The rose and spring: hand-in-hand in Ottoman verse

The rose and spring: hand-in-hand in Ottoman verse

Niki Gamm ISTANBUL - Hürriyet Daily News
The rose and spring: hand-in-hand in Ottoman verse

Flowers figure in many of the poems written during the height of the empire and later. They were a part of everyone’s life in one way or another. While roses played an important role, other flowers were used as decorative elements.

Flowers and gardens were important aspects of Ottoman life from the sultan down to the general populace. The gardens in particular don’t seem to have been laid out in the systematic way we know them from Western Europe during the same time period, from the fifteenth century until the beginning of the eighteenth century. At that time, embassies were going to European capitals such as Paris and returning with ideas which could be imitated in Istanbul. It was during this period that tulips took hold of the Ottoman imagination and turned into a craze that today associates the tulip with the coming of spring, but that didn’t use to be the case.

Among the Ottomans, it was poetry that was the important literary form; prose was for law, religion and histories. The poet considered the greatest among all the Ottoman poets is Baki (1526-1600), who lived during the height of the Ottoman Empire, the reign of Sultan Süleyman and his immediate successors. He is especially known for his love of life and good living and that is probably why centuries later his “Ode to Spring” is still well known.

Baki’s ‘Ode to Spring’*

Now’s the time, O vintner’s lad, when wine lends flavour to the cheer;
Let us drink a glass or two – or even more – for spring is here!
Scented breezes, crimson roses, all that’s glorious in spring –
God the Bountiful in such wise lets his graciousness appear.
Let this moment slip not by; for in the garden of the world
Happiness, no more than roses, cannot last an endless year.
Now is not the time for praying nor for public pieties;
Rather does the season call for fun and frolic loud and clear.
Slunk in recesses of care, why waste you life away these days?
Take your place beside a stream, and mind that there’s a garden near.

*So much for the famed tulip in the classical period of the Empire. It’s the rose that the Ottomans associated with the coming of spring and we see this confirmed in another ode to spring by the poet Nef’i (1572-1635). The rose stood for a rosy cheeked young boy or girl or a cheek, the petal compared to an ear, the rosebud to red lips. Its appearance signified the start of spring.

How is it that the Ottomans developed such a passion for roses? Perhaps it’s because they found vast areas of land planted with roses near Edirne when they conquered the city and made it their capital before moving on to Istanbul. The area where roses grew abundantly was under the chief gardener for the Ottoman palace in Edirne, today’s Kazanlak in Bulgaria, according to an online article by Radoslav Bakshev. Roses, rose water and oil of roses were supplied to the palace from Kazanlak (founded by the Ottomans in 1420) and other towns in the area. The roses were supposedly brought there from Tunisia by an Ottoman judge, who had “beautiful vast gardens planted with fragrant roses. On February 25, 1593, through his chief gardener in Edirne, Sultan Murad III ordered the judge to make better use of his lands and cultivate roses for the needs of his palace.” [The dates don’t add up but it’s a nice story.]

In 1652 the travel writer Evliya Çelebi noted that even before the arrival of the Ottomans in 1365 the hunting grounds in Edirne were woodlands that were full of roses. In describing the Sultan Beyazid complex, he said that outside one of the windows there, patients being treated for insanity could look out over a garden filled with trees and rose bushes. Nine years later, a valide sultan (queen mother) built a koşk (large villa) for her son that had two terraces. The lower of the two was planted with roses, which gave their name to it. So it’s not surprising to read of sultans ordering tons of roses brought to Istanbul to decorate the gardens of Topkapi Palace and other palaces throughout the city.

Flowers figure in many poems

This is not to say that other flowers weren’t important among the Ottomans. Flowers figure in many of the poems written during the height of the empire and later. They were a part of everyone’s life in one way or another. While roses played an important role, other flowers such as the hyacinth, carnation and of course the tulip and many others were used as decorative elements in items from plates and embroidery to woodwork and paintings. Ironically the carnation only rarely appears in Ottoman poetry, twice as far as I know. The sultan and the wealthy class had gardens although it is highly unlikely that poor people even had access to gardens. Still, flowers were part of everyday life in other ways. Take the clothing that people wore. We don’t have examples from the poorer classes but embroidery was practiced by women of every class. We have many examples of hand-embroidered tablecloths, bedspreads, handkerchiefs, scarves and clothing. Many of the clothing items are preserved at Topkapi Palace and in the Sadberk Museum in Istanbul and show what exceptional embroiderers Turkish women were.

The tulip, up until the reign of Sultan Ahmed III (1703-1730), was one of many flowers but achieved the highest acclaim during this period. It is known that Kanuni Sultan Suleyman directed the planting of tulips at Topkapi Palace in 1526. The tulip is also mentioned in poetry, often in poems about autumn.

But it was Sultan Ahmed’s son-in-law, Grand Vizier Damad Nevşehirli Ibrahim Pasa, who first noticed tulips growing in the Austrian ambassador’s garden. They had been planted there by Baron Johann Rudolf Schmid von Schwarzenhorn, who had had them brought from Austria sometime during the latter’s tenure in Istanbul between 1629 and 1643. Thanks to the grand vizier, the tulip became all the rage but with his execution, the flower fell out of favor and we hear little of it until the end of the twentieth century. At that time the mayors of Istanbul thought it was a good public relations move to plant tulips all over the city; they are after all much easier to handle than roses. We now also have a tulip museum that’s been over two years in the making. But when do we get a rose museum?

Poet Nef’i’s ‘Spring Kaside’

Softly breathe the winds of spring, the roses greet the dawning light;

That our hearts may, to, be glad, pass the cup of Jem, dear Sprite!

Spring has come again and there’s a subtle fragrance in the air;

Paradise seems everywhere, each niche a haven of delight.

Now’s the season of the rose, a time of joy and soft repose;

Happily each moment goes, as lovers hold a furtive rite.

From ”The Penguin Book of Turkish Verse”