Bihter Türkan Ergül, one of the world’s most influential fragrance experts, dug into historical archives to learn more about Ottoman scent culture and on the way discovered forgotten traditions and fragrances of the sultans.

Fragrance held a prominent place in Ottoman culture, influenced not only by Islam’s emphasis on cleanliness but also the empire’s location at the crossroads of various trading routes, which allowed it to discover and adopt fragrances from around the world. Bihter Türkan Ergül, who is among the most recognized fragrance experts in the world and a creator of Ottoman-inspired scents, dedicated much of her career to researching scent culture in the Ottoman Empire. Using archives from the time, she has been able to learn more about the use of fragrances to cure ills and send subliminal messages, as well as preferences of the sultans and their families.

Scent culture in the Ottoman Empire

“During the medieval era the smell across Europe, especially in France, was unbearable due to the lack of sewage systems, the habit of throwing away corpses instead of burying them, and the belief that bathing was sinful as it would spoil baptismal water,” Ergül told The Guide Istanbul. “On the other hand, during the same time in the Ottoman Empire, beautiful scents were part of daily life.”

The fragrances used in the Ottoman Empire were not the perfumes we know today, but instead alcohol-free scented waters and oils made from natural essences. Later, these scented oils would be carried to Europe through wars and mixed with alcohol.

Scented signs in daily life

Fragrances were used not only to make one smell good. Often fragrances were used as remedies for illnesses, both physical and mental. Patients with afflictions such as strokes and convulsions were treated with eucalyptus, tea tree, and rose. During labor, women were made to smell rosewater and their bodies were rubbed with rose oil to ease delivery. While in Europe, mentally ill patients were associated with evil spirits and often crucified or burned, in the Ottoman Empire, especially under Sultan Bayezid II, such patients were treated with music, the sound of water, and scents such as mint, thyme, oregano, and rosemary.

Scents were also used to signal subliminal messages during everyday social interactions. A young girl would use redbud fragrances to signal she wanted to get married. When a family visited another family to ask for their daughter’s hand in marriage, they would bring lily fragrance as a gift. A handkerchief with the fragrance of hyacinth was a subtle way of saying, “You hurt me,” or “You made me angry.”

Scents in the palace

Scents were important not only to everyday life, but also to life in the palace. Rituals often revolved around scents. “There would be 40 servants serving rosewater to guests and carrying out other scent rituals during Hatice Sultan’s coffee offering,” Ergül explained, pointing to an Ottoman gravure depicting the coffee ceremony.  The ceremony would start with a server entering the room holding an incense burner. Rosewater, amber, and musk were poured over wood and clover to make incense which would fill the room and ward off the evil eye. Rosewater would then be poured over each guests’ hands and a dessert with cinnamon or clove would be served to give a fresh smell to breath while chatting. Finally, coffee would be served.

Sultans would also use fragrances in state affairs. As oud (agarwood) was the symbol of political wit and justice, sultans and grand viziers would wear the scent during meetings at the Divan-ı Humayun (Imperial Council). Messengers and foreign delegates were often kept waiting days or weeks before audience with the sultan; if a foreign delegate was offered rosewater in the morning, he knew it would be a sign he would see the sultan that day—and also knew to wear it, to make sure he smelled good for the sultan. As oud, amber, and musk were the fragrances of the Prophet Mohammed, these fragrances were used in the ink of correspondences with the holy cities of Mecca and Medina after they were conquered by Yavuz Sultan Selim.

Hatice Sultan’s coffee ceremony at the Imperial Harem in Topkapı Palace (image source: Antonie Ignace Melling, Voyage picturesque de Constantinople et des rives du Bosphorus, 1819)

The royals’ preferences

The sultans and their wives also had strong preferences for difference scents, and Ergül has spent much time researching their personal choices. Süleyman the Magnificent preferred amber, musk, and rose, the latter of which related to the Muslim belief that the Prophet Mohammed’s skin smelled of roses. Ergül spent nearly a decade researching Hürrem Sultan, the favorite and later chief consort and legal wife of Süleyman the Magnificent. Through her studies, she found Hürrem preferred linden, jasmine, lavender, rose, and carnation fragrances. She would massage her feet with 70 grams of lavender oil so whenever she walked, it would smell like lavender in her wake. While having a bath, she would rinse her hair with mallow, which would leave a pleasant scent and also soften hair.

Other members of the sultan’s family had fragrance preferences recorded in the archives. Hürrem’s daughter-in-law Nur Banu Sultan chose daisy oil and lily for her hair, and rubbed rose and iris on her wrists.

Historical accuracy: recreating the sultans’ fragrances

Ergül used what she learned to recreate the fragrances of the Ottoman sultans. Her scents may not be exact replicas of those used in the Ottoman times, but she melds together the historical information from the archives and her own artistic abilities to create her products.

While her scents preceded Muhteşem Yüzyıl, the popular television series depicting the lives of Süleyman the Magnificent and Hürrem Sultan, the demand for fragrances of the sultans increased. Even so, she did not want her brand to be associated with the television series so stopped production when popularity of the series was at its peak. Once it ended, she began producing her fragrances again.

While knock-offs may be sold in places such as the Grand Bazaar, hers remain true to the history books. “I saw in Sultanahmet someone selling Lacoste Femme as the fragrance of Hürrem Sultan,” she said. “Elsewhere they sold strawberry-scented perfume marketed as the fragrance of Sultan Abdulhamid, even though strawberries did not exist in the Ottoman Empire during that time. This is nothing but a betrayal to our own history.”

Today, the fragrances of Hürrem Sultan, Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror, and architect Sinan are her most popular. In addition to the fragrances of the sultans, Ergül designs tailor-made perfumes inspired by Ottoman history. She has made fragrances for Turkish celebrities, as well as international stars such as model and actress Adriana Lima and former US First Lady Michelle Obama.

Have your own scent

Ergül strives to make her products affordable, believing every individual deserves a unique scent. A tailor-made bottle of perfume is available for 250 TL and takes three to eight days to create. Customers can also go to her workshop and prepare their own personalized fragrances. Whether to buy a fragrant piece of Ottoman history or create your own scent, Ergül’s workshop is definitely worth a visit. Tiyrus Koku Uygarlığı, Ortabahçe Caddesi No.10/1 Büyük Beşiktaş Çarşısı, No.32, Beşiktaş; T: (0533) 091 49 44, (0212) 236 62 82