From The Beloved

A motif that sprouts from the ground to bloom in season, a millennia-old symbol with extensions in art and culture.

If only I were able to compose chronograms that would be read for centuries, immortalizing the love of my sweetheart, waiting silently with bowed head... But no way! Penning panegyrics to the most beautiful of flowers, beloveds and varieties of melancholy is unfortunately not the forte of a child of this new age...
The tulip, ‘lale’ in Arabic script, written with the letters ‘lâm’, ‘aleph’ and ‘he’, the same as those used in the name of Allah, who has scattered the beauty of His Being all over the worldly realm, and of ‘hilâl’, the crescent moon.
On the one hand poets who compose encomiums to this sacred flower in their divans, on the other the gardeners who grow it with tender loving care. Tulip lovers and tulip poets, pursuing in their different ways an avocation said to be eternal.
In the lines of Remzi Efendi, ‘The air blown on the tulip by the morning breeze is not new / The desire and zeal for the tulip is everlasting, not born of the present.’
Although they manifest their love for the tulip in different ways, one can see that their interest has it roots in one and the same civilization. The letters ‘lâm’, ‘aleph’, and ‘he’, for example, all written without diacritical marks, embody a concept of beauty according to which the most prized tulips are also required to have no disfiguring spots.

So exalted is the spiritual value of this mystery, sealed in the characters of the Arabic script, that this motif, as a symbol of beauty and sadness laden with divine significance, was carried even into battle. A tulip motif engraved on a sword together with the words, ‘The aim of the holy warrior is to make war’, signifies that the weapon is borne in the name of Allah and that Allah will stand beside its bearer.
As a decorative element, the tulip is frequently found in Turkish-Islamic architecture, worked in marble and wood and on tiles, as well as on the very painstakingly sewn Ottoman garments. The mausoleums of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent, who is known to have been a passionate tulip lover and to have worn stylish tulip-embroidered caftans, and of his wife Hürrem Sultan are also decked with tulip motifs. Despite the myriad variations on, and the questionable veracity of, its story, the ‘upside-down tulip’ is something every visitor to the Selimiye Mosque (Edirne), one of the masterpieces of world architectural history, is eager to see. It is said to represent an extremely contrary man who only reluctantly gave up his tulip bed for the building of the mosque. The veracity of the story aside, any culture that immortalizes such a perverse and vulgar person in an upside-down tulip is certainly worthy of our attention. Nor is this jest mere coincidence but rather a symbol explicable only by the concept of tolerance.

The gardeners of Ebüssuud Efendi, a well-known man of state during the reign of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent, are said to have produced a plethora of beautiful tulips by crossbreeding different varieties that appealed to the taste of the potentate. Said to total only forty-nine at the time, their numbers eventually exceeded two thousand. Each of these hundreds of tulips was given a different name, which the poets of the day then immortalized in their lines. Of these ‘Istanbul Tulips’, whose numbers unfortunately began diminishing as early as the second half of the 18th century, we know only the forty-nine varieties that were depicted by artists.
The desire of every Ottoman sultan to see tulips in the palace gardens and all over the city when ‘Tulip Time’ approached with the arrival of spring resulted in the official institutionalization of the relationship between the tulip and the imperial capital. The former Byzantine capital, which is frequently characterized in books of the pre-conquest period by the epithet ‘dismal’, is said to have been transformed into a garden city within fifty years of the conquest. Considered from the point of view of Ottoman imperial taste, one of the fundamental reasons for this is surely the absence of the tulip in the previous era.

The great literateur Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar (1901-1962), who lived in a time that today could perhaps be characterized as ‘old Istanbul’, describes in a virtual cultural lament how far the city had departed from its tulip culture even in his own day. “The tulip no longer has a place in aesthetic taste. It is no longer a symbol of anything. No poet compares the color of his beloved’s cheek to its hue, nor does the ornament-maker try to impress its symbol of unity on tiles, marble or on the filigree of a well-wrought metal fence, its quiet eloquence which, through the lâm-aleph curve, negates the existence of anything but Allah Himself; neither does the calligrapher light his transparent lamp by the curves of the ancient lâm’s. Like any other form forsaken by its god, the tulip exists now as a mere flower, outside the composite we call taste...” Tanpınar goes on to emphasize that this cultural rupture stems from a civilization enduring only in memory: “Style belongs to culture and civilization. The tulip was a stylistic motif.”

Istanbul today is trying to reintroduce into everyday life this motif so quintessentially hers. Not finding a niche for itself in the daily dynamics of a global city, the tulip is once again being embraced by Istanbul’s soil as one of the key icons of its urban identity following a rising wave of nostalgia for more tranquil times. And perhaps the city is again going to be remembered, albeit after a hiatus of a century, for its gardens and the fragrance of its flowers. Millions of tulip bulbs are being distributed to the city’s residents, and the tulips that herald spring in all the city’s parks are a colorful reminder of its past glory. Once a motif that spread to gardens and poetry through the humble philosophy of a deeply rooted civilization, today the tulip is a pleasant memory that we recall with a sigh. A beautiful element of landscaping, symbolizing our yearning for a civilization that lasted several centuries, the tulip today is merely a beautiful flower that grows in Istanbul...

The information used in this article is taken from the book, ‘Ateş Çiçek Lale’ (Flower of Fire: The Tulip) by Beşir Ayvazoğlu.