Beauty and the beast

KAVITHA RAO | Updated on April 24, 2014 Published on April 24, 2014

Istanbul’s tulips conceal a changing city

Everybody associates tulips with the Dutch. This makes Turkish people very, very annoyed. As locals never tire of telling you, the tulip actually originated in Istanbul, as early as the 10th century AD, and was exported to Holland in the 16th century.

Tulips abound in Ottoman architecture, design and paintings, and inspired the bulbous turbans of the sultans. There was even a ‘Tulip Period’, between 1718 to 1730, so called because it featured a renaissance of Ottoman architecture, art and music.

The Turkish association with the tulip has been long forgotten by the rest of the world. Which is why, every April, the Turkish government tries to remind people by going into a tulip overdrive. This is the bewitching laleh zaman, the time of tulips. Istanbul looks like it has been sketched by Jackson Pollock. Tulips are everywhere, spilling over roundabouts, sidewalks, bridges, even climbing up city walls.

Feast for the senses

Laleh Zaman kicked off in 2005, when the city government decided to start a project called ‘Tulip returns home’. They began with 600,000 bulbs; this year 20 million tulips were planted at a cost of $2.5 million. Visitors from all over Turkey crowd parks for tulip viewing parties. Determined brides in dainty white gowns chase the perfect photo, followed by tired grooms. Women in headscarves and stern grey overcoats from rural Turkey jostle with selfie-clicking pretty young things.

This feast for the senses lasts only a month. By the end of April, the tulips begin to vanish, the kind of scene that inspires Urdu poets to write ghazals about the transience of beauty, and no doubt Turkish poets too. But the delightful tulip campaign distracts from real city concerns, say many locals. Once the blooms were the emblem of the Ottomans, now they may well be the emblem of ‘Ottomania’: the relentless drive by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to remake Istanbul. In the last few years, Erdogan has become something of a megalomaniac Bob the Builder. Istanbul’s famous skyline, all delicate minarets, domes and spires, is now being obscured by mushrooming skyscrapers.

Larger than life

Like Erdogan himself, all the projects are bold, brash and larger than life. One of them, the ill-advised plan to demolish parts of Gezi park to build an Ottoman style shopping mall in central Istanbul, leads to furious protests and a brutal government crackdown.

Istanbul’s ambitious third airport, billed the world’s largest, has just been given the go-ahead. The airport will destroy nearly 2 million trees. Another reviled project: a massive mosque in Camlica, which will hold 30,000 worshippers and have the world’s tallest minaret. Erdogan says it will be reminiscent of Ottoman glory; critics say it will be a kitschy blot on the skyline.

But most ambitious of Erdogan’s ideas are his plans for the Bosphorus: a mega bridge, and the so called “crazy canal,” parallel to the strait. Opponents say this will destroy Istanbul’s traditional neighbourhoodsand its dwindling forest cover.

Worse, recent recordings released on social media purportedly show Erdogan discussing projects with construction barons. But, despite the allegations of corruption, Erdogan won a convincing majority in local elections last month. “The AKP may be corrupt, but they get things done,” said many voters. If he wins general elections again in 2015, Istanbul’s legendary skyline may just be as ephemeral as the tulips that Erdogan is so fond of.

The writer is a journalist based in Bangalore and Istanbul

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Published on April 24, 2014
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