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TASTE OF THE PAST >The Ottomans and tulips

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Damad Ibrahim Paşa reportedly became enchanted with the marvelous smells and colors in the Austrian ambassador’s garden in which tulips were blooming in the 17th century. He decided to plant tulips in his own garden and had his friends plant tulips in theirs.

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For the Tulip Festival, 12 million bulbs have been planted in Istanbul. In Emirgan Forest one can find the most amount of different tulips.

For the Tulip Festival, 12 million bulbs have been planted in Istanbul. In Emirgan Forest one can find the most amount of different tulips.

    Niki GammNiki Gamm

    Who was Baron Johann Rudolf Schmid von Schwarzenhorn? Is this the first time you’ve heard of him? It wouldn’t be surprising, since he lived several centuries ago (1590 to 1667). He was born to an aristocratic family in a small village called Stein am Rhein, today situated between Switzerland and Germany and, according to a local story, his widowed mother gave him to a Hungarian or Austrian officer when he was seven. This officer took him to Verona where the boy learned Italian, at the time the most commonly used language of translation in the Mediterranean. The Ottomans captured him when he was 12, probably during their advance into Hungary and the failure of the Habsburg attempt to capture Buda in 1602. Schmid lived as a slave among the Ottomans until 1624 when he was among a group of slaves purchased and returned to Vienna. He was able to take advantage of his knowledge of Turkish to translate for the Austrian government and then to be sent to Istanbul as its resident ambassador, charged with negotiating a peace treaty. In Istanbul between 1629 and 1643, he brought tulips from Austria to grow in his garden where they later attracted attention during the reign of Sultan Mehmed IV (r. 1648-87).

    The first time tulips came to the attention of Europeans in Istanbul was in 1554 when Austrian Ambassador Ogier Ghislain de Busbecq took seeds he had taken from a garden near Istanbul to Vienna. Until the beginning of the 17th century tulips grew in Turkey but attracted little attention. Sultan Murat IV (r. 1623-40) had noticed them when on his Baghdad campaign but Koca Hasan Efendi the man whom the sultan had ordered to make people interested in growing them failed. The tulip is actually a native of the temperate zone in Asia, which gradually made its way to the Mediterranean.

    Doctor for imperial garden

    In any case, de Busbecq provided Carolus Clusius (1526-1609), a medical doctor and botanist who was in charge of the imperial medical garden in Vienna at the time. In 1593 he was appointed a professor at the University of Leiden where he established one of the earliest formal botanical gardens in Europe. He seems to have had a particular interest in the tulip, observing that after several years, the tulip would break into different shapes and colors. This in turn fed the so-called tulip-mania of the 1630s in Holland.

    Between 1634 and 1637, people went crazy bidding up the price of tulip bulbs – one type reached 13,000 florins (approximately $5,200). They were traded on the stock exchange since ownership of a bulb might be divided into shares even if the bulb didn’t exist. One theory about this “bubble” is that the Dutch had reached a certain prosperous economic level and were constantly looking about for new ways to increase their income or show it off. This has been suggested as a theory to account for the many paintings that exist from this period. In 1637, the government intervened and the bubble’s collapse ruined many families.

    The 20th century historian, poet and writer Ahmet Refik is credited with being the first person to apply the term Lale Devri, or “Tulip Period,” to the years 1718-1730. It was then that the Ottoman sultan, Ahmed III (r. 1703-1730), and Grand Vizier Nevşehirli Damad İbrahim Pasa (his damad, or son-in-law) organized gardens entertainments in Istanbul revolving around flowers and especially tulips.

    Damad Ibrahim Paşa reportedly became enchanted with the marvelous smells and colors in the Austrian ambassador’s garden in which tulips were blooming. He then planted tulips in his own garden and had his friends plant tulips in theirs, so it did not take long before the flower could be found in many of Istanbul’s gardens. He is recorded as having searched the streets for days for a silver variety known as the Crown of Caesar, but in vain. A bulb of the Iranian tulip, known as the Tulip of the Girl, was valued at 1000 gold pieces. Refik compares the price of tulips to that of jewelry. For each new type, the Ottoman poets would invent a name like the rose of spring or the cup of gold. By 1726, the number of types of tulips in Istanbul had reached 839, booklets were being written and tending to tulips had become a bureaucratic profession. The situation got so out of hand that the government stepped in and appointed a person named Sheikh Muhammet to register every tulip in every garden and store and to put a price on them. Anyone found to be selling a tulip bulb at a higher price was to be punished by an advisory committee that was established to investigate.

    In 1730, the people revolted against the sultan; he was forced to resign and his grand vizier was executed. Presumably that’s how the current TRT-1 series on this period will end. The excesses of the Tulip Period came to an end, but the Istanbul Greater Municipality has lately taken up the thread with its seventh annual Tulip festival, which started this week and continues until 29 April. People have a chance to see tulips of different varieties around the city.

    April/14/2012

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