The Istanbul Tulip Festival is taking place on April 1-30 this year, when the city’s parks and squares will be beautified with thousands of colorful flowers. Everyone can appreciate what is known as “the world’s largest carpet of tulips” in Sultanahmet Square, as well as the rainbow blooms in Emirgan and Gülhane. But why is Istanbul so in love with these vibrant bulbs? To answer that we have to look back 300 years to the time of the Ottoman Empire's Tulip Era.
In the early 17th century, the Holy Roman Empire’s ambassador in Istanbul brought Ottoman tulips to Europe. Our word “tulip” is even derived from the Persian word for "turban" – Europeans learned this word from the Ottoman elite, who spoke a form of Turkish with strong influences from Persian. Price speculation on tulip bulbs created Europe’s first economic bubble, known as "tulip mania." Many traders lost huge fortunes overnight when the price of tulips dropped, and the craze inspired Dutch paintings that depicted the traders as fools and monkeys.
Known as “Lale Devri” in Turkish, the Ottoman Empire's Tulip Era came around 100 years after the Dutch mania. This was something like the Ottoman version of the Swinging Sixties: the empire’s finances were in good shape, and prosperity allowed new forms of poetry, painting, and architecture. Because the tulip is native to Turkey, the Ottoman Empire did not experience the same boom-and-bust trading that went wild in Europe. Instead, the tulip entered Ottoman art as a symbol of nobility and wealth. The poet known as Şair Nedim is considered the artistic embodiment of the era, turning popular songs into court poetry and praising the luxurious life of the upper class.
The most famous painter of Sultan Ahmed III’s reign was Levni, whose miniatures depict the fantastical festivals and entertainments of the time. Levni showed the sultan enjoying parades of trained bears, fireworks in the shape of cypress trees, giant puppets that were set alight, and acrobats who walked on ropes over the sea. And of course, Levni painted plenty of tulips.
The Tulip Era also developed its own architecture, blending European Baroque with Turkish traditions. The Fountain of Ahmed III – between the Hagia Sophia and the outer gate of Topkapı Palace – is a fine example of this flamboyant style. The Nuruosmaniye Mosque, located next to the Grand Bazaar, represents the baroque influence in religious architecture. This European style arrived in Istanbul after the Ottomans sent a research party to Paris in 1720. Sultan Ahmet III studied this research and tried to emulate the French court in his imperial capital.
Today, the tulip’s elegant aura survives in everything from contemporary art to corporate logos. The Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (İKSV) uses a stylized tulip as its symbol, as does the Borsa Istanbul (BİST) stock exchange.
Discover the art of tulips in Istanbul
Rüstem Paşa Camii is a 16th-century mosque near Eminönü. The mosque is famous for its colorful ceramic tiles, which prominently feature tulip designs.
The Turkish art of ebru (paper marbling) is a magical process to watch. The ebru master drops liquid paint into a metal box, where he shapes the colors before your eyes. One of the most popular ebru designs is the tulip – see it being made at the 16th-century Sufi lodge and art center of Caferiye Tekkesi.
Find tulips among the Ottoman-style miniatures and ceramics at Artrium, a Şişhane store that specializes in traditional art.