East Meets West

Sunday, April 30, 2006


Spring has arrived in Istanbul. Birds are singing, people are strolling in the streets and there are tulips everywhere. 3 million of them.

No, I didn’t count them. As prolific as the flowers, posters have sprung up all over the city claiming “Istanbul Meets Its Tulip-3 million tulips opening at once”.

When most people think of tulips, they think of the Netherlands. But the bulbous flower actually has its roots in Central Asia. It’s the national flower of Iran as well as Turkey, and has been the symbol of Istanbul for centuries.

Tulips are a well-known motif from the Ottoman period, appearing in all forms of art including painting, calligraphy, embroidery and ceramics.

The flower was brought to Holland from Turkey in the 17th century and set off a craze known as Tulip Mania, where people were bidding exorbitant amounts for a single bulb. Turkey had its own sort of Tulip Mania in the first half of the 18th century called the Tulip Period. A peaceful era for the Empire, and a time when arts and culture flourished, courtesans took to building villas with tulip gardens. It got to be a case of trying to outdo the Joneses (or the Ahmets as it were) as they would try to build bigger gardens with more varieties of tulips then their neighbors. It’s estimated that there were close to 100 varieties of tulip at the height of the Tulip Period.

While Istanbul certainly hasn’t returned to its former glory this spring, it’s nice to see the city make an effort to revive interest in part of Istanbul’s cultural heritage. Besides 3 million flowers, there are tulip exhibitions and tulip conferences. And in case people didn't realize tulip season is upon us, there's brightly-colored 6 meter high fiberglass tulips on top of Galata Bridge that light up at night and greet people coming in and out of the city.

I don’t think many tourists came to Istanbul this year just to take part in the ‘TulipFest’, but it’s nice to think that ‘Tulip Tourism’ could be a new market in the near future, and that Turkey could reclaim the tulip as its own.

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