The Sultan’s Gardner

In ancient times the hyacinth was a straggly, insignificant flower, which pales in comparison to the hyacinth of today. Yet, in 1579 Sultan Murat I ordered half a million of its bulbs to be uprooted from the mountains between Maraş and Aleppo. A caravan of charts, pulled by donkeys, I imagine, brought them all the way to Istanbul, where they were planted in the gardens of the Topkapi Palace. The Sultan was addicted to their sweet fragrange. Soon enough the flower became a metaphor for the curls of the beloved, and the black eunuchs of the Palace were often called “Sümbül Ağası”, Lord of the Hyacinths.
This, at least, is what Hans Theunissen recently told a small audience when he gave a lecture in the Historical Institute of the Netherlands in Istanbul. He is a talented turkologist and art historian who has a gift for making old Istanbul come alive.
Most people know how Dutch explorers brought back tulip bulbs from the Ottoman Empire in app. 1560. In fact, they collected many different flowers -some hyacinth bulbs too- and started propagating them. Nobody liked the hyacinth much. Especially annoying was a variation that would not bear seeds. Since you couldn’t propagate it, the Dutch flower growers rooted up the nasty thing immediately when they spotted it. It was easy to recognize, because it was taller than usual.
One day in 1690, Pieter Voorhelm, a flower grower in the town of Haarlem, north of Amsterdam, overlooked one of these infertile hybrids, and it managed to bloom. It was magnificent. Struck by its beauty, Voorhelm started looking into a way to propagate it. And he succeeded. The double hyacinth was born. It became such a hit, that already in 1702 one single bulb was sold for 1.000 guilders. Back then, that would be a year’s wage for many people. It compares to app. 15.000euro today.
Three decades later other growers discovered an easier way to propagate the double hyacinth and the price dropped considerably. Surely it was no coincidence that around that same time a good friend of the Dutch ambassador to the Ottoman Porte suggested to offer a gift to the Sultan. Soon enough Ambassador Cornelis Calkoen wrote in the embassy’s log that “vases full of double hyacinths” were presented to the court. The next present was presumably a sales catalogue. This is likely, says Theunissen, because the palace library contains a “Sümbülname” from those days, a Hyacinth Book that looks remarkably like a Dutch catalogue of the time. Even the Ottoman names for the different types of flowers are translations of the Dutch names. So it’s conceivable that the Sultan just ordered the catalogue to be copied.
Even though it took some years –things moved slowly those days- the investment paid off. In 1737 the Sultan placed his first order of 150 bulbs of double hyacinths. Already the Dutch merchants supplied the Court steadily with tulip bulbs. A historian of the time wrote: “The King of the Netherlands is the gardner of the Sultan.”
Two and a half Century later, in 1990 when I was the first Cultural Attaché of the Netherlands, history kind of repeated itstelf. In honor of a big exhibition, celebrating four Centuries of friendly relations, the Dutch flower merchants offered another gift of bulbs to the Topkapi Palace. (There is a funny story to that, which Dutch readers can read in my book Faces of Istanbul.) Like in the old days the investment paid off. The tulip was reintroduced to Istanbul. Every year 11.5 million bulbs are planted, and until last year most of these were imported from Holland. The Turks have reclaimed their flower, however. In Konya a huge tulip farm was set up and in Yalova the Turkish Ministry of Agriculture founded “the biggest horticultural center in the world” to cultivate Turkey’s original flower bulbs. This year production was meant to start. I’m confident the Dutch merchants will find another way in, one day.

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