First came the signs. My morning commute was soon lined with banners declaring “It’s Tulip Time in Istanbul.” Then, as the bulbs began to poke their tender heads out of the ground, the television spots began. Every news program has done a piece on the city’s tulips as they began to bloom. Soon my daily bus trip was lined with fat rows of bursting flowers, pink here, yellow there, a cul-de-sac flaming in red and orange nearby. Now that April has started, the city’s tulip festival in is full swing at parks across town, and I believed the man making the opening speech, “You see them everywhere! And they are us!”
While I enjoy tulips, and probably talk about them more than anyone I know -it’s just the kind of simple, non-controversial topic language teachers love- I think the fuss is a little excessive. Last year, the tulip season coincided with municipal elections, which preempted any publicity. The media spoke out, wondering why the government hadn’t advertised its approach. The tulips had just popped up out of nowhere! Tulips are kind of self-advertising, in my opinion, they bloom and then they’re there; You can see them and if you can’t there isn’t much point to them anyway. But I can appreciate that there’s more to this than flowers.
Istanbul’s neglected government takes every opportunity to bind us together as a city, and tulip season is no exception. The city’s population is estimated to be 20 million, while only about 12 million register themselves as residents. The other eight million feel more attachment to their ancestral villages, and register for the census there, sparking numerous public works programs, from the creation of Miniaturk to the restoration of the houses that line Topkapi Palace’s walls, in an effort to integrate newcomers and awaken feelings of civic loyalty.
I suppose, when a ride on the subway can involve sitting between a woman in a burka and one in Prada or next to a man hauling a forty kilo sack of rice and one on his iPhone, it’s not surprising that Istanbul’s government sometimes finds it difficult to convince its citizens that they have a lot in common. The Ottoman past is often called upon as a common memory, and tulips are the epitome of Ottoman culture, an entire era of art and architecture being called the Tulip Period.
Given the taboo of portraying creatures with souls, the representations of tulips in painting, clothing, and calligraphy took off in the first half of the 18th century, while the price of bulbs skyrocketed. Public areas became more popular, resulting in an architectural shift toward fountains and parks, and horticulture became the center of elite life. Tulips are still seen everywhere in Turkey, whether on Turkish Airways’ jets or the ubiquitous tiny tea glasses. The blossoms are visible in mosques’ tile work and the famous ebru marbling art. Aside from the natural admiration for a historical golden age, I wonder if Turkey is also trying to reclaim the flowers as their own, since most foreigners believe they come from the Netherlands.
In any case, tulips do the trick. These beautiful flowers are something everyone in the city can look at and proudly say, “They are us.” Personally, I will be heading up to Emirgan Korusu Park for what are reputed to be the best and most diverse tulips in the city. Yildiz Park, the Hidiv Korusu, Gülhane Park, Çamlıca, and Göztepe Park boast spectacular displays as well, and tourists will find the garden between the Aya Sofia and Blue Mosque dazzling. Pride in the city may be lasting, but tulips are ephemeral, catch them while they last!