In April while strolling through Istanbul, it is impossible not to spend at least a few moments gazing up at the Judas trees and contemplating their association with the city and the significance of their color.
By Jane Akatay
As the purple, mauve, and pink blossoms bejewel the trees’ rugged grey trunks and leafless branches like amethysts, the vibrant core of the ancient city returns to life. These trees symbolize the annual reawakening of the city. While the tree is often found on mountainsides and along the Mediterranean, they have flourished across Istanbul and color the city purple for a few precious weeks.
The trees also inspire Turkish artists, writers, and poets. Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar noted the blossoms are “a rare flower worthy of a special day in its name,” and Edip Cansever, also a Turkish poet, compared Istanbul to a “magnificent empire of erguvan.” Two other poets, Orhan Veli and Necip Fazıl also drew inspiration from the flowers. Veli described the flowering season as a world in which people can go mad and Fazıl called it the country’s “true color.”
The tree, whose botanical name is Cercis siliquastrum and is also called the redbud or love tree, is most commonly known in English as the Judas tree because it is believed Judas Iscariot, one of Jesus’ disciples who took a bribe of 30 pieces of silver to betray his master, hung himself from the tree. According to the story, until he did so the flowers had been white, but since the hanging the tree became ashamed and the flowers blushed a deep pink.
The Judas tree has played an iconic role throughout Istanbul’s history. Although faded, the pink hues of the tree in blossom can be seen in some of the frescos that adorn the walls of the Hagia Sophia. Reminiscent of Tyrian purple, an important color in Byzantium, it is historically associated with Roman and Byzantine emperors and signified royalty. Additionally, some historians believe the birthing chamber within the Byzantine emperor’s palace was lined with purple quartz or purple silk. It is this that the phrase “born in the purple,” or supremacy by birth, derives from.
During Ottoman times, special days were devoted to gathering the blossoms and the trees’ branches were carved into walking sticks. The blossoms were even incorporated into dishes during this period.
Today, there are over 2,000 Judas trees throughout Istanbul. On the European side they can be found around the old city walls and in Ortaköy and Pierre Loti on the Golden Horn, and on the Asian side can be found in the Çubuklu hills above Beykoz, Kandilli, Paşabahçe, and Mihrabat Grove.