In Bloom

During the annual Tulip Festival, Istanbul comes alive with color

By: Riana Lagarde

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More than 100 festivals are arranged in Turkey every year, and many can be traced back before their Ottoman roots agriculturally and historically. Focused around nurturing, plowing, seeding and harvesting, everyone is welcome to join in and celebrate the cherry festival, the apricot festival and even the pine nut festival, which involves tasty indigenous Turkish delicacies. Next year marks the third annual Tulip Festival in April organized by the mayor’s office of Istanbul as part of their city beatification project.

This symbol of Turkey, the tulip, is a literal translation of the Turkish word for gauze a reference to the turbans (tulpend) that were fashioned in white muslin fabric. The first tulips that arrived in Europe via Turkey were white and wispy, and when fully opened, these tulips resembled the turban of a sultan. Tulips were once a sign of wealth and indulgence, as one rare tulip could cost the price of a house during the 1700s.

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Tulip Festival stage at Taksim Square.
Tulips originate from Turkey and Asia Minor, not Holland, as many people tend to believe. Along with other bulbous plants like the narcissus and the daffodil, tulips had grown wild and domesticated there for centuries. An Austrian merchant and ambassador of the Sultan of Constantinople first brought tulips back to Vienna in 1559 where they gathered much scholarly attention. Soon these exotic bulbs from Turkey were imported to Antwerp by enterprising florists. Ten years later, they reached Holland via Clusius, a botanist at the University of Leiden. By the 1700s, over 1,300 varieties were recorded in gardening books and were the most sought after luxury items in Europe.

Starting the second week in April, clients can see 8 million tulips in full bloom in Istanbul’s parks and gardens, and 1 million tulip bulbs are handed out to its residents. In Taksim Square there are concerts, tulip-themed photograph exhibitions, country exhibition tents where you can learn Japanese flower arranging or discover Holland’s rich tulip history and a children’s tent for tulip arts and crafts. Last year, at Topkapi Palace, there was a presentation of 50 fantastic tulip paintings by Ismail Acar, a world-renown Turkish artist who was awarded “The Most Successful Artist of Turkey” in 2004. A Tulip Symposium is held at the Taksim Ataturk Culture Center where a group of respected scientists from several countries give speeches on how the tulip has evolved in the arts, gardens and history.

In an interview with the Turkish Daily News, Istanbul’s mayor, Kadir Topbas, said: “The Tulip is very important in our culture. Tulip references exist in textiles, ceramics, literature, poetry and life itself. We have organized exhibitions, symposiums and competitions revolving around the lovely tulip.”

You can buy tulip bulbs in shops near the old spice bazaar or fresh bouquets from street sellers on Taksim Square. When the tulips are in bloom in spring, the best place to see them is strolling through the Emirgan Garden while appreciating the legacy and culture of these magnificently colored “turbans.”