The flower that conquered sultans and speculators

Imagine if tomorrow humanity were to reverse the current calculation for valuing things; where now we prize the new and the fast, the large and the easy, tomorrow we treasure the slow and the old, the small and the hard-gained. What would fetch the highest price in this market of tomorrow? An amble through an old forest, the glimpse of a lyrebird feeding her chick, a night spent in silence on the high seas: how high would the auction go?

Looking back to the Netherlands in the seventeenth century, there is a moment where a young and reckless capitalism, enamored by a new exotic import from the Near East – the tulip – momentarily inverted the usual functioning of the market and gave nature’s beauty a fair price.

The merchants of Amsterdam left the sugar and coffee trading floors to bid on the Ottoman’s turban, the tulbend, latinised into tulip. They bid higher and higher, pushing a single bulb up to hundreds, thousands of florins, during a time when a skilled craftsman could earn but a few hundred florins a year.

They sold their sheafs and their wine, their furniture and their clothes, even their own home – in order to join the speculative frenzy. Some became richer than they could have ever dreamt, and many became more indebted than they could have ever handled. And in February 1637, all of them crashed with the market into ruin.

Before the Dutch were seized by this tulip mania, the gardens of Islam were ablaze with tulips. In the cities of Shiraz, Baghdad, Samarkand, poets adorned their verse with tulips, and across the Ottoman Empire, artists carved the tulip into marble and stone and imprinted it in carpets and clothes. One sultan, Selim II, had 50,000 bulbs planted in his palace in the sixteenth century – it was an imperial obsession that eventually enflamed into another tulip frenzy in the 1700s, resolved only through the sultan’s decree to limit the prices of the most prized tulips.

Awestruck by the sea of colour, Billy experiences the sublime.

Today, the tulip still allures. In Holland the tulip growers settle for a lower price than in the boom days, but they sell upwards of 11 billion flowers a year and export a quarter of a billion euros-worth of bulbs across the seas. In Iran, the tulip, or laleh in Farsi – a symbol of the slain martyrs – has held its place through the centuries as flower of the nation, seen on the flag and in currency, embraced by both the Ayatollahs and the dissidents – who both might say to their dead “may tulips grow from your blood”.

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