The Sophistication of the Sultans

JEAN-BAPTISTE VANMOUR , An Ambassador’s Audience with Sultan Ahmed III, 1727–1730, oil on canvas

Tulipmania in Turkey: how the Sultans adored their tulips! 

Nobody does tulip obsession quite like the Ottoman Turks! The eighteenth century Tulip Period in Istanbul was so extreme and extravagant that it led to an Anti-Tulip Revolution...

Long before tulip bulbs were first shipped to Holland from Istanbul in 1562 the flowers were revered throughout the Middle East, both for their beauty and as semi-divine flowers within Islam. The tulip is the national flower of modern Turkey, but even so it’s hard to overstate the obsession for the tulip in the Ottoman Empire. The craze among the elite at the court of Sultan Ahmed III in the 18th century was so great that an historical era is named after it: it’s called Lâle Devri, or the Tulip Period.

However, while some Sultans were passionate about tulips, collecting new varieties even as they travelled on their military campaigns, others showed no interest in their flowers or gardens, so this is anything but a neat linear story about the ardour for tulips growing steadily over the centuries. 

Topkapi Palace gardens


The conqueror of Constantinople, Mehmed II, was clearly a fan of horticulture. Following the conquest of the city in 1453 he began building the awesome Topkapi Palace which was decorated with thousands of tiles featuring a profusion of tulip motifs. He planned pleasure gardens around the palace, with streams and fountains, pavilions linked by rows of poplars and, of course, masses of flowers.

A century or so later it was not unusual for Sultan Selim II (who reigned from 1566-74) to order subordinates across the empire to deliver up to 300,000 bulbs at a time for the twelve palace gardens where 900 gardeners worked, maintaining the orchards, kitchen gardens and creating elaborate displays of tulips – alongside hyacinths, roses, crocuses, narcissi and many other blooms.

The 17th century featured a succession of sultans who were perceived to be either libertines or madmen. There was Ibrahim the Crazy, for example, who on one terrible occasion had 280 concubines from his harem tied into weighted sacks and drowned in the Bosphorus as he suspected they were plotting against him. Mehmed IV, who ruled for 40 years from 1648, was the first Sultan for decades to be interested in horticulture, although as his nickname is Mehmed the Hunter, it wasn’t his principal passion. 

Nevertheless, it was he who established a formal council of florists and a Florist-in-Chief to register and judge new cultivars of tulips and to describe their special features – all this was three hundred years before the Dutch bulb growers of Holland and the Royal Horticultural Society in England came together to compile their first Classified List of tulip names. The Floristin-Chief also gave names to the newlyregistered-blooms which aimed to do justice to their beauty.

And what evocative names they were! ‘Those that Burn the Heart’, ‘Star of Felicity’, ‘Matchless Pearl’, ‘Increaser of Joy’, ‘Light of the Mind,’ ‘Diamond Envy’, ‘Delicate Coquette’ and ‘Beloved’s Face’. Some of those names, like ‘Pomegranate Lance’, indicate that the tulips which were most highly valued by the Ottomans were not the wineglass-shaped Dutch blooms that we’re so familiar with today, but altogether slimmer, elongated, almond-shaped flowers with petals that looked like daggers.

Ahmed III’s passion for
tulips was fuelled by
having spent the first
29 years of his life in
the ‘cage’

Tulips were often worn in the folds of turbans and displayed as single stems in special laledan vases. Pierre Belon, a renowned French botanist who visited the Ottoman Empire in the 1540s, had never seen a tulip (he first described it as a ‘red lily’) although he soon grasped its popularity; writing later that there were ‘no people who delight more to ornament themselves with beautiful flowers, nor who praise them more than the Turks.’

But when it came to tulip-obsessed Sultans, none could compete with Ahmed III, whose particular passion was fuelled by having spent the first 29 years of his life in the harem and in the ‘cage’. The cage was a peculiarly Ottoman solution to the problem of how to ensure the royal succession while avoiding civil war. Up until 1607 it had been normal for all the brothers of a new Sultan to be strangled upon his accession (19 brothers were killed upon the accession of Mehmed II in 1595), but thereafter the Sultan’s sons and brothers were locked up in the cage, a suite of rooms which overlooked the palace gardens but allowed no access to them, with only servants and concubines for company.

It’s hardly surprising that some would-be Sultans went mad or committed suicide while in the cage, but Ahmed III’s peculiar madness was for a plant, and when he became Sultan he finally had the money and power to indulge his desires. The Turkish historian Ahmed Rafik subsequently gave the name Lâle Devri (Tulip Period) to this era. It’s a term that is particularly associated with the years between 1718 and 1730 when the whole court followed the example of the Sultan in celebrating the flowers in verse, miniature paintings and embroidery, as well as in spectacular tulip festivals.

Each spring the blooms were fêted in candle-lit ‘tulip illuminations’ in gardens throughout the capital, or in processions featuring thousands of tulips mounted on towers or shaped into pyramids.

The French Ambassador to the Empire, Jean Sauvent de Villeneuve, described one such event in the garden of the Grand Vizier, which continued each night as long as the blooms were in flower:

‘Beside every fourth flower is stood a candle, level with the bloom, and along the pathways are hung cages filled with all kinds of songbirds. The trellises are decorated with an enormous quantity of flowers, placed in bottles and lit by an infinite number of glass lamps of different colours and reflected by countless mirrors. The effect is magnificent.’

This was very unlike the warlike behaviour which the Ottomans had been famous for (they had been besieging Vienna in 1683), as the Empire pursued a policy of peace and diplomacy with Europe while indulging in hedonism and pleasure: ‘Let us laugh,’ wrote Ahmed’s closest companion, the court poet, Nedim, ‘Let us play, let us enjoy the delights of the world to the full.’

Everyone from barbers and butchers to the Sheikh-ul-Islam (the most senior imam or bishop) cultivated bulbs, and the demand led to the most prized specimens changing hands for hundreds of gold coins. Grand Admiral Mustafa Pasa, son-in-law of the Grand Vizier during the Tulip Period, is remembered for forty-four new tulip breeds! The obsession with novelty and quality in tulips led to ever-greater demand and a dramatic rise in prices which peaked in 1726-7. History does repeat itself: this was 90 years after Tulipmania in Holland but in the Ottoman Empire the state successfully intervened to regulate prices, with harsh consequences for anybody who overcharged. Even so, the Empire could no longer satisfy the Sultan’s own demands for tulips, and millions of bulbs were actually imported from Holland and France.

The Tulip Period did not merely describe the preoccupation with this particular flower, as this was also a time of relative political tranquillity when the Grand Vizier (who effectively ran the government) expanded diplomatic relations with Europe and oversaw a flowering of all aspects of Ottoman culture, artistically, commercially and technologically. 

‘Let us laugh,’ wrote
the court poet, Nedim,
‘Let us play, let us
enjoy the delights of
the world to the full’

All good things come to an end. The Tulip Period, as you’ve probably realised, didn’t end well, at least not for the infatuated tulip fanciers. In 1730, when the Persian General Nader attacked Ottoman possessions in western Persia, the Ottoman leadership was clearly unprepared. The inordinate luxury enjoyed by Sultan Ahmed III and the excesses of court may well have infuriated his subjects. But it was Grand Vizier Ibrahim Pasha’s apparent indifference to state affairs and the Sultan’s hesitation in defending the empire that led to an insurrection – the Anti-Tulip Rebellion – led by a former Janissary soldier, Patrona Halil.

Both Grand Vizier Ibrahim Pasha and Grand Admiral Mustafa Pasa were strangled and decapitated, their heads presented to the mob by Ahmed III in order to save himself. He was forced to abdicate (and obliged to return to live in the cage), while his successor, Mahmud I, all but closed the Tulip Period’s cultural openings and European links. The tulip festivals carried on for a while but the flood of manuscripts listing hundreds of varieties of the Istanbul tulip was soon reduced to a trickle, while the renowned blooms gradually disappeared into extinction. It wasn’t until the creation of Turkey after the First World War that the tulip was reinstated as the national flower.