In the Western world, tulips are simply colorful symbols of spring. In Turkish culture, their meaning runs much deeper. Tulips are native to Anatolia, and many of the elegant strains we know today began with the Ottomans, who cultivated thousands of new varieties.
The Ottomans used tulip motifs to adorn their mosques, palaces, ornaments, and clothes. One of the arts most associated with the tulip motif is ebru, a complex type of painting also known as Turkish paper marbling.
Those interested in learning these ancient methods should head to Caferağa Medresesi, a traditional arts school in Sultanahmet. There’s no better complement to enjoying the Istanbul Tulip Festival, which brings millions of colored blooms to the city every April.
It may look simple on paper, but ebru artist and teacher Tüzin Tiryaki says that appearance is deceptive. “To learn ebru you need at least three years. The first year is just like primary school children learning to reproduce the shapes of letters – you learn techniques, making nothing of professional quality,” she told The Guide Istanbul. “In the second year, you learn how to produce the same shapes but with professional and aesthetic value. In the third year, you learn how to put your own style and interpretation into those shapes.”
Specialized materials are also needed. The day before starting work, the artist mixes the water with a sea moss extract called carrageenan. This thickens the water so that paint can float on the surface. The next crucial ingredient is ox gall, mixed with the paints to make them more fluid over the water. Tiryaki also uses a very specific type of brush, made of horsehair tied to rose twigs, which can last up to five years. "In my years of experience I’ve tried different woods, but none of them can stay in water like this without growing mold or losing shape," she explains. “Why horsehair? It holds the paint very well. We tried pig hair, which looks exactly the same, but when you lift the brush all the paint falls back into the jar. When you look at when these brushes developed, of course there were a lot of horses around. But we still use them today, and there’s still no alternative.”
More than a tulip
To create the iconic marbled background, the artist flicks a large brush against her hand, which sends a scatter of drops onto the water. Next she uses a metal rod called biz to drop paint into the background and then sculpt it into a stylized tulip. She then places the paper on top of the water to print her design, and carefully lifts the paper off to dry. From “classic tulips” to “Istanbul tulips” and the “dancing tulips” that Tiryaki invented herself, different forms have evolved over the centuries.
In addition to its natural beauty, Muslims also have a spiritual reason to adore the tulip. According to the mystical abjad system of translating Arabic letters into numbers, the Turkish word for tulip – lale – has the same value as Allah, the name of God. It also has the same value as hilal, the crescent moon that symbolizes Islam.
For Tiryaki, the mystical value of ebru is expressed in her personal journey. She spent weeks grinding her paints and tying brushes for her first class at Caferağa Medresesi more than 20 years ago, but they all spilled in her backpack on the way to class.
The weight of materials and the travel distance forced her to give up. Then, out of the blue, her mother built her a workshop in the garden, and from there Tiryaki perfected her art and became a teacher at Caferağa Medresesi. “This journey has continued for 23 years. I met my husband through ebru. We have a daughter,” she says. “So we think that we make our own choices, but underlying that it seems that I was always going to end up here.”