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Tulip: The Ottoman Obsession

posted on: Jul 20, 2022

By: Menal Elmaliki / Arab America Contributing Writer


Tulip, A Design of Islamic Architecture

Geometric shapes and patterns have been a part of Islamic art and architecture. Since Islam forbade the drawings of humans it blossomed creativity and in a theatrical feat, Islamic art became diversifying rich, full of motifs, calligraphy, geometric shapes, and vegetal patterns. Throughout Islamic history architectures in their desperate attempts to replicate nature, imitate the grandiosity of God and the intricacy life, used biomorphic designs like trees and florals. Trees and flowers symbolize peace and paradise. 

The tree design nicknamed the tree of life symbolizes the uniqueness of a person’s life. No two trees are exactly similar like humans. As a person grows, different experience begins to shape them and their path becomes different, like branches that grow at different times and in different directions. 

As a person grows, different experience begins to shape them and their path becomes different, like branches that grow at different times and in different directions. The same branches that define the human life also represents the human’s desire to reach for the unattainable to reach for God and paradise. The tree like the flower represents the limit of man and the simplicity of life. Life can only be attained to a degree and the rest of it is withheld.

The floral pattern, a contrast array of colors and shapes, was incorporated in geometric designs. The incorporation of florals brought designs to life as they resembled life and connected architecture with nature. The advancement of science, math, and astronomy, stressed the importance of unity, order, and in turn created elaborate unique styles and designs, “Intellectual contributions of Islamic mathematicians, astronomers, scientists essential to the creation of this unique new style.” One of them was the combination of vegetal or floral with geometric patterns. This fixation on creating new designs popularized the tulip. 

Iznik tiles with tulip design in Rustem Pass Mosque

The tulip, a flower of antiquity and prestige, a lustrous flower from its petal to its folding stem symbolizes purity, peace, and true love. It has been described as the perfect flower that flows in unity. Its sole leaves act as the servant that accompanies and safeguards its master, the pedal. Its unique leaf is as important as the pedal, framing the prized flower in a protective mold. 

The tulip is a fundamental architectural ornament in Islamic design and architecture. The tulip became an object of obsession for Ottomans and is now cemented in every facet of Turkish society. One trip to Turkey will show you elaborate and archaic designs appearing on ceramic dishes, teacups, plates, tiles, embroidery, carpets, and of course on old and historical buildings, monuments, and mosques. 

It’s History


Geometric floral patterns have existed before the advent of Islam and was used by Greeks, Romans, and Sasanians in Iran. The tulip was unknown during the early Roman and Byzantine periods but by the 12 century was used ornamentally in Anatolia.

The Mongol invasion of Asia in the 13th century introduced Chinese motifs and patterns to Islamic architects and designers, amongst the motifs were ancient floral designs. This influenced design in Iran in the 13th and 14th century.

The tulip is native to Central Asia was the design did not appear until the 10th century under the rule of Sultanate of Rum of the Great Selijuk Empire, and was later popularized under the ottoman empire, 14th century to 19th century. The Ottomans were especially obsessed with the tulip as it was their most beloved bloom. Ottoman’s history, obsession of this beloved bloom breaks western assumption/ stereotype that tulips are Dutch.


In turkey, its tulip mania- tulip all around, embedded on archaic historical foundations from the 17th century, tombstones, and by the 18th century tulip love has flooded, this beloved flower was mentioned in songs, poems, arts, every aspect of ottoman culture; this era was called tulip mania.

It also appeared in poetry of that period and as travelled to the Arab and Persian world, where the tulip was used by Persian poets Hafiz and Omar Khayyam. 

The Ottomans were in love with this flower, Sultan Selim 2nd (1566-74) ordered thousands of them to be planted in the palace gardens. Tulips infiltrated the hearts and minds of Ottomans as it became their new obsession. Tulips became associated with Ottoman identity and to this day, there is an annual tulip festival (spring) in Istanbul, Turkey to express their love for this beloved bloom and its historical importance.

Representation of the festivities during the Tulip Era (1718-1730) by Levni

Turkish or Dutch


There is the long-time held assumption that tulips were Dutch. The Dutch like the Ottomans had their tulip mania, during the Dutch golden age, 1633- 37. Tulips lit every aspect of Dutch society and were a rarity, selling expensively between $40,000 to $80,000, eventually this glamorized and fashionable flower was too much for the Dutch to bear and its popularity suffered a dramatic collapse the same century. Some historians have claimed that there never was a tulip fever in 17th century Netherlands but instead an over-exaggeration of what author Anne Goldgar in her book titled,  Tulipmania: Money, Honor, and Knowledge in the Dutch Golden Age, a very boring event.

Despite the tulip’s late popularity in 17th century Turkey, it had played a role in Turkish design as early as the Seljuks Rum dynasty, 1077-1308, where the motif appeared on the “the beautiful polychrome tiles that once adorned Sultan Alaeddin Keykubad’s 13th-century palace overlooking the turquoise waters of Lake Beyşehir.”

After the Dutch’s tulip mania, the century before, Turkey experienced their own mania called The Tulip Period or Era, lasting from 1718-1730, during the reign of Ahmed 3. The Tulip Period or Era was named after a lull between the 1730s and early 1800s, where the Ottomans enjoyed peace and prosperity. Also, during this time the beloved flower was popularized, its design became more evident in Turkish architecture.

The Beloved in Literature

The tulip craze has taken hold of the minds of Ottoman’s, in quieting their unrelenting obsession have expressed their love for this perfect flower in the form of lyrics. Tulips have become decorative element in literature and poetry. This flower was an ode to peace and virtue. Before the 16th century, the tulip was seen as a rural and wildflower in Classic Turkish and Persian poetry and by the 16th century the flower has gone through a transformation. This wild tame was cultivated and given new meaning and has now come to represent peace, prosperity, purity, and true love. 

In Persia, the flower was beloved by lovers as it symbolized the perfect love that existed with its bold colors, perfect petals, and long pointed leaves. The Ottomans had given this wildflower an elevated status, using it to describe the love of their beloved Prophet Muhammed, describing it as, 0 (tulip)  is the chosen of the chosen.” 

Portrait of Shams Al-din Hafiz Shirazi.

The famous Persian poet Shams Al-din Hafiz Shirazi dedicates a poem to this beloved flower,

The Tulip

Perhaps the tulip know the fickleness
Of Fortune‘s smile, for on her stalk’s green shaft
She bears a wine cup through the wilderness.

Mehmed the Conqueror, Yurgi and poet Isa Necati.
Art by Elveo.

İsa Necati, the first lyric poet of Ottoman Turkish literature, was known for his eloquent and decorative words. In one of his poems, he writes the lyric, “Those Tulip-Cheeked Ones.” In this romantic passage, the beloved’s cheek turns into a tulip. The lover becomes pure as she begins to embody nature, the beloved’s cheek representing a tulip, the body a cypress, the hair a hyacinth, and the mouth a rosebud. The beloved body becomes a cypress, a cypress so audacious and stunning that the trees sway away in jealousy and defeat.

In Necati’s poetry he also uses the tulip to represent Turks. The tulip would symbolize the Turk who is refined and elegant whereas the “wild tulip,” would represent the Turk who is uncultured and unabashed. 

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