At the Court of the Tulip King

The final liquidation of the Dutch mania at the beginning of 1639 left many Hollanders with a distinct aversion to tulips. The episode did not entirely put off the wealthiest collectors of the rarest bulbs; they had never really been involved in the tavern trade in any case and could thus afford to ignore the ridicule that the pamphleteers heaped on those who had found themselves caught up in the frenzy. These few continued to pay high prices for individual bulbs for another hundred years. But interest in tulips otherwise fell away in the United Provinces, now that there was no possibility of making a quick fortune from the flower.

Yet the world had not seen the last of tulip mania. Like bubonic plague, it was a strange and complex disease that could rage for a while and then seem to disappear when—like plague—it was really only lying dormant. And like plague, it could reappear miles away and decades later, as virulent as ever.

Thus it was in the Ottoman Empire. During the first half of the seventeenth century the tulip lost some of its luster for the Turks. The decline set in around 1595 with the accession of a womanizing sultan, Mehmed III, who was less interested in flowers than in seducing two or preferably three of the ladies of the harem each night. The rulers who followed in Mehmed’s wake—from the fantastically misogynist Mustafa I, who ended his reign locked, as a sort of punishment, in a dungeon with only two naked female slaves for company, to the unfortunate Osman II, who suffered an agonizing death “by constriction of the testicles” at the hands of his own soldiers—were on the whole either short-lived inadequates or butchers. At best they displayed only sporadic interest in the gardens of the Abode of Bliss.

It was not until the sultanate of Mehmed IV, who reigned from 1647 to 1687, that some degree of stability returned to the Ottoman Empire. Although his own father, Ibrahim the Mad (a libertine who once had all 280 women in his harem drowned simply so he could have the pleasure of selecting their replacements), was noted for his love of tulips, Mehmed was the first sultan in half a century to devote himself to horticulture in a significant way. It was he who planted an imperial garden solely devoted to tulips in the Fourth Court of the palace, where it was to flourish for a century, and he who decreed that each new species of the flower should be registered and classified. To supervise this process, the sultan established a formal council of florists that sat in judgment on new cultivars, noted their special characteristics, and assigned to the most flawless ones poetic names—the Pomegranate Lances and the Delicate Coquettes beloved of the Turks. This council long outlived its master and continued to hand out verdicts on new tulips for another hundred years.

Unfortunately for Mehmed, his empire proved more difficult to manage than his flowers. The last years of his reign were marked by a series of military disasters in the Balkans that severely weakened his authority. Worse still, bread prices in Istanbul quadrupled and led to unrest in the capital itself. At the end of 1687 the sultan’s own ministers arranged for him to be deposed and replaced by a pliant half brother.

There was a good reason why the Turks, throughout the seventeenth century, were cursed with a long line of mad or bad sultans who threatened to ruin the Ottoman Empire. Things had changed in Istanbul since the days of Süleyman the Magnificent. Much of the vigor of the Turkish royal line had dissipated when it proved necessary to abandon the old ways of securing the imperial succession. Ever since the time of Bayezid, the victor of Kosovo, the sultanate had gone to whichever royal prince could seize it first; and—following Bayezid’s bloody example—the new sultan would inaugurate his reign by having every one of his brothers executed so they could not plot to usurp him. Under Mehmed the Conqueror, this lethal tradition had actually been codified as law, so that on the accession of Mehmed III in 1595, no fewer than nineteen of the new sultan’s siblings, some of them still infants at the breast, had been dragged from the harem and strangled with silk handkerchiefs—having first been circumcised to ensure they would receive a welcome in paradise. Brutal as the system was, it produced a series of bold, decisive sultans famous for their ruthlessness. In 1607, however, the reigning sultan, Ahmed I, could no longer stomach the prospect of one of his beloved children murdering all the others. He arranged for the old policy of legal fratricide to be replaced by one of locking up unwanted brothers in a small area of the harem known as the kafes, the cage.

The cage was a suite of rooms to the west of the Fourth Courtyard of the palace that offered tantalizing views of fig orchards, the Ottoman paradise gardens, and the Bosporus. There, with eunuchs for company and sterile concubines for sexual consolation, unwanted princes lived lives that unpleasantly combined the immutable boredom of their daily routine with the nagging terror that execution might, after all, still be their lot. When one Ottoman ruler died, his eldest son would be taken from the cage where he had spent his entire life and acclaimed as the new sultan, while the other men of the imperial line would return to the few pursuits they were permitted—embroidery and the manufacture of ivory rings among them—and their lives of quiet despair.

At the beginning of the eighteenth century, the succession devolved at last upon a son of Mehmed IV named Ahmed III, who had spent the first twenty-nine years of his life locked within the cage. Ahmed proved to be not only the most sophisticated and cultured sultan since Süleyman the Magnificent himself, but also, without question, the greatest tulip maniac known to history. Having been inspired with a love for the imperial flower by his father, and having spent his days gazing longingly from the cage’s marble balcony across the most gorgeous private gardens in the Ottoman Empire—gardens he was never allowed to wander through or touch—Ahmed came to the Ottoman throne all but bursting with passion for tulips and suddenly equipped with almost unlimited means to indulge that passion.

The most avid bulb dealer in the Haarlem colleges could hardly have competed with Ahmed’s enthusiasm. The new sultan was besotted by the flower, so much so that the tulip became the most prominent feature of his long reign, and the Turkish historian Ahmed Refik was moved to bestow the title lale devri, the tulip era, on the period. From the time of his accession in 1703, tulip mania bust forth again, in Istanbul this time. It was to rage on in the Turkish capital for almost three decades.

In truth, this time of tulips masked the uncomfortable reality that the great empire of the Ottomans was in decline. Turkish power was on the wane everywhere, from the African littoral to the eternally war-torn Balkans, where the Peace of Karlowitz, signed in 1699, had ceded Hungary and Transylvania to the Austrians, ending the era of Ottoman expansionism in Europe and pushing the imperial frontier back to within a few hundred miles of Istanbul. The flower festivals that characterized the tulip era, and the pomp that went with them, were distractions that the sultan’s ministers ordered so as to divert their people from the realities of the political situation and their master from the tribulations of ruling an unwieldy empire.

In fairness, Ahmed was more than simply a tulip maniac. He fought the Russians with success and was a builder and a bibliophile, during whose reign Ottoman embassies—the first of their kind—were dispatched to the capitals of Europe to gather information and ideas from the West, and who left, in the Ahmed III fountain (which stands just outside the Topkapi palace), one of the most gorgeous monuments to adorn the imperial capital. Nevertheless, he unquestionably did preside over an era of hedonism unique even at the Turkish court. For three decades the once-warlike Ottomans gave themselves over to pleasure and disported themselves at the numerous festivals organized by their monarch and his ministers. “Let us laugh,” Ahmed’s closest companion, the court poet Nedim, wrote in setting out the informal philosophy of the reign. “Let us play, let us enjoy the delights of the world to the full.”

Free though he now was to enjoy the trappings of power, Sultan Ahmed found there were disadvantages to being the king of kings. He once complained that he had to dismiss no fewer than thirty-five of the privy chamber pages who routinely crowded into his bedchamber so that he could feel comfortable changing the imperial trousers in front of the remaining three or four. But being sultan unquestionably had its advantages too. For the marriage of a favorite daughter, Ahmed had the palace confectioners spin edible sugar bowers, each eighteen feet in length, in which the wedding guests could nibble at the foliage. On other occasions guests wandered through gardens filled with jugglers, wrestlers, dwarfs, and—an Ottoman speciality—silver nahils, artificial trees up to sixty feet tall, made of wax and wire and covered in mirrors, flowers, and jewels.

Perhaps the most elaborate of Ottoman festivals were those that marked the ritual circumcision of the sultan’s heirs. These were generally organized a year or more in advance, dragged on for weeks, and culminated in the presentation to the princes’ mothers of golden plates bearing their sons’ severed foreskins. In 1720 Ahmed III held such a festival to mark the circumcision of four sons and the marriage of two more of his daughters. It lasted for fifteen days and nights and involved the construction of forty-four nahilsfor each young prince, the simultaneous circumcision of five thousand other Turkish boys, and the driving of carriages across tightropes slung between some of the ships that crowded into the Bosporus to join the celebrations. But such affairs were necessarily rare. In the absence of more daughters to marry and more sons to circumcise, Ahmed and his ministers devoted much of their attention to annual tulip festivals, held in the gardens of the Topkapi’s innermost courtyard.

The tulip festivals took place in April, when the flowers were in bloom, and occupied two successive evenings during the full moon. They were purposely spectacular. On the first evening the sultan sat in state in a kiosk built within the garden and received the homage of his ministers to the accompaniment of songbirds chirping in an aviary suspended in the trees, while other guests—all strictly forbidden to wear clothes that clashed with the flowers—wandered through tulip beds illuminated by candles fixed to the backs of slow-moving tortoises. On the second evening the male guests were banished while the sultan entertained the ladies of the harem and organized treasure hunts among the flowers. Sometimes the prizes were candies; sometimes, precious stones. At the end of each evening’s entertainment, the chief white eunuch—a Christian slave who acted as palace chamberlain while his Abyssinian colleague, the chief black eunuch, took charge of the harem—distributed gifts of robes and jewels and money to those who basked in the sultan’s favor.

Ahmed’s passion for tulips—not the varieties that the Dutch had coveted, but slender, needle-pointed Istanbul tulips—was such that the flower soon found new favor among all classes in the capital. Barbers and shoemakers cultivated bulbs. So did the sheikh-ul-islam, the most senior cleric in the Ottoman Empire. Demand for the finest tulips was considerable—a single bulb of the cultivar Mahbub, “Beloved,” could change hands for as much as a thousand gold coins—but, perhaps learning a lesson from the Dutch, Ahmed averted a trading mania by limiting the number of florists who were permitted to operate in the capital and by fixing the prices of the most coveted blooms by imperial decree. Even firmer measures were taken to dampen speculation in the Ottoman provinces. Eventually it became a crime punishable by exile to sell tulip bulbs outside the walls of Istanbul.

Centuries of effort had produced a startling diversity of tulips by Ahmed’s day. One of the official price lists fixing the value of the best-known cultivars named more than 820 species, and fresh varieties of tulip continued to be developed throughout the reign. Such was the interest in the flower that the first appearance of a new cultivar was often memorialized in poems known as chronograms, which recorded the auspicious date in the letters of the final verse.

In important respects it was all too little, too late. The neglect that the tulip had suffered during much of the seventeenth century was such that by the time Ahmed came to the throne, the Ottomans had long since lost their primacy in the cultivation of the flower and now imported thousands of bulbs each year from the Netherlands and France. Nevertheless, the Ottomans retained rather fixed ideas as to what precisely constituted an ideal flower. Mizanu ’l-Ezhar (“The Manual of Flowers”), a manuscript written by Ahmed’s chief gardener, Seyh Mehmed Lalezari, lists twenty criteria for judging a tulip’s beauty. The stem should be long and strong, Seyh Mehmed wrote, and the six petals smooth, firm, and of equal length. The leaves should not hide the blossom, however, and the blossom should stand erect; nor should the flower be soiled with its own pollen. Variegated flowers should display their colors on a pure white background.

This stark description, however, scarcely does justice to the uniquely poetic flavor of the Ottoman desiderata. Another of Lale-zari’s manuscripts, which survives in an archive in Berlin and bears the title Acceptable and Beautiful, describes the ideal tulip as “curved as the form of the new Moon, her color is well apportioned, clean, well proportioned; almond in shape, needlelike, ornamented with pleasant rays, her inner leaves as a well, as they should be, her outer leaves a little open, as they should be; the white ornamented leaves are absolutely perfect. She is the chosen of the chosen.” One may be quite certain that the rare species that met these exacting criteria would have found their way to Ahmed’s gardens.

The sultan’s servants soon found it expedient to share his passion for the flower, and many became considerable enthusiasts in their own right. Mustafa Pasha, the admiral of the Ottoman fleet, created forty-four new varieties. Ambitious minor officials discovered they could bribe their way to high office with presents of fine tulips. Nor was it wise to deny the king of kings a flower he particularly coveted. When one rare bulb—the gift of a canny European ambassador—went missing, the grand vizier of the day packed heralds off into Istanbul’s narrow streets to offer huge rewards for its safe return.

Early in his reign Ahmed III had followed the example of his immediate predecessors by working his way through a succession of short-lived viziers—men such as Fazil Pasha: honest, hardworking, last scion of a distinguished line of imperial servants, but also an eccentric who believed there was a fly perched on the end of his nose that returned each time he brushed it away. In 1718, however, the sultan appointed a man named Ibrahim Pasha Kulliyesi as grand vizier of the Ottomans. Ibrahim was a shrewd manipulator of imperial intrigue who made it his business to forge the closest possible relationship with the sultan. His greatest coup was his marriage to Ahmed’s eldest daughter, which earned him the nickname Damat (“Son-in-Law”). In a land where the office of vizier had long been synonymous with short tenure and an often-violent death, Damat Ibrahim clung to power for a dozen years.

The son-in-law’s policy was one of cautious progress—just what the declining but still intensely conservative empire required. It was Ibrahim who induced Ahmed to send Turkish embassies to learn about advances in the West, Ibrahim who set up the first Ottoman fire brigade, and Ibrahim who licensed an official printing press to produce books on science and geography. He levied new taxes, restocked the imperial treasury, and kept most of the empire at peace. Most importantly, however, the grand vizier retained the favor he needed to push through his program of reform by indulging Ahmed’s love of fine flowers.

The French ambassador, Jean Sauvent de Villeneuve, described one royal entertainment, held in Ibrahim’s own tulip garden:

Beside every fourth flower is stood a candle, level with the bloom, and along the alleyways are hung cages filled with all kinds of birds. The trellises are decorated with an enormous quantity of flowers, placed in bottles and lit by an infinite number of glass lamps of different colors. The lamps are also hung on the green branches of shrubs, which are specially transplanted for the fête from the neighboring woods and placed behind the trellises. The effect of all these varied colors, and of the lights that are reflected by countless mirrors, is magnificent.

The illuminations, Villeneuve added, continued nightly at Damat Ibrahim’s personal expense, “so long as the tulips remain in flower.”

Using his ambassadors’ rapturous reports of the French royal palace at Fontainebleau and Louis XV’s château at Marly as his guide, the grand vizier built a villa for himself in a quasi-European style. It stood on the Bosporus just above Istanbul, and when Damat Ibrahim entertained Ahmed there in the spring of 1721, the enraptured sultan immediately ordered the construction of a new royal palace in similar style nearby. The place chosen was a spot where two streams known as the Sweet Waters of Europe ran through meadows down to the sea. Here Ahmed’s architects constructed a sumptuous pleasure palace called the Sa’adabad (“the Place of Happiness”). It took them just three months, in the summer of 1722. Perhaps for the first time in the Ottoman Empire, the gardens were planted in the more formal European style, with avenues of trees leading to square and regimented beds of tulips. The Sweet Waters themselves were turned into marble-banked canals that fed fountains and cascades surrounding a central ornamental lake.

By keeping the people of Istanbul supplied with cheap bread, and the sultan sated with festivals, Damat Ibrahim remained in office throughout the 1720s. But eventually even he ran out of luck. Events far beyond the gardens of the Sa’adabad were moving beyond his control; ruinous taxation, necessary to fund not just the ostentations of the court but also a war against the Persians that erupted in the early 1730s, combined with famine to set the imperial provinces in turmoil. Worse, Ottoman armies were soon falling back in disarray on the eastern frontier and the hated Persians recovered substantial swaths of land that the Turks had seized from them earlier in the century. When news of these imperial defeats reached Istanbul, the mutterings of discontent that had been circulating in the bazaars turned into outright demands for change.

Not even the grand vizier could keep such bad news from reaching the sultan; not even Ahmed III could afford to ignore it. By the time the Istanbul mob—led by an Albanian secondhand-clothes dealer named Patrona Halil—marched on the Topkapi in the autumn of 1730 clamoring for scapegoats, Ahmed knew that his reign was in grave danger of ending prematurely and that if he failed to placate the crowd, his own life might be forfeit. In this sudden crisis expediency was all to the tulip king, and he ordered his corps of gardener-executioners, the bostancis, to surrender up the heads of Damat Ibrahim and Mustafa Pasha, the ministers most closely associated with the unpopular policies of Westernization and reform.

It was the beginning of the end—for Ahmed and for the tulip era too. The grand vizier was discovered at his official residence, strangled and decapitated. Then the bostancis set off for Mustafa’s waterfront villa near the Sa’adabad. They came upon the grand admiral transplanting tulips in his garden, blissfully unaware of the sudden political crisis in the capital. Perhaps the gardeners who had come to kill the pasha paused for a moment, while their victim prepared himself for death, to cast a professional eye over the forty new varieties of tulip he had created. But if they did, they certainly could not have known that, as the silken bowstring tightened around the grand admiral’s neck and Mustafa began the journey from his paradise-garden to the gardens of paradise, the time of tulips was all but over.

As it turned out, Ahmed had done too little, and acted far too late, to save his throne. The mob would not disperse, and the sultan’s position soon became critical. Perhaps a more resolute monarch, one whose skills ran more to military matters than to organizing tulip festivals, might still have rallied some loyal troops and saved himself. But Ahmed was no general, and he survived the sacrifice of his closest advisers by only two days. As rioting engulfed Istanbul and control of the capital slipped from his grasp, the sultan was persuaded that his only chance of saving his own neck was abdication.

A nephew, Mahmud, was plucked from the cage and placed on the throne in Ahmed’s place. His accession was a turning point for both the empire and the tulip, for though Mahmud soon dealt ruthlessly enough with the rioters who had deposed his uncle and run wild through Istanbul, burning the wooden tulip kiosks that had symbolized Ahmed’s reign, the new sultan’s real interests lay elsewhere. He was a keen voyeur who liked nothing better than to hide behind a grille in the harem and spy on the women of the palace. On one occasion the sultan even had the stitches of the flimsy clothes the ladies wore while bathing secretly removed and the garments reassembled with glue, knowing that it would melt in the heat of the steam room and expose each woman, naked, to his gaze.

Such a monarch could never accord a mere flower the exaggerated respect it had enjoyed in the time of Ahmed III. Though flower festivals continued to be held each spring, they were far more modest than they had been during the lale devri, and the tulip’s second decline in Turkey dates from the reign of Mahmud I. In the end it was so complete that the whole gorgeous panoply of Istanbul tulips—all thirteen hundred varieties and more—slowly vanished from the gardens of the empire and the memories of men. Today not a single specimen survives.

And what of the sultan who presided over the tulip’s late flowering? He was permitted to live, but only after a fashion. Ahmed, the tulip king, was returned to his cage to gaze once more over the Ottomans’ fig groves—and to while away his nights in dreams of dagger-petaled flowers bathing in the full moon’s light and throwing needle-pointed shadows about the secret gardens of the Abode of Bliss.

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