I’d always thought of the tulip as the sort of pretty flower found in well-tended gardens in bougie neighbourhoods.

And yet, somewhere in its journey from Asia to the West, this humble bulb became embroiled in the foremost conflict of our age, between the forces of globalization and tradition.

Ottoman historians working in Turkey’s turbulent modern era designated the tulip, their most famous, albeit largely unacknowledged, export to the West, as the symbol of a Westward-looking Ottoman enlightenment (1718-1730 CE), which they dubbed the “Tulip Age.”

In so doing, these modern historians departed radically from earlier chronicles of the age, in which the tulip was a symbol of typical elite obliviousness.1

After the mighty Ottoman armies finally met defeat at the hands of the Austrian Hapsburgs in 1716, the Ottoman Grand Vizier expressed his intent to use the ensuing peace to restore the exhausted troops to their former order and discipline.

Instead of getting to work however, the flower-crazed Grand Vizier whiled away the days staging tulip extravaganzas. One noteworthy entertainment consisted of placing candles on the backs of turtles let loose in tulip fields, giving rise to an agreeable view while walking around at night.

In such elite distractions could be found the reason for the Ottomans’ reduced stature, or so the story once went.

For modern historians to then declare this period as the pinnacle of Ottoman intellectual achievement was no less astounding than if a historian today suddenly claimed that Marie Antionette’s cake-eating courtiers were in fact concerned with the welfare of the proletariat.

The impetus for this about-face could be found in external events.

In the period leading up to the First World War, the Ottoman Empire’s relationship with Europe was of great importance. All over the world, traditional societies found themselves forced to modernize rapidly in order to fob off the threat of colonialism (see Meiji Japan). In the case of the Ottomans, having had a long history of interaction with Europe, one way to place Turkey on an equal footing with its would-be European invaders was to emphasize that the Ottomans had engaged fruitfully with Europe long before the twentieth century.

 

The term “Tulip Age” was first coined by the Paris-based Turkish poet Yahya Kemal, who was  influenced by trends in French history-writing as well as French romantic poetry.

 

While celebrating the era as a time of intellectual ferment, Kemal noted that most cultural exchanges were oriented towards the East, particularly the Safavid courts of Persia.

This didn’t quite suit the agenda of modern historians such as Ahmet Refik, who were keen to find evidence—no matter how unreliable— of Ottoman engagement with the West.

Sometimes this meant relying on the testimony of European observers, who naturally sought reflections of their own culture within the Ottoman world. Refik, for instance, looked to the notes of the chauvinistic French ambassador to the Ottoman court during the Tulip Age, for whom the Ottoman palaces of the era were “l’imitation de Versailles,” to make the bold claim that the architecture of the Tulip Age was inspired by Versailles.

And in Refik’s telling, who was to blame for the end of the Tulip Age? Why, the very same Islamic traditionalists who opposed the modernizing reforms that the Ottoman elites (of whom Refik was one) were trying to introduce in the twentieth century. They, and not the Ottoman elites, were at fault for Turkey’s marginalization in the modern age.2

Those who work in the realm of non-fiction are no less susceptible to the storyteller’s impulse. An ending is chosen, and inconvenient facts are pummelled and manipulated to fit a textbook narrative. As a result, history is often unreliable. Greater understanding often comes not from the story itself but from finding out why the story is told the way it is.

In the case of Turkey, the story behind the story—to use a journalistic cliché—is one that is still being played out today.