari, the tulip beds need mulching or rough matting to
guard against a sharp freeze. Once up, the plants need shade to guard against
burning by the sun. Once blooming, the shade must remain to preserve the color
from fading. Watering is best done thoughtfully, early in the morning or at
When and how do you cut tulips for indoor display? Lalezari tells you. Once
cut, how do you keep the blooms from dropping their petals? Lalezari suggests
that you keep the vase out of the full sun, and at night place it outside in
the open where the breeze can reach it, facing the stars.
The handbooks are full of miscellaneous hints. Don't use river rock in the
beds; they attract insects which eat the plants and are hard to get rid of.
What about bugs? Some you can hunt down at night with a candle. Others . . .
well, for some the only remedy is to keep a few chickens and ducks in the
garden during the winter. They'll clean it out by the time the first buds
Oddly enough, there's not a word about moles and mice. And there's no question
of "organic versus chemical" in Lalezari's book.
Not all of the tulip essays were "how-to's." Some were show books, listing the
names of all the tulips on the Istanbul market with brief descriptions by
color and shape. One listing of 1726 gives some 890 named varieties. Most
books have a section listing the characteristics of the gold medal tulip, the
tulip that wins the prize at the flower shows: length of stem, shape and
location of leaves, shape and size of petals, color patterns, how well they
keep after cut, strength of bulb and how well it stores—the list is a long
one, and detailed.
These books fueled the fire and the tulip craze spread, with all the
accompanying wheeling and dealing that one might expect. It was Amsterdam of
1637 all over again. And as in Amsterdam, the government finally had to step
in to cool off the market. In 1726 the head of the palace flower gardens, our
friend Lalezari, was ordered to call a general meeting of all city tulip
dealers. At that meeting he announced that price controls were to be
established and enforced. Each dealer was to list all of his varieties.
Lalezari would set a price for each and that price was to be maintained in the
market. Violations would be punished by confiscation of stock and the exile of
the offending merchant. Orders to that effect went out from the city courts.
The price freeze worked; at least, speculation died out.
Tulips, of course, did not. They continued to be the mainstay of every planted
garden in Turkey. With the passing of Sultan Ahmet III and the peace party,
the Tulip Period drew to a close. An expanding Russia insured that the rest of
the 18th century would see the Ottoman Empire continually at war. The 19th
century was dominated by the modernization movement, which led to great
changes in governmental and life style; the 20th, by Ataturk's revolution,
which uprooted nearly every traditional Ottoman institution. Except the
You can still buy them today in Istanbul in the garden shops next to the old
Spice Bazaar facing the Golden Horn, or in cut bouquets from street sellers on
Taksim Square, in the shadow of the new Inter-Continental Hotel. Come spring
and the weeks of blooming, crowds from all over the city stroll through the
Emirgan tulip gardens, the most famous of Istanbul, to celebrate the season
and enjoy the color.
Whether you're a Turkish Sultan, a Dutch burgemeester or an ordinary household
variety American gardener, nothing beats the winter for you like the tulip.
Centuries, periods and fads come and go, but every spring as the snows melt,
tulips will be with us still. And thank God for them, every one.
Written by Jon Mandaville
Jon Mandaville, an associate professor of history and Middle East studies at
Portland State University
This article appeared on pages 2-5 of the May/June 1977 print edition of Saudi
Photo Gallery for Tulips all around the World