Scent and the city

As our world changes, so do the scents within it. What does your city smell like to you? Do you remember what it smelled like 50 years ago? How did your area smell 1,000 years ago?

The Research Centre for Anatolian Civilisations in Istanbul, Türkiye, explores these questions in its new exhibition Scent and the City. The display invites visitors to awaken their sense – and their memories – of smell, and to discover the past and present ‘smellscapes’ of Türkiye and the city of Istanbul. Türkiye has a rich olfactory history. The Hittites, who ruled in Anatolia around 3,500 years ago, used scents in prayers, funerary, and healing rituals, to create an ambience that would attract the gods. Tablets record the use of an incredibly expensive perfumed ‘fine oil’ that symbolised purification in rituals and was given as a gift of anointment amongst monarchs across the ancient Near East.

Greek philosophers pondered, categorised, and ranked the senses, with smell being regulated to a ‘base’ sense by thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle. However, ancient Greek storytellers and historians often included evocative descriptions of scent to enrich their tales about faraway lands and peoples. Roman nobles often used plants to perfume their bodies and their surroundings. Mint, for example, was used on the arms to scent the body and stuffed into cushions. For feasts, they would often adorn themselves with flowers and cover themselves in scented waxes.

Ceremonies also included herbs and flowers to liven the atmosphere and similar traditions occur throughout the Byzantine period – in the 10th century the people of Constantinople were supposed to throw pine chips, ivy leaves, bay leaves, myrtle leaves, and rosemary sprigs on the street during royal processions. Since the Byzantine era Istanbul has been a convergence point for both locally produced and exotic herbs, spices and oils. Some of the world’s highest-quality rose water and rose oil are produced in the fields around Isparta, Türkiye; today much of it is sold to major cosmetic and fragrance companies around the world.

The Ottoman Spice Market, built in the 17th century, became the centre of this olfactory trade and is now an important historical monument and tourist destination. Here one could find divine spaces of Istanbul and Ottoman Empire. A visit to the Spice Market today is still marked with the smell of spices, essential oils, sweets, and the tempting aroma of freshly ground Turkish coffee. Our relationship with scent remains complex as it connects us with some of our deepest and earliest memories, taking us back to a childhood home or a family meal – the quintessential Proustian experience.

Scent and the City at the Research Centre for Anatolian Civilisations in Istanbul, Türkiye is curated by Lauren Nicole Davis and designed by PATTU ( For more information, please visit https://rcac.