Touring the Near East

1 Gessner Tulip

Conrad Gessner sketch of tulip grown in Johann Herwart’s garden in 1559. Gessner Notebook, University Library Erlangen, Germany.

In past blog posts, I’ve focused on early modern botanical exploration from the Far East (1,2,3,4) to Latin America (1,2,3,4) and most recently, North America (1,2,3,4).  The set of posts I’m beginning this week will be the final one on exploration, at least for a while, and will again turn east, to Greece and the Near East.  Travel there was different from what I’ve already described.  Most obviously, it didn’t entail long ocean voyages, though there was usually some water travel through parts of the eastern Mediterranean to reach Turkey or Egypt.  This relative accessibility meant that those interested in natural history did not have to trek as part of large-scale expeditions, usually undertaken by naval powers such as France, Spain, the Netherlands, or Britain and usually with political and economic objectives.  Travel in the Near East was often for similar purposes, but on a different scale.  There were diplomatic missions to the Court of the Suliman in Istanbul or groups of merchants seeking trade relations in Turkey, Egypt, or Persia.

In 1453, the Byzantine Empire came to an end when Constantinople fell to Turkish forces.  This changed the political dynamics of the region, but its economic importance meant that Europeans were still interested in doing business there.  Because of historical ties to the region as well as geography, the Holy Roman Empire (HRE) based in Vienna, was in a good position to nourish relationships with the numerous rulers of the eastern Mediterranean and beyond.  Venice was another eastern-facing city with long-nurtured links to the region, but the Dutch, whose ports were on the North Sea, were also involved because their royal family had close ties with the HRE.

All this history and geography may seem a long way from plants, but I’m setting the stage for some of the key botanical forays to the Near East.  Because they were undertaken by just a few people the reports were written less as major studies of the region, such as those undertaken by Paul Hermann for the plants of Ceylon or Francisco Hernández for Latin America, and more as travelogues or a compilation of letters; these individuals were more travelers rather than explorers.  They were not going into completely unknown territory, instead they were reporting on areas which had a long-known history, including Biblical lands.  With the focus changing from European warfare with the Muslims to greater interest in trade as Europe developed economically, the Near East was opening up, at least a little, to the West.  However, travel was still difficult and dangerous; chroniclers write of being taken prisoner for varying periods of time and getting caught up unknowingly in local enmities.

For those interested in plants, the difficulties were worth it because they were able to finally see species that the best botanical writers of ancient world, Theophrastus and Dioscorides, had described.  At the time when one of the first of these travelers, Pierre Belon (1517-1564), visited the area in 1547, these ancient texts were still the primary sources of plant information available.  Belon was an apothecary who had also studied medicine and had traveled with his teacher Valerius Cordus, one of the leading botanists of his day.  Belon became the apothecary to a French cardinal and thus came to the attention of the king of France, Francis I, who sent Belon as part of a delegation to the court of Suleiman the Magnificent in Constantinople.  While there Belon not only studied the plants, but obtained a copy of Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine (Willis, 2011).  Access to such prized works was one of the benefits of traveling east.  European botanists were still relying heavily on these texts and were only beginning to develop botanical knowledge based on direct observation.

Belon journeyed from France through Croatia and stayed in Greece and Crete for some time.  This allowed him to see plants that Theophrastus had discussed.  Then he moved on to Egypt, Syria, Palestine, Lebanon and Turkey, returning to France in 1549.  He is thought to be the first Westerner to describe the tulip, and he may have brought seeds back with him.  In her wonderful book on the tulip, Anna Pavord (1999) suggests that he may have been responsible for the first tulip to bloom in Europe, in the Bavarian garden of Johann Herwart in 1559.  In the next blog post I’ll get back to the tulip’s history, but the tulip wasn’t the only plant Belon described.  He also wrote about the lilac, plane tree, cedar, holm oak, olive tree, and oleander.  In addition, he discussed the doum palm, black myrtle, cassia tree, and sycamore fig (Thinard, 2016).

Belon noted the beauty of many of these plants and their medicinal uses as well.  Belon made the interesting observation that medicinal plants were considered so important that the camels carrying them were more closely guarded than those loaded with silks (Willis, 2011).  It’s observations like this that give Belon’s book its fascinating flavor.  An English translation of excerpts from it was published a century later in a book by John Ray that included a translation of the journal of another botanist who toured the Middle East, Leonhard Rauwolf, who will be the subject of a later post in this series.  But before I get to him, I’ll discuss the person usually credited with bringing the tulip to Europe, Ogier Ghiselin Busbecq.


Pavord, A. (1999). The Tulip: The Story of a Flower That Has Made Men Mad. London, UK: Bloomsbury.

Thinard, F. (2016). Explorers’ Botanical Notebook. Buffalo, NY: Firefly.

Willis, M. (2011). The Making of the English Gardener. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

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