Al-Ahram Weekly Online   7 - 13 May 2009
Issue No. 946
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The flowers and the jannisary

Giovanna Montalbetti discovers a perpetual tulip period

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A sea gull flying over the Princess Island; trees in the entrance of the Topkapi; the beauty of tulips; Al-Sultan Ahmed Mosque, aka the Blue Mosque

Not two days are the same here; meteorology surely is a job for the gamblers in this city. Despite the weather forecasts promising sun and blue skies, the soft morning mists hide the Asian coast across the Marmara. It might clear later though, as weather seems to follow the metamorphic tendency of this city: the Mediterranean gives way to the Black Sea, Europe becomes Asia, Constantinople evolves into Istanbul, and after a few days we have learned that mild winter mornings might lead to almost summer afternoons.

Then again, it might rain. The rain is incessant but so soft one hardly notices it until the petals of the flowers appear covered in silver drops. The Poyraz, a cool wind from the south, is responsible for embroidering pansies with water diamonds.

Although slightly more expensive than other locations, staying at one of the hotels of the Sultanahmet area has its advantages. The neighbourhood has a wonderful nostalgic flare since it is full of antique houses, many now transformed into small hotels with sweet names such as our Romantic Hotel. The name fits the place perfectly, and although the rooms may not be huge, the hotel is cosy and full of charm. Waking up to the sound of seagulls and having breakfast with a privileged view of the Blue Mosque are but a few.

As we prepare for our tour, the manager advises us to take one of the hotel's umbrellas, just in case. Outside, the sky is a very pale grey, the colour of mother-of-pearl. The air is fresh as we walk up the cobblestoned street to Sultan Ahmet Mosque. We are greeted by some of the locals and by a procession of plush cats and dormant dogs.

In under five minutes we are at the square between Haghia Sophia and Sultan Ahmet Mosque, but it's the flowers that have us entranced. In the cool light of this spring morning, the tulip blossoms are not completely open yet, but their colours seem so much brighter. White, pink, red and yellow tulips rise over beds of pansies and hyacinths.

There is a group of veiled women taking pictures of themselves against the flower beds, the Blue Mosque behind them. One of them bends down to caress a tulip's petal, and her own face afterwards. She seems overwhelmed with happiness, but also a little embarrassed of being so taken away by this beauty. I wonder if she knows that even Sultan Mehmet Al-Fatih, conqueror of Constantinople, surrendered to the beauty of flowers too. One of his portraits depicts him not holding a sword or brandishing his power, but smelling a small red blossom.

We enter the Blue Mosque and find spring is also present inside it, as the walls are completely covered in garlands and bouquets. The Iznik tiles show lilies, carnations, tulips and roses, cypress trees in all shades of blue, all creating a cool clean atmosphere similar to the day outside. If Haghia Sophia is like a late summer sunset with its golden walls, Sultan Ahmet is an early spring morning.

Outside once more, we find no place to sit on the benches that face the fountain in the square in front of Haghia Sophia. Curiously enough, the seats are mostly occupied by locals who are marvelling at the gardens as much as the tourists. Many are munching on boiled and roasted corncobs, bought from itinerant small carts. We buy some ourselves and begin our walk towards Topkapi palace.

Not far away, there is a stand where musicians are playing and where tulips are being given away in small plastic pots. Istanbul celebrates its Tulip Festival every April, and citizens are happy to be reviving this Ottoman treasure, after the revolt led by Patrona Halil in 1730 put an end to the majestic tulip display of the ruling class.

Since the town hall decided to restore the gardening splendor of the "Tulip Period", the flowers can be enjoyed throughout the city. Still, a visit to Emirgan Park will be worthwhile, as here the flowers cover the wooded area as bright coloured kilims. Some of the kiosks that nowadays serve as restaurants were built by the family of the governor of Egypt as gifts to the sultan. It turns out that the Spice Bazaar ( Misir ‚arsisi ) and Theodosius' Obelisk are not the only representatives of the land of the Pharaohs in Istanbul. We will visit Emirgan another day though, as today we want to see the Tulip Garden in Topkapi Sarayi and the close-by Gèlhane Park.

On crossing Topkapi Palace's main gate, we come across a dog dreaming peacefully under a leafless tree. A few metres ahead, the path extends upwards surrounded by flowers and bordered by more trees. Their bare branches seem to stretch into the morning sky as they slowly awaken from their winter slumber.

As we catch our breath at the seats located by the treasury in the third courtyard, sparrows, ravens and seagulls run across the grass under the almost Zen-like surveillance of cats. It is clear Turks love not only flowers, but also animals who are allowed to roam freely undisturbed. Spring is the season of love, and it is a peaceful love that seems to infuse all beings today. Somehow, the world seems new.

Time flies as we explore the wonders of the Palace. The whole structure revolves around the gardens, the distribution being similar to that of camps, where the tents are set around a campfire. Delicate designs cover the tiles of the marble terrace, the harem, the kiosks and parlors. Every room is a catalogue of cypress trees, dreamlike plants and the ubiquitous tulips and carnations.

It is said that the word tulip derives from the Turkish word for turban, as it resembles the shape of the sultan's headwear. It is also said they depict the power of the sultan, but also the love of God. Carnations also have a double interpretation, the spiritual one being the symbolic intermingling of the earthly garden and the heavenly gardens of Eden; the mundane being that they represent wealth.

Whatever the meaning these images may hold, their sheer beauty seems enough to justify their abundance. Pomegranates, lotus flowers, dianthus, grapes... even if the snow covered the gardens outside, the promise of spring glazed in these tiles and painted on the woodwork would warm the hearts of the inhabitants of these walls.

Heading once more to the garden, we decide to try Topkapi Palace's restaurant, having been told its kitchen is one that shouldn't be missed. We select some Ottoman dishes that turn out to be fit for a sultan, as the meal is not only generous in size but also excellent. Sherbet and Ayran quench our thirst and make us feel a little bit Turkish as the tourists around us sip Coca-Cola and beer.

We make a tramway trip to the seashore just in time for the last tour of Dolmabahce Palace, built when the blossom of the Ottoman Empire was starting to wither. We marvel at the sumptuous decorations which include a dreamlike staircase, with glass pillars and the biggest Bohemian glass lamp in the world.

This was the first palace built in European style in Istanbul -- the interior design is the work of French decorator Sechan, also responsible for the Paris Opera House -- and this influence also permeates its garden landscaping. A fountain crowned with swans and stone she- lions at rest in the grass greet visitors on their way to the palace where Ataturk lived his last years.

But it's in the side garden, separated from the sea by a tall gate, where we spend most of the time. Dark barked trees with pink blossoms twist themselves over a pond that shines silver as it reflects the evening fading light. A few metres beyond, the sea is steel grey and the air is both sweet and salty.

As the sun sets reluctantly, coralline-red like a burning ember, we decide to move to Taksim. The area is crowded and the shops are still open. People snack on semit, chestnuts and mussels in the street. We wander around, unable to decide where to have dinner, as restaurants display their specialties in their windows. The available choices are overwhelming, numbing our capacity to make a decision. Everything is tempting in Istanbul and favouring an option over others is almost an impossible task.

The evening is getting pretty chilly, so we surrender to a cup of Turkish coffee and some rose-flavoured Turkish delights.

The night breeze has blown the clouds away and the sky looks clear above us, so it might be a good opportunity to see Istanbul's night landscape. Most people think of Galata Tower as the best observation point, but other places offer the same view with the possibility of actually enjoying the panorama while having dinner or a drink. We found one of these places -- the Konya Café, located on the upper floor of a nearby building -- the night before, so tonight we fancy something slightly different. We will visit the fishermen at Galata Bridge and enjoy a first line view of the Golden Horn and the New Mosque.

As we are planning on a second trip to the Prince's Islands tomorrow, we check the ferry timetables. We already escaped to Bèyèkada a few days ago and enjoyed a relaxing day, in which our biggest concern was whether we had enough bread crumbs to feed the legion of seagulls following the ferry. A horse chariot ride around the island, Turkish apple tea and a splendid view of European and Asian Istanbul were our reward. Before returning to the ferry, we stopped for a fish lunch at the Kapri; simple pleasures in Bèyèkada that left us wanting more.

The island owes its name to its size, as Bèyèkada literally means "the large island". It is the biggest of the rocks that form the small archipelago. An exile destination for members of the elite, both its hills are crowned with monasteries that witnessed the comings and goings of several Byzantine royal family members.

During most of the Byzantine Empire, Bèyèkada was known by its Greek name Prinkipo, which eventually extended to the whole archipelago. According to Byzantine chronicler Cedrenus, the island was originally known as Megale (Great Island) up until 569, the year in which Justinian I built on it a palace and a monastery. Since then, the island became known as Prinkipo, the Prince's Island.

It is getting late, but there is one more thing we want to do before we leave Taksim. We walk up to the square to the street flower shops, where women in aprons patiently prepare bouquets for the occasional buyers. Trying to decide which to buy turns out to be as difficult as setting our daily touring itineraries. There is too many to choose from and everything possesses its own beauty. Before we realise it, 20 minutes have gone by.

A determined customer beside us decides on red roses. We finally go for pink carnations, partly because carnations are so typical in Turkish artwork, partly because of their meaning in the language of flowers. Pink carnations stand for "I will never forget you". A spring day in Istanbul is surely unforgettable.

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