By: Ayhan Ozer
This article was inspired by a musical play called “Tulip Mania” staged in Philadelphia by the Arden Theater Company. The show takes place in 17th century Netherlands when the country was in the grips of the Dutch Tulip Craze. The story is about an ill-fated tulip trader who was willing to give up all his possessions for a single tulip bulb! This Tulip Craze in Holland is recognized as the first recorded economic bubble in history. Its elements were ambition, extravaganza, greed and envy – all destructive!
Tulips are among the most popular garden varieties. In 17th century they were the center pieces of the social, economical and historical events in two countries — Turkey and Netherlands. Tulips were first noticed in the Ottoman Empire in 1550s. The Austrian Ambassador to Istanbul Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq wrote about seeing the plant in Edirne (Adrianople) in 1551. He later sent some seeds to Vienna.
Tulip was first introduced to Europe by the Ottomans. History records the pompous, ceremonial travel of the first tulip bulb in 1562 from Constantinople (today’s Istanbul) to Antwerp, Holland. This marked the beginning of the tulip horticultural industry in Europe. Some botanists liken its blossom to turban, an old Turkish headgear.
· This eccentric and emotional attachment to tulips in Holland and Turkey brought about ominous consequences – economically, socially and historically. Holland was so passionately involved in tulip- mania that this “madness” almost ruined its economy. The Ottoman Empire too was seized in a frenzy of tulip so much so that a period of its history (1718-1730) is known as the “Tulip Period”. In both countries the tulip was the center-piece of daily life. In Holland, between 1634 and 1637, interest in this flower developed into a craze known as “Tulip-mania”, or Tulip Craze. In a speculative frenzy individual bulbs were sold for enormous prices. In about 1610 a single bulb was acceptable as dowry for a bride. A flourishing brewery in France was exchanged hand for one bulb of tulip variety. Later, it was called “Tulipe Brasserie”. At the peak of the crisis in 1637 some single tulip bulb sold for more than ten times the annual income of a skilled craftsman! How could those cool Calvinist Dutch merchants that Rembrandt immortalized in his paintings become so obsessed with such a fancy habit? It only proves the intensity of the fad. Homes, estates and even industries were mortgaged to be able to buy tulip bulbs. The interest in tulip varieties was intense, and the horticultural secrets were guarded covetously.
Later, the tulip mania seized the Ottoman Empire, the birth-place of tulip! The rare tulip varieties were among the most coveted possessions. They were even used as a means of securing high offices. The Ottoman Sultan at that time was Ahmed III (1703-1730). He was a fun-loving ruler. He had a new palace built called “Sadabad” (Place of Happiness) away from the daily stress of his residential palace in the City. It was located in the suburbs, the Sweet Waters of Europe (Kâğıthane). The sketches of Chateau de Fountainbleau in Paris were brought in to be used as a model. Luxurious pavilions, statues, baths, lavish gardens for tulip cultivation and ornate marble fountains graced the compound. The sultan, members of the ruling class, wealthy subjects, and diplomatic corps enjoyed daily garden parties and festivities where entertainment was provided by poets, musicians, jugglers, acrobats and dancers. At night hundreds of turtles carrying candles on their backs walked around the tulip beds. It was a setting of 1001 Nights Fables.
In Ottoman Empire the Tulip Period was a time of extravagance and also a revival and modernization. In the upper class it brought in its wake a relaxed behavior, which trickled down to general public as well. An increased number of coffeehouses and taverns became center of popular entertainment. The poets found a new license to extol wine and love openly. The secular nature – free from the religious strictures – of the theme furthered an acceptance of worldly interests and pleasures, paving the way for the acceptance of new ways and ideas. The introduction of the printing press to the Ottoman land by Ibrahim Muteferrika, a Hungarian convert, coincided with this period. The influence of the printing press opened the Ottoman eyes to modern world. It was the beginning of the Ottoman Enlightenment, which is the most outstanding legacy of the Tulip Period.
The Tulip Period ended with dramatic events. The country was in the grips of rampant inflation which brought about disorder. Deterioration of the general life style set in, the plague followed suit. The Palace was helpless to remedy the situation. Uprisings and lawlessness began to torment the realm. Bandits, peasants, civilian and even the military rebels began to raid and ravage everything connected with the Tulip mood. The reactionary ulema and the disgruntled scribes –Kâtip- (due to the emergence of the printing press which made them obsolete) fanned the discontent, and on September 28, 1730 at the Beyazit Mosque a janissary by the name Patrona Halil accused the Sultan and the Grand Vizier for violating the Sheriat, and the rabble started an uprising that dramatically ended the Tulip Period.
The present play at the Arden Theater is a re-written version of the original plot adapted to contemporary life. The Artistic Director took a dramatic license, and chose to set this musical in a modern day Amsterdam — in a hashish bar! This is an unorthodox departure from the classical context; yet, some circles interpret it as a strikingly refreshing change.