‘Scent and the City:’ Smelling an exhibition in Istanbul

‘Scent and the City:’ Smelling an exhibition in Istanbul

Emrah Güler
‘Scent and the City:’ Smelling an exhibition in Istanbul It’s hard to imagine that scent takes the crown as the most powerful of the five senses, while most often the other four are given credit in various narratives from arts and literature to history and travel. A recent exhibition by Koç University’s Research Center for Anatolian Civilizations (ANAMED) will hopefully help restore smellscape as a distinctive space for historical and cultural debate.

Following on the success of its previous exhibition “Everyday Sounds: Exploring Sound through Daily Life,” which offered a unique sensory experience on the soundscapes of urban life, ANAMED now takes its craft one step further with the “Scent and the City” exhibition, which asks visitors to discover four millennia of civilizations through their noses.

From historically significant scents such as saffron, frankincense and agarwood to contemporary scents such as cologne, linden trees and burning coal, more than 50 scents are on exhibit and can be visited until June 8 at ANAMED Gallery in Istanbul’s Beyoğlu district. The scents are drawn from literature, rituals, traditions and the economy, spanning a period of 3,500 years, from the Hittite, Ancient Greek and Roman civilizations to the Byzantine and Ottoman empires.

“There are many continuities between past and present smellscapes,” said Lauren Nicole Davis, curator of the exhibition and a PhD candidate and teaching assistant at the Department of Archaeology and History of Art at Koç University, to Hürriyet Daily News. “Smells have long been associated with religious rituals and continue to be so. Recipes and cuisines have been developed and passed down over centuries and generations.”

Bringing together smellscapes

“There are so many differences between the smellscapes of today and the past. Some of the biggest differences are direct results of industrialization and modernization,” said Davis. “Smell is not valued by modern society; places are often considered ‘clean’ and ‘better’ when they lack smells. However, our desensitized and deodorized world is a rather recent phenomenon.”

For Davis, even though the smells may have changed, the concept of perfuming spaces and bodies has been around for millennia, “We have definitive proof of perfume making in ancient Egypt and Cyprus from about 4,000 years ago.” While the exhibition includes “smellscapes, combinations and contexts that you can no longer find,” none of the scents were “truly lost” except frankincense, which was produced by Fulya Yahya from a 1708 recipe found in the Topkapı Palace archives.

The scents of the exhibition were prepared by the MG Gülçiçek International Fragrance Company. “We asked Gülçiçek for many scents and they did a fantastic job creating them for us. The scents that we have in the exhibition are mostly single ones; specific flowers, trees, food and raw materials,” said Davis. “What we brought together in this exhibition were smellscapes, combinations and contexts that you can no longer find. Today you can still smell labdanum, the beautifully fragrant resin of the rockrose flower, but we don’t take it from the beards of goats anymore.”

If Davis curated an exhibition on smellscapes once again, she would try including “more smellscapes of everyday places, like the smell of the metro station - which must include the smells of people, trash, exhaust, metal and many other things - or the entire smell of a constantly changing place, like Taksim Square or the Galata Bridge.”

Scents of Istanbul

What are the definitive scents of today’s Istanbul? “Everyone has a different answer to this question,” said Davis, reminding that at the entrance of the exhibition there is a large map of Istanbul and magnets with about 60 different smells written on them, as well as blank ones to add your own. “All these smells came from surveys and interviews where I asked that question, and there are countless more smells that I didn’t include on the map.” 

“The smell of today’s Istanbul is a combination of many scents such as the Bosphorus, simit, fish, coffee, tea, people, street cleaning smells and car exhaust, plus the fleeting smells of flowers and trees like linden and erguvan in spring,” said Davis. “However, on top of all of that are smells that remain in people’s memories and hearts of Istanbul: rakı and ‘balık’ [fish] with friends, burning coal on cold winter nights, horse drawn carriages and swimming on the islands, Sunday breakfasts with family and so many more.”

The “Scent and the City” exhibition gives visitors an opportunity to interact with scents in different ways. A scent bar offers visitors a chance to guess 12 different smells and then use tester strips to create various scent combinations. How accurately do the visitors guess the scents? “Guessing smells without any context is such a hard thing to do. Most visitors only get two-three smells right out of 12,” said Davis. 

“They can sometimes get close, such as noting that it is a sweet smell or a fruit for peach, or that it is somehow related to their grandparents or a hamam for baby powder, or simply that it is fresh for some of the herbs,” said Davis. “We purposely included some of the lesser-known scents from the exhibition.” Don’t miss “Scent and the City,” designed by Cem Kozar and Işıl Ünal from PATTU Architecture and in collaboration with Kurukahveci Mehmet Efendi, Atelier Rebul and Gülsha.