“You are as slender as this clove!
You are an unblown rose!
I have long loved you,
and you have not known it.”
-Lady Mary Wortley Montegu, Turkish attribute to the clove.
While it’s not exactly a complete flower language, Selam or Salaam is still an important part of the history of flower language. This system is a symbology that emerged in the harems at the court of Constantinople during the Turkish Ottoman Empire.
For background, Constantinople is located in the Mediterranean between the Aegean Sea and the Black Sea and was built by Emperor Constantine I. The city was one of the richest and largest cities of the ancient world, and travelers and scholars would come from all over the world to see libraries filled with Greek and Latin manuscripts and visit the Hagia Sophia, an especially beautiful church. During the height of its renown, Constantinople was peerless, with no other European city able to match its splendor.
Everything changed on May 29, 1453, with the invasion of the Ottoman Empire. Constantinople was already in decline from multiple, brutal attacks during the crusades, so the city was ripe for picking by the time Sultan Mehmed II captured the city. As soon as the city was his, Mehmed immediately began to rebuild and resettle, and a new era of art and architecture began.
The sultan also brought his Imperial Harem to Constantinople and this is where the practice of selam emerged. The sultan’s harem was composed of his wives, servants, and concubines, and these women were incredibly important the court. They were trendsetters and their fashions influenced the culture of the time. Selam was a game created played by members of the harem, also may have also served the purpose of secretly communicating with lovers outside the seclusion of the harem.
Selam was not based on plants having a symbolic meaning, but rather a game of clever word play. During her time at the course of Constantinople, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was the first to write about selam in her letters home to Europe. According to her, any small object, particularly flowers, herbs, or fruit, could be sent as gift accompanied by a short message to the intended recipient. The message would provide context for the object, whose name would rhyme with the missing piece of the message. For instance, the phrase “Do not” might be sent with a pear to mean, “Do not despair.” This system kept the message secret among the people exchanging the message. The person or people who the message was intended for would be in on the game and would able to decode the message. However, it would be safe from outside eyes, keeping the the harem’s guards and master in the dark.
The use of selam to send love messages is somewhat controversial. Joseph Hammer-Purgstall, who was one of the first people to write critically on the subject, felt that Montagu overly romanticized what was actually just a clever mnemonic pastime. He argued that objects sent to a lover would be much harder to conceal than a simple paper message. Additionally, the pair of lovers would either have to meet for a length of time to work out an object symbology, which would have been impossible in the closely guarded harem, or the system would have to be widely known, which would have made the message vulnerable to interception.
As either a secret message of love or an inventive pastime, selam is a fascinating look in a culture’s ability to communicate and assign meaning to everyday objects. Before you go, check out a few of the objects from selam translated from Turkish courtesy of Lady Mary’s letters.
Ingi – Sensin Guzelerin gingi
Pearl – Fairest of the Young
Pul – Derminde derman bul
Jonquil – Have pity on my passion!
Kihat – Birlerum sahat sahat
Paper – I faint every hour!
Ermus – Ver bixe bir umut
Pear – Derdinden oldum zabun
Gul – Ben aglarum sen gul
Rose – May you be pleased, and your sorrows mine!
Tarsin – Sen ghel ben chekeim senin hartsin
Cinnamon – But my fortune is yours.
Uzum – Benim iki Guzum
Grape – My two eyes!