ISTANBUL (Reuters) - It’s not the minarets, the sunsets or the Bosphorous views making Istanbul’s April crowds coo with pleasure — it is the tulips.
With a tulip blooming for almost every one of its 12 million inhabitants the city hopes to remind the world that Turkey was the original home of the flower now more usually associated with clogs, cheese and windmills.
“Istanbul was a city without flowers, now the tulip has returned,” Istanbul Mayor Kadir Topbas told Reuters, speaking by a steep bank blanketed by rich red-orange blooms, the result of a massive bulb-planting programme which began three years ago.
“People are hugely excited by them.”
Tulips hail originally from eastern Turkey and the steppe of central Asia and were cultivated by the Ottomans, who took the flower to their imperial capital Istanbul, where they adorned the Sultan’s palaces and the gardens of the elite. The word “tulip” derives from the Turkish word tulbent, referring to the Sultan’s turban headdress, which the flower resembled in shape.
An angry mob uprising in the eighteenth century saw Istanbul’s opulent tulip gardens all but disappear, and the city had been largely without beds of the flower ever since.
Today tulips line the Sea of Marmara coast, protrude from concrete islands amid Istanbul’s notoriously heavy traffic and nestle in colorful clusters by the city’s key tourist sights.
“Tulips were with us for thousands of years... but unfortunately this had become somewhat forgotten,” said Topbas, a member of Turkey’s ruling AK Party.
He hopes the brief period during which the flowers are in bloom will stir memories of their place in Turkish culture.
Besides the bulb planting, a nine-day tulip festival, and a photo exhibition of the 100 most beautiful tulips in the city’s busiest square, Istanbul council has begun agricultural tulip production and hopes it will develop as an industry.
“The Netherlands of course has a powerful tulip and bulb industry... but I hope we can also one day become a tulip exporter,” said Topbas.
Istanbul’s fledgling tulip business employs about 5-10,000 people, but Topbas thinks it could one day generate up to 230,000 jobs in and around the city where official unemployment in 2006 stood at 11.2 percent.
“I’m sure we could beat the Dutch with our tulips,” smiled 40-year-old Melek Polot, out visiting a flower display on the banks of the Bosphorous.
“The tulips are the most beautiful thing in Istanbul.”
If it takes off, the Turkish venture would be claiming a slice of a big business. Exports of cut flowers, bulbs and plants from the Netherlands, the world’s biggest flower exporter, amounted to 6.6 billion euros ($10.5 billion) in 2007 according to the Dutch Agricultural Wholesale Board.
The tulip fields also draw thousands of tourists each year, allowing the Dutch economy to profit from the flower which nearly bankrupted it 400 years ago.
The first tulips were taken back to Europe, including the Netherlands, in the 1550s by an ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. One Dutchman, confused by the gift of a tulip bulb, is said to have fried it and eaten it like an onion.
Within a few decades a frenzy for the flower had taken hold which came close to choking the Dutch economy, as merchants began to pay ludicrously elevated prices for bulbs.
At the height of the craze — around 1635 to 1637 — a single tulip bulb of one of the exotic varieties cost more than a smart Amsterdam canal-side house. Inevitably the bubble burst and traders were left with virtually worthless bulbs and crippling debts.
Tulips were a favorite motif of Ottoman artists and craftsmen. Elongated red tulips, whose petals end in a sharp point, feature in classical ceramic blue tiles, and the flower, known as “lale” in Turkish, was depicted on carpets.
“If you write the name lale in Arabic letters it looks very much like the word Allah so they say it is a kind of divine flower,” said Ilber Ortayli, director of Istanbul’s Topkapi palace, from where the Sultans ruled over an empire stretching from the Balkans to Egypt.
Although the Ottomans never succumbed to Europe’s irrational excitement, Ortayli thinks they would have had much sympathy.
“Every kind of madness is worth it for the tulip because it is a very attractive flower. Even I sometimes buy hundreds of them and bring them home. It is worse than alcoholism.”
Istanbul council says it has spent 2.7 million Turkish lira ($2.06 million) on the tulips and the tulip festival. Some would have preferred to see it spent elsewhere.
“The tulips are beautiful but they only last for such a short time,” said 55-year-old taxi driver Ismail Avcilar. “It would have been better to spend the money on infrastructure.”
Frequent traffic jams often make navigating the city’s streets frustrating.
But others are proud.
Lale Atik, 59, whose name means tulip, said she understood why the world had forgotten the flower’s Turkish origin.
“The Dutch imported Tulip bulbs, cultivated them and developed new types while we just sat on our hands... but now we can create the old days of Istanbul,” she said.
The tulip even gave its name to a relatively peaceful and prosperous era of Ottoman history under Sultan Ahmet III in the early eighteenth century, when diplomacy and cultural exchange with the West took precedence over wars and expansion.
Ahmet loved garden parties and splashing out on tulips. Legend has it that at one such evening party tortoises with little lanterns attached to their shells meandered slowly through the flowers.
An uprising brought an end to such indulgence, as well as to Ahmet’s reign, and the gardens lining the Bosphorous were destroyed in the process.
“The municipality of Istanbul has recreated these type of tulip gardens as well as here in our palace,” said Ortayli.
Editing by Sara Ledwith