Flowers and the Judas tree in Ottoman culture

Visit Istanbul in Spring and view the Judas treesWhen Mehmet the Conqueror swept into Constantinople in 1453, trees and flowers were already much adored by the city’s residents. To celebrate his victory, Mehmet posed for a miniature painting, not brandishing a sword as you might expect, but smelling a flower. By the time Süleyman the Magnificent came to power, the city was awash with private gardens planted with colourful blooms, women wore flowers in their hair and members of the Ottoman court always carried one in their hand. Such was the demand that by the 16th century there were more than 200 flower shops in the city.

Come see the magnolia bloom at Ilhamur KasriIn Ottoman times, flowers as well as fruit were used as a means of communication. Flowers frequently denoted love, but were used to signal other meanings. One example was when someone in a household was ill. A yellow flower would be placed in the window to tell those passing to keep quiet. A red flower in the window meant there was a young girl of marriageable age in the house. It was a request that no one make negative comments or put curses on the girl in question so that her heart would stay pure.

The giving of fruit was another way of communicating. It was based on mnemonics, the idea that a particular object brings up an association with another. For example, the Turkish word for pear is armut. Giving someone a pear was a way of telling them not to despair, to have hope (umut in Turkish). Armut and umut were close enough in sound that handing over a pear was like saying “Armut, ver bize bir umut”, that is, “A pear gives us hope”. In the same way, a gift of pepper, biber, was a request for news, haber.

Trees as well as flowers have long been associated with Istanbul and the most famous of these is the Erguvan or Judas Tree. From the Latin, cercis siliquastrum, the name is derived from the Greek and is a combination of two words, cercis meaning tree and siliquastrum meaning fruit. Istanbullu have long called it the Erguvan tree, a Persian word describing the colour of the flowers which grow straight from the tree limbs. In Christian myth this tree is said to be named after Judas, the betrayer of Christ. Realising what he had done, Judas is believed to have hung himself from one such tree. Originally tall and strong, bearing beautiful white flowers, the Judas tree felt guilty at its part in his death. The once elegant boughs drooped low and the flowers blushed and changed colour in shame.

Jenny Downing's beautiful image of a Judas tree in flower.There are many stories associated with the Judas tree. Seafarers who arrived in Constantinople long before the Byzantines, are said to have boiled its petals and drunk the infusion to ward off disease. It’s been suggested that when the city of Istanbul came into being in 1453, the Judas trees were in bloom. Whatever the truth of this claim, the Judas tree had a special place in Ottoman culture. Festivals to celebrate the flowering began in the 15th century Ottoman Empire, called ‘erguvan’ days or gatherings. The purple, lavender and pink petals of the Judas tree are also known to have added colour and flavour to salads in the traditional Istanbul cuisine of the past. Their strong boughs were carved into elaborate walking sticks for use by the Ottomans.

The Erguvan blooms around the latter half of April and signifies the arrival of spring. At this time the shores of the Bosphorus are aflame with the brilliant pinkish-purple blossom. Locals and visitors alike go to viewing spots around the city or out on small boats to admire the trees in all their glory.

Of course, the best known of all flowers associated with Turkey are tulips. So much has been written and is known about them, that it’s a topic best left for another post. You can find out more about life in Istanbul in my book Inside Out In Istanbul: Making Sense of the City.

About Goreme1990

I’m Lisa Morrow, the person behind www.insideoutinistanbul.com. I was born in Sydney, Australia and grew up a leafy middle class North Shore suburb. After finishing high school I went to Sydney University but failed to find my niche. After working as a public servant, cleaner, sales assistant, waitress, bar maid and car counter, I went overseas. Once there I hitchhiked through the UK, travelled in Europe and arrived in Turkey just as the Gulf War was starting. My three months stay in the small central Anatolian village of Göreme changed my life. On my return to Australia I earned a BA Honours Degree in Sociology from Macquarie University. An academic career beckoned but the call to travel was louder. After several false starts I moved to Turkey and lived there for ten years. In 2017 I moved to Lisbon, Portugal, but continue to travel regularly to Istanbul. In addition to my blog I've written a travel narrative memoir called "Waiting for the Tulips to Bloom: Adrift in Istanbul" and two collections of essays, "Inside Out In Istanbul: Making Sense of the City" and "Exploring Turkish Landscapes: Crossing Inner Boundaries". I have a regular segment on San Francisco Turkish radio and in early 2017 I released an audio walking tour called "Stepping back through Chalcedon: Kadikoy Walk", through VoiceMap. In addition I write for various international and Australian magazines and websites, as well as for this blog. A full list of my published articles, with links, can be found on the Writing on Turkey and Writing Beyond Turkey pages.
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