The Valleys of Tien Shan

The tulip is not native to the Netherlands. It is a flower of the East, a child of the unimaginable vastness of central Asia. So far as anyone can tell, it did not reach the United Provinces until 1570, and by then it had already been journeying for many hundreds of years from its original homeland in the mountain ranges that run north of the Himalayas along the fortieth parallel.

Taxonomists believe that the first tulips sprang from the scrubby slopes of the Pamirs and flourished among the foothills and valleys of the Tien Shan Mountains, where China and Tibet meet Russia and Afghanistan in one of the least hospitable environments on earth. They were relatively sober and compact things, with narrower petals and much less flamboyant variegation than Dutch tulips. The flowers of the Tien Shan were much shorter than modern tulips, carrying their petals usually a scant few inches from the ground. But they were hardy and well adapted to survive the harsh winters and parched summers of central Asia.

The tulips of the mountains were predominantly red, the color of blood or soldiers’ uniforms, and they were venerated by the warlike tribes who peopled this desolate area. Yet nothing could have been less regimented, less militaristic, than the scattered colonies of scarlet flowers that clung to the barren soil of these craggy peaks. They were not uniform but were infinitely varied, each flower differing subtly from its neighbors in its color or the shape of its petals.

These tulips were not the finished article—not yet. They lacked the striking color schemes that distinguished the flowers that were to entrance the Ottoman Empire and cause Dutchmen to abandon both their caution and their common sense, the contrasting streaks and flares of pigment that made each bloom a living canvas. They had neither the stature nor the easy elegance that characterized their descendants. These would come only with time. But even now they were beautiful.

Nearly half of the 120 known species of tulips grow wild in this forbidding terrain. Together the Pamirs—Russia’s “Roof of the World”—and the Tien Shan—the “Celestial Mountains” that run along China’s western border—form not only the backbone of Asia but also an all-but-impenetrable barrier several thousand miles long and hundreds of miles wide. Thousands of years ago these mountains were the reason why the ancient civilizations of Rome and China remained almost entirely ignorant of each other’s existence; today they remain among the least explored regions on earth. As late as 1900, when Britain had occupied India and Russia had subdued the fastness of Siberia, this inner Asian citadel remained all but unexplored by Europeans. Bordered to the east by impassable bone-dry desert, to the north by barren taiga, to the west by warring, hostile khanates, and to the south by mysterious and unwelcoming Tibet, the fortress of the Tien Shan was as inaccessible as any place on earth. Even the valleys of this immense range were found at such altitudes that the few outsiders who visited them had to acclimatize themselves to the lung-searing mountain air, and the passes that led to more hospitable country could not be crossed during eight or nine months out of each year. When, at the height of summer, the worst of the snows did melt, the Tien Shan remained inaccessible to all but the hardiest travelers, a sea of gneiss and granite that contained no settlements, no soil worth cultivating, and little or no water. Today the mountains remain dry, infertile, and unwelcoming—true desert in stretches, in the sense that they are incapable of supporting either plant or animal life.

Yet even the Celestial Mountains and the Roof of the World boast occasional oases and foothills where life can flourish. In the case of the Tien Shan, the valleys lie predominantly on the north side of the range, and the oases and settlements and the trade that they attract along the foothills to the south. These towns were a considerable lure for the Turkish nomads who have peopled the Asian steppe lands since the beginning of recorded history. Pasturing their horses in summer in the rich valleys of the north and crossing the mountains through little-used passes, they would descend occasionally on the cities of the south—sometimes pillaging and raiding, sometimes trading with the civilizations of the oases for their learning and their silk.

As pastoralists, the Turks would have encountered the tulip where it grew wild in the valleys of Tien Shan; as invaders, they would also have found colonies growing at much higher altitudes as they crossed the passes leading south, for the tulip can flourish in very mountainous terrain and even winter under a blanket of snow. The simple beauty of these unsophisticated wildflowers, with their petals colored yellow or orange or cinnabar, must have been considerably enhanced by the bleak surroundings in which they were usually encountered, and that would have made them attractive. But for nomads who had survived another howling, freezing Asian winter, the year’s first tulips were more than just oases of beauty appearing in the wilderness. They represented life and fertility. They were the heralds of spring.

Tulips, then, became an important symbol for the Turks. And as they moved westward across the endless steppe, the nomads found colonies of the flower growing wild all across the central Asian plateau, from Tien Shan to the Caspian Sea, and then along the farther reaches of the Black Sea coast and south among the Caucasus. These tulips had spread westward naturally, thousands of years earlier. But by the time the Turks appeared in numbers in the Middle East, in the tenth and eleventh centuries A.D., at least some of the flowers that they encountered were growing in gardens, planted where they might best please the eye.

When exactly the cultivation of these wildflowers began is a mystery, but we do know that by about the year 1050 tulips were already venerated in Persia. Tulips grew in the gardens of the old Persian capital, Isfahan, and also in Baghdad. They appear in one of Omar Khayyam’s best-known verses as a metaphor for perfect female beauty, and later poets often used the flower as a symbol of perfection. One, Musharrifu’d-din Sa’di, described his ideal garden in about 1250—a place where “the murmur of a cool stream, bird song, ripe fruit in plenty, bright multi-colored tulips and fragrant roses” combined to create an earthly paradise. Another, Hafiz, likened the sheen of the flower’s petals to the bloom on his mistress’s cheek.

Indeed, the tulip’s delicacy and typically bloodred coloring made it a flower of great symbolic importance for the people of Persia. It was synonymous with perfection and eternity, and several myths were told to explain its outstanding beauty. One such legend told how a prince named Farhad was deeply in love with a maiden, Shirin. One day word reached him (falsely, as it turned out) that his beloved had been killed. Gripped by unbearable grief, he hacked his own body open with an ax. Blood dripping from his terrible wounds fell onto the barren soil, and from each drop a scarlet flower sprang, a symbol of his perfect love. Hundreds of years after this story was first written down, wild red tulips remained a favorite Persian token of undying love. “When a young man presents one to his mistress,” the seventeenth-century traveler John Chardin recounted, “he gives her to understand, by the general colour of the flower, that he is on fire with her beauty; and by the black base of it, that his heart is burnt to a coal.”

Among the largely illiterate Turkish peoples of the steppe, no records exist that trace the flower’s history further back than Omar Khayyam’s day, and it is not until the end of the eleventh century, when a tribe of Turks called the Seljuks came west and conquered Anatolia from the Byzantines, that the tulip first appears in nomad art. The Seljuks either brought the flower with them as they began to explore the land, or they discovered colonies of wildflowers where they settled. The earliest known drawings of tulips are found on tiles excavated from the thirteenth-century palace that one of their sultans, Alaeddin Kaikubad I, built on Lake Beysehir in eastern Anatolia.

By this time the Turks had lost some of their nomadic instincts. The Seljuks settled in the cities that they captured, and they called the lands they had taken “Rum” because they saw themselves as the inheritors of Rome. They certainly developed a Roman taste for empire, and even after the Sultanate of Rum was annihilated at the beginning of the fourteenth century, Seljuk princelings began to carve new kingdoms from its ruins.

One of these petty rulers was a certain Osman of Sogut, and his dynasty (known as “Othman” to the Arabs and as “Ottoman” in Europe) proved to be the most glorious in all the long history of the Turks. It was a house of conquerors and despots that enslaved great swaths of Asia and swept through Europe to the gates of Vienna—a line whose rulers not only held the power of life and death over their subjects, but frequently used it. Yet many of the Ottoman rulers who succeeded, one after the other, to the Turkish throne were also cultivated men whose delicate tastes and passion for beauty made them knowledgeable horticulturists in their own right. Eventually the Ottomans elevated the tulip to a position of eminence it had never enjoyed before.

By 1345 the House of Osman had crossed the Dardanelles, and Turkish horsemen had arrived in Europe. They came at the request of the emperor of Byzantium, who wanted their help to secure his throne against a usurper. Instead, the Ottomans took Greece and Thrace for themselves, and then most of the Balkans as well, reducing the emperor to a puppet whose writ seldom ran more than a few miles beyond the walls of his great capital, Constantinople.

It is impossible, at this remove, to be sure how widespread was the cult of the tulip among the Ottomans who swarmed across the Balkans in the first half of the fifteenth century. The Turks of this era generally obeyed Islam’s proscriptions against the public display of realistic portraits of living things. * For this reason there are no representations of the tulip in Ottoman manuscripts of the period, and no contemporary paintings, vases decorated with flowers, or tulip-emblazoned tiles appear to have survived—if any were ever made. Nevertheless, we know that gardening was a well-developed art in Persia by this time. Indeed, the garden is central to the Muslim vision of paradise. Christian clerics told their flocks that heaven was a shining city on a hill; the Arab founders of Islam, a religion that had after all sprung originally from the desert, looked forward to an endless garden of delight, full of pavilions and fountains, carpeted with flowers of a beauty unequaled on earth. Pious Muslims treated flowers almost as holy relics and often wore blooms in their turbans.

The Turks told a story to explain why gardens were so important to them. When Hasan Efendi, a famous dervish holy man, was preaching one day, one of those who had come to hear him speak passed him a note. It inquired whether any Muslim could be certainhe would go to paradise when he died. After Hasan had finished his sermon, he asked if there were any gardeners present. When one member of the congregation stood up, Hasan pointed to him and said: “This man will go to heaven.”

Immediately the dervish was surrounded by a press of people demanding to know what the gardener had done to be certain of a place in paradise. But Sheikh Hasan explained that he was merely quoting from the hadiths—the oral traditions of the prophet Muhammad—which state that people will do in the afterlife what they most enjoy doing on earth. Because all flowers belong to heaven, gardeners will surely go to paradise to continue their work.

The tulips of the Persians and the Turks were still wildflowers. Even when they were planted in gardens, they were not yet cultivated in the sense of being systematically bred, crossed with other strains, or otherwise improved by man. As late as the early sixteenth century, when the Turkish warlord Babur counted thirty-three different varieties of wild tulip as he passed south through Afghanistan, the old nomad peoples do not seem to have encountered any garden hybrids. When Babur—who overthrew the kingdoms of northern India and established the dynasty of Moguls, whose name remains a byword for luxury and opulence—planted tulips in the innumerable formal gardens he created, the bulbs he sowed were wildflower bulbs.

Yet of all the blooms in a Muslim garden, the tulip was regarded as the holiest, and the Turkish passion for this flower went far beyond mere appreciation of its beauty. For the Ottomans as for the Persians, it had a tremendous symbolic importance and was literally regarded as the flower of God because, in Arabic script, the letters that make up lale, the Turkish word for “tulip,” are the same as those that form Allah. The tulip also represented the virtue of modesty before God: When in full bloom, it bows its head. After the proscription on images of living things was finally relaxed, in the course of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, tulips were often depicted in Ottoman illustrations of the Garden of Eden, blossoming beneath the fruit trees where Eve was tempted. Turks who willingly gave their lives in battle, believing that death in the service of Islam was the surest passport to a paradise of meadowlands where divinely beautiful houris would serve them the wine they were denied on earth, fully expected to find their heaven strewn with tulips. To an Ottoman gardener, therefore, it was one of the handful of flowers of the first value, and only the rose, the narcissus, the carnation, and the hyacinth were worthy to be classed alongside it. All other blooms, however rare, however beautiful, were considered “wildflowers” and were cultivated only occasionally. For this reason it is not hard to believe that tulips accompanied the Turks as they swept westward from Asia into Europe.

*The reason was that it was thought insulting for man to attempt to capture—imperfectly—one of the perfect creations of God.

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