In British author A.S. Byatt’s best-selling collection of fables, the title story, The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye, takes its inspiration from the Turkish glass known as çeşme bülbül, “nightingale’s eye”. Her storyteller’s erotic genie emerges from a bottle made with this mysterious swirling pattern of deep blue and white, a technique apparently learnt in Venice by a Turkish glassmaker who later returned to Istanbul to work. It’s hard to imagine a more perfect magic bottle in which to keep one’s personal genie. How the pattern acquired its name is a mystery, although there are accounts of nightingales (small brown birds of modest appearance, with unremarkable eyes) singing in the woods along the Bosphorus. There is also a Mount Bülbül and a place called Çeşme, both in Antalya.
Another sort of eye, the nazar boncuk, a glass amulet signifying a protective eye, is everywhere in Turkish designs. The protective eye is an ancient symbol in many cultures – the Near East was believed to have its own Eye Goddess – and Turkey’s blue eye beads are particularly striking.
Floral motifs are ubiquitous the world over, but Turkey’s floral motifs are especially distinctive. Driving into the city from Ataturk Airport, one is greeted by Istanbul’s municipal emblem, a graphic design of stylized mosques and minarets arranged to resemble a tulip. In the west, the flower is associated with Holland’s huge bulbous flower industry, although that industry and the ensuing Dutch tulip mania originally sprang from trade with the Ottoman Empire. Visitors to the Ottoman Empire wondered at the Turks’ love of flowers, especially “a type of lily” – i.e., the tulip. The classic Turkish tulip motif has elongated, slender petals. They dance over walls of Iznik tiles, undulate across silk textiles, gleam from the gilding on steel armour, and are depicted standing proudly erect on the lovely carpets from the Ladik region.
Along with the tulip, another well-known pattern is the cintamani, comprising three spots and wavy lines, which derives from leopard and tiger pelts. This motif travelled west with the Turks from Central Asia. Sometimes a single spot is incorporated into a pattern, sometimes a single wavy line, but all have the same origin.
Fritillary, carnation, rose, hyacinth, and narcissus flowers all appear in Turkish decorative art. The pomegranate is also very prevalent: an ancient, widespread symbol of the Middle East signifying fruitfulness. The cypress tree and pine cone are also motifs from antiquity, although the latter is sometimes misinterpreted as a pineapple. Cloud bands and lotuses came west along the Silk Road in the decorations on Chinese ceramics, as did the pattern known as the “golden horn”: fine blue and white spiralling stems with coils and tiny hook-like leaves. This pattern also often appears in manuscripts - as background to a magnificent tuğhra,for example - and in metalwork. Intriguingly, although the bunches of grapes depicted on Iznik dishes copy Chinese blue and white originals, grapes are native to Anatolia, and carved stones show that the Hittite storm god was clearly not averse to a glass of local Anatolian wine. The “tree of life” image is another ubiquitous symbol with origins in the earliest Near Eastern cultures.
Birds appear in embroideries, on tiles, and nearly everywhere else. Green parrots were imported from India on trade ships and kept as pets, as were peacocks, which were a favourite with the Byzantines. On your next visit to a crafts market, look out for little beadwork birds. Today, these are usually made by prisoners who use beads in the symbolic colours of their favourite football teams; the proceeds from their sale earn the prisoners cigarette money. They occasionally appear in the Spice Bazaar, next to strings of nazar boncuk, around the corner from the flower market.
From the moment a newcomer arrives in Turkey, the visitor is overwhelmed by the richness and distinctive individuality of Turkish decorative motifs. A skyline punctuated by slender minarets and sombre lead-roofed domes will suddenly gleam as a shaft of sunlight reflects off the gilt bronze crescent of an alem,the finial atop the dome. Emblems of the Turkish Republic, the star and crescent, grace its red flag. Everywhere the eye rests, it finds a rich array of patterns and designs.