Sublime fragrance: The story behind roses of Anatolia

Sublime fragrance: The story behind roses of Anatolia

Jane Akatay
October 26, 2017

Hidden away in the scenic folds of the Taurus Mountains in southwest Anatolia lie the provinces of Isparta and Burdur. This is Turkey’s lake district: the rugged peaks, which form a spectacular divide between the Mediterranean coast and the central Anatolian plain, create an ideal agricultural environment. The warm summers and wet winters, together with the fertile soil, yield abundant harvests of fruit and vegetables. The area also has a well-deserved reputation for being the rose garden of Turkey; for some, it is regarded as the rose garden of the world.

It was back in 1891 that Müftüzade Ismail Efendi first planted damask roses, which he smuggled from the Rose Valley in Bulgaria, in this region of Turkey. His plan was to produce rose water and rose oil, which were delicately perfumed products that the Ottoman elite craved. Ismail Efendi knew this feat would not be easy to accomplish, as roses are as delicate as the scent they release. What he didn’t know was that, many years later, he would be remembered as the person who led the way in making Turkey one of the main rose oil producers in the world. 

126 years later, the descendants of his first batch of roses are still thriving. Ismail Efendi was spot-on in picking the perfect plot of soil with the right conditions for growing roses. In May and early June, gardens and fields are full of roses as they begin to blossom, and their exotic fragrance fills the air.

This abundance of roses means that Turkey is now one of the world’s major producers of precious rose oil. This oil is used by some of the most prestigious perfume houses when making their exquisite and expensive fragrances. Turkish rose oil is also used in beauty products. Rose oil is known to help reduce wrinkles with its high levels of vitamin A, which increases skin-cell turnover. Rose water, which is much more affordable than its oil counterpart, is on sale everywhere in Turkey, along with soap and beauty products made from this mild liquid. In addition to being used for beauty products, rose water has long been used in food and drinks. It is used to make Turkey’s famous lokum (Turkish delight), and rose petals can be used to make delicious jam.

The roses that are grown in the Isparta and Burdur provinces of Turkey are not your common rose that can be picked from any garden; they are rosa damascena, otherwise known as Damask or Anatolian Rose. It is the fragrant pink blooms from these bushes that contain the highest levels of valuable oils and are the most sought-after in the rose oil industry.

The journey of the rose

Perhaps for their beauty, fragrance, or a mixture of both, roses have captivated humankind for thousands of years. In Turkey and surrounding regions, the rose has been used for myriad purposes, such as for the preparation of natural medicines and for religious rituals. 

Archaeological discoveries prove that the rose has been used in the Eastern Mediterranean for thousands of years. There are rose fossils dating back 40 million years, and in the Middle East, the earliest historical records of roses are inscribed in 5,000- year-old Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets. The Hittites of Anatolia (1750-1180 BCE) used roses to make natural medicines. The rose became an important symbol in many countries, some of which include India, Iran, Syria, and Egypt, and it is often used in Islamic religious rituals in the present day. 

Ottoman history also boasts of the cultivation of roses on its lands. Edirne was a region of the Empire that had rose-water production sites. Rose cultivation took place in present-day Syria as well as within the borders of present-day Bulgaria. However, when Bulgaria separated from the Ottoman Empire in 1908, Turkish migrants who settled in Anatolia brought the rose cultivation tradition with them. 

Modern rose oil production

The process of cultivating roses for production in the present day is much more complicated than that of the Ottoman times. The 30 petals of the rosa damascena do not release their precious oil easily. Upon the release of these oils, it takes hard work to gather the petals from the harvest and process them for production. Özgür Özer, the marketing manager at a local rose manufacturing company, breaks down the numbers: in the Isparta, Burdur, and Afyon regions there are 2,000 hectares of roses. The total harvest, which takes place from May to June, is 6,500 tons of petals. These petals produce one ton of rose oil, eight tons of rose concrete, and two and a half tons of rose absolute.

As many as 10,000 families are involved in harvesting the roses, which is best done just after sunrise—between 5:30am and 10am—before the heat of the sun dries the dew. It is mostly women who harvest the blossoms, although some men are involved as well. Rose harvesters wear a sack, which is attached to their waists, and they work with both hands to snap off the flowers and throw them into their large sacks as they go. According to Özer, the amount collected per person per day is around 80-100 kilograms, and the harvest lasts for about 25 to 30 days. That’s up to 3000 kilograms of roses, or about 3.3 tons, that one rose harvester collects in one season!

Approximately four tons of petals produce one kilogram of rose oil. On a more simple scale, it takes 10,000 roses to make 5 milliliters of oil—the bottle would be smaller than your pinkie finger. In the current rose oil market, one kilogram of rose oil will set you back a steep 11,500 Euros! Nevertheless, the benefits of rosa damascena products, whether in oil or water form, are quite priceless. Knowing that they come from Anatolian lands makes the distinct subtly sweet rose aroma all the more special.

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