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Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq

"As we passed through this district [on the road from Adrianople to Constantinople] we everywhere came across quantities of flowers—narcissi, hyacinths, and tulipans, as the Turks call them. We were surprised to find them flowering in mid-winter, scarcely a favourable season....The tulip has little or no scent, but it is admired for its beauty and the variety of its colours. The Turks are very fond of flowers, and, though they are otherwise anything but extravagant, they do not hesitate to pay several aspres for a fine blossom. These flowers, although they were gifts, cost me a good deal; for I had always to pay several aspres in return for them." (Fifty such Turkish coins, says Busbecq, were equal to a crown.)

Busbecq, Turkish Letters (I, pp.24-25)

Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq (1522-1592) served as ambassador of the Holy Roman Emperor to the court of Süleyman I (the Magnificent), sent to Constantinople in late 1554 and serving there until 1562. He recounted his experiences in a series of entertaining letters supposedly written at the time but actually composed decades later (the letter above, for example, is dated September 1, 1555). It may be that Busbecq has confused his first journey, which had been made in November, with a second one in March 1558, when the tulips about which he writes would have been in bloom.

The picture is that of Süleyman the Magnificent, who ruled the Ottoman empire from 1520 to 1566 at the height of its power. During his reign, the tulip becomes an integral part of Ottoman culture.


Called lale by the Turks, Busbecq may have mistaken the name of the tulip for its description, which does looks like a turban (tulband). In 1553, the French botanist Pierre Belon had observed that the Turks placed tulips in the folds of their turbans, and it may be that Busbecq, inquiring about the flower, instead was told the name of the turban. (Belon, in fact, may have been the first westerner to see a tulip, which he described as a red lily.)

Using the same characters as the name of Allah, lale often was both a religious motif and an emblem of the Ottoman emperors. Celebrated by the Turks since the eleventh century, the most favored tulips had a tall and thin body with narrow dagger-shaped petals ending in needle-like points, as can be seen in the Iznik glazed ceramic plate (right).

It dates from the last quarter of the sixteenth century and is in the Çinili Pavilion, which is part of the Archaeological Museum of Istanbul.

As did the Dutch, the most favored flowers were given names"Star of Felicity," "Beloved's Face," "One That Burns the Heart."


Later, as the tulip became known throughout Europe, there was increased interest in growing the plant for show, the rarer variegated flowers becoming a sign of prestige and status in the gardens of the wealthy. The illustration of these flowers were made all the more inviting by the use of copperplate for engraving, rather than woodblock. The picture (top) comes from the Hortus Eystettensis (1613), which preserves a record of the garden at Willibaldsburg Palace near Eichstätt. Engraved on copperplates (most of which have been preserved) and, in a later edition, colored by hand, the Hortus Eystettensis is regarded as a masterpiece of botanical illustration.

References: The Turkish Letters of Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq Imperial Ambassador at Constantinople 1554 - 1562 (1927) translated by Edward Seymour Forster and F. H. Blackburne Daniell; The Tulip (1999) by Anna Pavord; Tulipomania (1999) by Mike Dash; The Tulip Anthology (2010) edited by Billie Lythberg. The illustration come from Ein Garten Eden (2001) by H. Walter Lack and translated by Martin Walters.

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