Extracting the essence of rose is a labor-intensive project. Roughly 2 million roses must be picked to produce 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of the oil. With spring arriving late in Turkey and the Balkans this year, the perfume industry worldwide is paying close attention to the rose fields in Isparta province, in southwest Turkey, where the rose harvest, typically from mid-May to mid-June, has been interrupted by heavy rains. Isparta is the world’s leading rose-growing region, producing roughly more than half the world’s rose oil, followed closely by the town of Kazanlak, in Bulgaria.
The perfume industry’s most widely used Turkish rose is Rosa damascena, its name derived from the once-Ottoman-held city of Damascus. Following the recent immigration of 3 million Syrian refugees to Turkey, the fragrant Damascus roses have for the last three years been picked primarily by Syrian laborers.
Isparta may be one of the few places in Turkey where the refugees, having fled their country's civil war, have a chance to get a sense or scent of home. While planting roots in a foreign land, even if temporarily, perhaps some of them find some solace in the restorative qualities of the rose extracts.
Compared to the many other itinerant laborers working Anatolia's fields, rose pickers are relatively lucky, as many rose oil manufacturers in Isparta adhere to fair trade rules for agriculture. Numerous cosmetic brands demand compliance with these standards. Nuri Ercetin of Ercetin Gulyagi AS, one of the leading essence producers, told Al-Monitor that his company holds a “Fair for Life” certificate, ensuring fair and decent working conditions, equal pay for men and women, social and environmental responsibility, and no child labor.
Almost to prove the Turkish saying that “One who loves the rose must put up with its thorns,” the work of the rose pickers starts at the crack of dawn. It ends with a dash to the distillery before the sun's rays grow too strong. Economically speaking, the many uses of the rose, from cosmetics to gastronomy, make the effort worthwhile.
The rose is essential to the fragrance industry. Vedat Ozan, an olfactory expert and perfumer, has written four books on scents. He told Al-Monitor that the rose is a “must” in the fragrance industry not only because of its generally preferred, distinct scent, but also because of its ameliorating properties when used with other, including contrasting, ingredients in fragrance formulas.
“Although new, cheaper and synthesized raw materials have been preferred in the world of fragrances since the industrial revolution, the rose has never lost its popularity among perfumers, despite its hefty price tag,” Ozan said. He further remarked that most rose fields in Isparta are leased a year before harvest by international fragrance companies, such as the French fragrance manufacturer Robertet and the New York-based International Flavors and Fragrances, as well as major Turkish rose oil producers.
Ottomans were true admirers of the rose. The flower was a much-loved theme of literature, frequently referenced in poems, hymns, tales and songs in addition to being depicted in artwork, miniatures, embroidery and tiles as a symbol of elegance, purity and love. It was also associated with the Prophet Muhammad, as the rose was believed to be his favorite flower. The Ottomans held up the rose as the queen of flowers, not only for its heavenly perfume, but also for its exquisite taste. Ottoman cooking made extensive use of roses and rose water.
Mary Priscilla Isin, an expert on Ottoman sweets and confectionery, stressed the importance of the aromatic qualities of ingredients to the Ottoman palate. “Fragrance was as important as flavor in Ottoman cuisine, and roses were among the best loved ingredients in Ottoman confectionery,” she told Al-Monitor. “Jam was made from the petals, while rose water and rose oil were used to flavor sweets and puddings of all kinds, including Turkish delight. Hospitality rituals included offering rose jam to guests and sprinkling their hands with rose water.”
Isin’s book “Sherbet and Spice: The Complete Story of Turkish Sweets and Desserts” views Ottoman culture and society through the lens of confectionery, and although intended for researchers includes a few authentic recipes for the casual reader, several requiring a sprinkle of rose water.
For the Ottomans, the rose's importance extended beyond the kitchen. It was also extolled for its curative properties, especially as a memory enhancer and a powerful anti-depressant. Ottoman medicine had its roots in Hippocrates and Galen as well as the works of Ibn Sina, the Persian polymath, Muslim physician and medicinal expert known in the West as Avicenna.
Ottoman medicine was based on humoralism, similar to the Indian concept of the Ayurvedic diet in which one eats food with properties according to body type, mood, health condition or time of the year. Hence, one of the most important features of the palace kitchen was the direct link between eating and health.
The rose was thought to exude aromas and fragrances that affected the mood. Even when used gastronomically, its essential role was to impart its delicate perfume in the food. Rose is considered to have “cold” properties, thus providing an instant sense of well-being and cooling hot temperaments. Ibn Sina attributed great importance to the therapeutic properties of the rose, arguing that the rose addresses the soul with its exquisite fragrance, is beneficial against fainting and can calm rapid heartbeats. He also believed it improved the brain's cognitive power, enhancing comprehension and strengthening memory.
Ayten Altintas, an expert in the history of Ottoman medicine, states in “The Heath Rules of Ottoman Doctors” that there were caretakers in Ottoman mental hospitals who would give patients a good sprinkling of rose water to ease their tantrums and that rose oil was dropped on the pages of Quran to boost memorization.
Obviously the rose is more powerful than its ephemeral, fragile form suggests. Whether used to confirm faith or improve health, the delicate flower has intangible cultural links that touch the lives of people, whether Bulgarian, Turkish or Syrian, all toiling for a drop of the rose's essence.
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