For most, the tulip conjures up visions of the Dutch landscape–canals, windmills, and fields of blooming flowers. These popular and diverse flowers, however, had their beginnings in Central Asia, and were brought within the reach of Europe by the Ottomans. Although widely cultivated in imperial gardens, the tulip was immortalised in Ottoman culture in a different form, as a motif widely employed by the imperial workshops during the reign of Suleyman ‘the Magnificent’.
Reigning from 1494-1556, Suleyman presided over not only an expansion in Ottoman territory, but also a golden age of artistic production. From the workshops associated with the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, a range of robes, manuscripts, and luxury objects was being made that drew on a shared range of artistic motifs. Clouds, dragons, and flowers were rendered stylistically, combined in endless designs to create a consistent imperial idiom.
One of the icons of this Classical Age, as scholars commonly term it, were the Iznik tiles used to decorate not only the palace, but also Suleyman’s many imperial mosques. These drew on these same symbols, but rendered them in bright glazes. Turquoise–a light tropical blue colour–was so distinctive that it took its name from its use on these Turkish tiles.
Floral patterns were particularly popular in Iznik ceramics, and the tulip, with its elegant, curling petals, was especially common. It was employed on objects like jugs and plates as well as on tiles to be used in decorating buildings.
These tulips have defined the visual expression of Ottoman imperialism for centuries, symbolising the refinement of a courtly culture that looked to its eastern origins for artistic inspiration. Celebration of the tulip continues to this day in Turkey, where artisans produce ceramics in the Iznik style.
In addition to this, festivals area arranged to coincide with the flower’s blooming time in April, and the planting of tulips continues throughout the Ottman areas of modern Istanbul.