Baskets of aromatic spices, soaring minarets, the myriad waterways, mosques with exquisite domes and mystic whirling dervishes, this city has mesmerised me. But the surprise element has been the rows and rows of varied hues and patterns adorning this photogenic city on water. A tulip Istanbul? I find out that the tulip originated not in Netherlands the land of cheese and windmills, as we imagine it, but in Central Asia and eastern Turkey where it was a wild flower noticed by merchants on the Silk Route. The Turks introduced it to Anatolia in the 11th century. The word for Tulip in Turkish is ‘Lale’ a popular name for females even today, but the English word tulip was derived from ‘Tulbend’ the Turkish word for turban because of the shape of the flower.

The tulip is an important motif in Ottoman history. Red Tulips with pointed petals used to adorn the luxurious gardens of the Sultans. Stylised versions of tulip designs were used on tiles of mosques, on small tea glasses and even tombstones of women. I find them on hand-woven carpets in the cavernous Grand Bazaar as well as on ceramic plates. Our guide tells us that word for tulip when written in Arabic, looks like the word Allah and therefore tulips are thought to be divine flowers! The flower has inspired many poems, calligraphy, songs and paintings. Even today you can see the tulip on the official logo of Turkish Tourism.

I see traffic roundabouts, parks, avenues and gardens blanketed with tulips in every possible colour, interspersed with hyacinths and narcissus. My favourite ones are the flower beds grown in geometric designs, the shape of the Turkish Flag, even one in the shape of the ‘evil eye’ and in tune with Istanbul being the European Capital of Sports this year, some tulip figures are even inspired by sports! The tulip festival was started in 2006 to revive the cultivation of tulips. At the end of March and the beginning of April the tulips begin to bloom. The international Tulip festival is held over nine days in April but the blooms last till the end of May. My guide Aslan tells me that this year the government has spent 2.68 million Turkish Lira and grown 11. 5 million tulips! “It’s beautiful, but they could have spent it on better things”, says he.

We head to the historic Emirgan Park, beside the Bosporus, which is the centre of festivities. This park with old cedar trees, has been the backdrop of several movies and is covered with kaleidoscopic carpets of 110 species of tulips in every imaginable hue. Groups of locals are picnicking in the park, bands play live music and sweet Turkish tea is served in pavilions. Beside a small mosque, I see a group of men in prayer, kneeling on a carpet beside the flower beds. We see shops sell ceramic, glass and paintings all inspired by the tulip theme.

Imagine parties on the lawns in the evening centred on flowers, with tulips arranged in bottles, and tortoises walking around with lanterns in their backs… I hear about the wealthiest and most prosperous period in Ottoman history under Sultan Ahmet III, called the Tulip Period, when diplomacy and cultural exchange flourished. The period was associated with affluence and abundance. There were more than 800 species of tulips in the Ottoman Empire and each had its special name in Turkish. The florist in the Sultan’s court gave fanciful names like ‘Star of Felicity’ or ‘Diamond Envy’ to the rare tulips that were cultivated.

My interest in tulips leads me to the 16th century when an ambassador from Istanbul took some bulbs to Europe, and gifted them to his friend botanist Carolus Clusius, who worked in Vienna. Clusius liked the bulbs at first for their food value (he actually preserved then in sugar!) He later planted them in the Leiden Botanical Gardens in the Netherlands which led to their spread in Europe. Did you know that in the 1630s in Holland, Tulip mania erupted? Rare tulip bulbs commanded astronomical sums of money. People were willing to pay extravagant sums for rare bulbs, and in 1636 the stock exchange dealt in bulbs and their future options. They say that at the height of the tulip craze a bulb sold at ten times the annual salary of a craftsman. When the speculative bubble finally crashed, the economy was devastated and many people reduced to paupers! Tulips flourished in Turkey till the early 18th century, when there was a mob uprising that destroyed all the flowers and bulbs.

The Turks are now trying agricultural production of tulips and if the venture is successful they could give Holland a run for their money! Preparations for the tulip festival start in late fall and winter. More than 60% of the tulips this year were grown in the Anatolian province, the traditional home of the tulip. To popularise the festival the authorities have organised a photography competition of the ‘most beautiful tulips’ this year. Tulips are ephemeral and I am glad I caught the festival this year in Istanbul....

Other places in Istanbul to admire the tulips: Head to Gulhane Park (a historical, urban park in Istanbul’s Eminönü district) the Sultamahmet Square near the Blue Mosque or Hidiv Korusu, a pavilion on the Asian side. For a unique view head to the highest point in Istanbul- Camilica.

Published in the First Post, 2012