It’s April, and so that means it is officially Tulip Time! Every year in April, Istanbul puts on the International Tulip (Lale) Festival in honour of tulips and the start of Spring. If you are lucky enough to visit Turkey in April, the moment you leave Ataturk airport you will see them – garden beds full of tulips, providing brilliant splashes of colour in the middle of roundabouts, by the side of motorways, in parks, and in the ground of Istanbul’s palaces. Wherever there’s some spare grass, there will be tulips. Last year, the Istanbul municipality planted 14, 420, 000 tulips of nearly 200 different varieties. Yep, that’s not a typo – more than 14 million tulips were planted in Istanbul alone. The tulip festival also boasts lots of concerts and exhibitions, photography competitions, ebru exhibitions, calligraphy demonstrations, and there is also usually a football match as well.
Tulips are an important symbol for Turkey, all year round. The official tourism logo of Turkey includes a tulip. A tulip can be found on the fuselage of Turkish Airlines’ planes. They continue to be featured in art and ceramic designs, and are also woven into carpets.
Most people believe that tulips originated in Holland, however tulips are actually native to the Central Asian planes. Although the Ottomans were the first people to cultivate them for commercial purposes, there is evidence of their popularity long before this. The earliest surviving Persian rug, the Pazyryk carpet, dates back to the 5th century BCE and has a number of tulips in its design. Tulip designs have also been found on tiles and fabrics from the Seljuk Turks. It is believed that tulips first made their way to Europe after an Ambassador from Vienna was given some tulip bulbs and seeds as a gift by Suleyman the Magnificent after admiring tulips in the palace garden.
Tulips became so popular in Holland, that a phenomenon known as “tulipmania” began. Demand was greater than the supply of tulips, and tulip stocks were badly depleted, so one single tulip bulb could fetch the equivalent of a master craftsman’s salary for 10 years! Although the Dutch government tried to stop this trade, they were not successful. Eventually the market went bust and many people went bankrupt.
For the upper classes of Ottoman Society, tulip cultivation was a prized practice. It is often given as an early example of modern consumerism, as tulips were a sign of nobility and privilege. They were a way to show off both wealth and leisure time. Around the same time as tulips were all the craze, Turkey started to orient itself towards Europe and focused more on the arts and commerce. So it is no surprise that tulips were a staple feature in the artwork of this period. They were embroidered or embossed into textiles, woven into carpets, painted on tiles and other ceramic products, and painted as miniatures.
So, if ever you have the chance to visit Istanbul in April, at the time of Tulip Festival, don’t hesitate! And when you visit Turkey, look carefully everywhere you go, and you’ll be sure to spot plenty of tulips.