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Thinking of May Flowers: Focus on the Ottoman Turkish Collections

(The following is a post by Joan Weeks, Head, Near East Section and Turkish Specialist, African and Middle Eastern Division.)

With Mother’s Day just around the corner, thoughts of flowers come naturally to people’s minds. Often, they ask what is this flower or where does it originate. If they inquire about the tulip, one of the most popular flowers in May, many would associate these lovely blooms with Holland. However, they were introduced into Holland in the 16th century from Central Asia in the former Ottoman Turkish Empire. Even the word “tulip” comes originally from the Persian word “Turbend,” brought into Ottoman Turkish and meaning a turban which the flowers seemed to resemble.

So popular were the tulips from 1718-1730 that this period was designated as the “Tulip Era” in the Ottoman Court. They appeared on clothing, were traded as money and rare species sold at greatly inflated prices.

Tulips and many other flowers provided exquisite decoration on official court papers such as these firmans (1795), available in the Library’s Ottoman collections, that relate to Lady Saleh, wife of Visir Kara Mustapha. At the bottom of the conical arrangement of tulips and other flowers, the tughra (calligraphic signature) of Sultan Selim III appears.

Firmans of Lady Saleh, Wife of Visir Kara Mustapha, 1795. Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.

Firmans of Lady Saleh, Wife of Visir Kara Mustapha, 1795. Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.

Lithographs also included beautiful etchings. An exquisite wreath of flowers surrounds the Romanized title of this collection of Ottoman love songs “Mecmua-yı şarkı” published in Istanbul in 1852.

“Mecmua-yı şarkı.” Istanbul 1852. Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.

Gold leaf enhances the vibrant floral arrangement on this 1742 Ottoman Turkish Persian dictionary by Hasan Şu’uri with the Romanized title of “Ferheng-i Şuuri : va al-musammât bi-Neval ül-fuz̤alâ va Lisān ül-acem” (Şuuri of Ferheng: an complete bilingual Turkish Persian dictionary).

Hasan Şu’uri. “Ferheng-i Şuuri : va al-musammât bi-Neval ül-fuz̤alâ va Lisān ül-acem.” Istanbul, 1742. Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.

Lovely bouquets of tulips and roses adorn the sides of this royal decree of Sultan Mustafa III  (1717-1774).

Royal decree of Sultan Mustafa III. Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.

His tughra appears at the bottom of the conical form that is filled with gold floral patterns.

The script at the bottom is the Ottoman Divanee script, a cursive style of Arabic calligraphy used in the Imperial Chancery.  The calligrapher has included his signature at the lower left.

In traditional Islamic culture where images of humans were prohibited, these lovely floral designs delighted the eye of the beholder. Today they give us another way to enjoy May flowers.

(Photos by Joan Weeks)

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