In its heyday the Istanbul tulip was the most fashionable of flowers, as Rüstem Pasha’s mosque shows. The highly coveted bulbs changed hands for small fortunes. Sadly, this tulip is now extinct, but these exquisite paintings testify to its delicate beauty. Turhan Baytop, doyen of Turkish bulb experts, recalls the golden age reflected in a priceless 18th-century album
By the 17th century the Ottoman vogue for growing ever more refined tulips had become almost an obsession, centring on a cultivar with a svelte, almond-shaped flower with long, dagger-like petals tapering to needle-sharp points. The Istanbul Tulip, as it is now known, was first cultivated by the chief cleric of the Empire, the Şeyhülislam Ebussuud Efendi (1490–1573) in the golden age of Süleyman the Magnificent, who named his first variety Nur–ı Adn, Light of Paradise.
Two centuries later the days of the Istanbul Tulip were over. Its heyday, and its swansong, had occurred almost simultaneously in the so-called Tulip Period, the reign of Ahmed III (1703–30), by which time a succession of floriculturists and tulip connoisseurs in Istanbul had cultivated some 2,000 individually named varieties.
Today not one of these legendary cultivars survives. However, we do have the next best thing – the images of the greatest among them, gloriously preserved in one of the world’s rarest horticultural documents, the unique and priceless Lâle Mecmuası, or Tulip Album, which was prepared in Istanbul in around 1725. Much was written at the time about tulips and their growers, but illustrations of specific varieties are scarce. This catalogue describes some 50 individually labelled plants.
The document came to light in 1950 after a pamphlet was published by the then owner, the Turkish architectural historian Ekrem Hakkı Ayverdi (1899–1980), who reluctantly sold it, along with his entire collection of manuscripts, to pay for his own landmark work, a four-volume history of Ottoman architecture.
In the 1960s it vanished abroad, and for some 20 years I searched in vain for its new owner. Then one day in May 1887, taking a Swiss botanist to visit Manisa Dağı, on the Aegean, to see the wild tulips of western Anatolia, I described the book to her and she remembered seeing such a volume in the library of Robert de Belder, owner of an important arboretum in Belgium.
It was indeed the very book. Attempts were made to bring it back to Turkey, but without success. De Belder did not wish to sell. However, through the efforts of Hayrettin Karaca (himself the founder of the leading arboretum in Turkey), he kindly granted copyright for a facsimile edition, published in 1992 in Turkey and in 1996 in Japan.
It has been suggested that the origin of the Istanbul Tulip was Tulipa schrenkii, a wild dwarf tulip with pointed petals, 10 to 15cms high, known to Turks as Kefe Lalesi. In Kefe (Feodosiya), its native habitat on the southern steppes of Crimea, it grows in many colours.
The author of this article, Professor Turhan Bayton, was one of the most brillliant scholars of his generation. He sadly died in 2002. His second article in Cornucopia appeared in Cornucopia 21: Forever Ambergris, a fascinating study of the medicinal and decorative uses of ambergris. Brian Matthew’s obituary of Turhan Baytop was published in Cornucopia 27
Martyn Rix introduces a special issue devoted to Turkey’s horticultural heritage, from the splash of the urban window box to the splendour of a mountain hillside. Martyn Rix is the editor of Curtis’s Botanical Journal. His articles in Cornucopia Issues 29 and 31 explore the flora of the Taurus Mountains
SPECIAL OFFER: order three beautiful garden-themed issues, including this one, for only £35. List price £50
The Seljuk sultans who fell in love with Alanya and tamed its wild hillsides in the thirteenth century left a legacy of walled gardens and verdant terraces that is only now being rediscovered. By Scott Redford with photographs by Sigurd Kranendonk and Astrid von Schell.
The truly intoxicating rhododendrons of northeast Turkey. The most famous victims to fall under its spell were Xenophon’s luckless men on their return from the Persian expedition. Text and photographs by Andrew Byfield.
Festooned with flowers, the brilliantly painted tiles of Rustem Pasha Mosque form a glazed garden of infinite variety. John Carswell discovers in them the hand of genius that gave birth to classical Iznik design. Photographs by Simon Upton
In Mürefte on the Sea of Marmara, village women still take to the fields each summer to collect just seven different herbs, with which they produce a ritual dish. If they eat it before the first thunderstorms, they believe, they will have immunity from illness for a whole year.
More cookery features