Interview with Bihter Türkân Ergül

Jale Karakaya
10 minutes
Let's start with the rose, following the ancestors,  
Let us enter the land of words smelling the spring.  

Let’s start with this poem by Sezâi Karakoç, the rose. As we investigate the story of the rose, which has been told for centuries, we see that it is not just a flower, but a manifestation that embodies love, celestial-glorious, wahdat-multiplicity, material-spiritual healing, and beautifies our soul. When we go in search of its scent, we find ourselves in the presence of Bihter Türkân Ergül, a fragrance expert. Mrs. Bihter’s fascination with scents since she was a little girl has taken her on a journey with roses, and this journey has led her to open a fragrance academy, a world first, as one of Turkey’s leading fragrance experts.

Let’s listen to Mrs. Bihter to learn the story of the rose…

Your story that led you to Isparta roses started by spending your childhood in Bulgarian roses. We would like to hear your story.

My last name is Ergül. On May 25, 1978, I was born in roses. Many members of my family were also involved in rose cultivation. With my child’s mind, when I saw strawberries blooming, I knew that roses would start blooming right after. When the rose season came, jams, sorbets, sherbets, gülbeşekerler, compotes, etc. were made from roses. It was called “rose harvesting time” and this time was very enjoyable for me. When I came to Turkey, I could not find those quality roses for a very long time. There was a lot of synthetic rose water in plastic bottles, so I was very far away from roses.

In 2006, I was so tired of high heels and plaza life that I decided to do what I love. By the way, when I worked in the plaza, I worked the night shift. During the day, I would do research on fragrance in Topkapi Palace, the Archaeology Museum and libraries. For example, I used to wonder how Hürrem Sultan, Kanûnî, Cleopatra smelled, what fragrances they used. When I started my research, the director of Topkapı Palace was İlber Ortaylı, thanks to him, I found very good information in the archives. For example, the Prophet said, “I was made to love three things from your world: women, fragrance and prayer, the light of my eyes.” Why did he say “odor” of all things? This in itself is a topic for further research. He also said, “Do not refuse three things that are offered to you.” Milk, a cushion and a fragrance. Milk is our first staple food; cushion means to welcome, to invite. So, why fragrance and what are these fragrances? There is such a thing as spiritual scents, and everyone takes the scent on his own nature. For example, the Prophet. Many tourist guides who have been to the place where Hamza was martyred have told us that when the group starts walking, everyone says they smell something. When the guide asks what they smell, everyone gives a different answer: orange, amber, rose, fig leaf. I heard this from not one but seven or eight guides. Everyone takes the smell on their nature. For example, when the Prophet’s cardigan is opened, fragrant scents spread around, and there are many more examples of this.

The history of scent is as old as human history. What is it about scent that makes it so easy for it to affect people and to find a place in their memories?

In the primitive part of our brain is the amygdala, you cannot dominate this part. This section includes eating and drinking habits, sleep patterns, smell and sexual urges. This place has a scent memory; from the moment you smell it, it takes you back to a moment, sometimes to a feeling from years ago. Here you can make that person happy, make them aggressive or give them orders with the scent.

From this point of view, is it possible that it can help today’s people, caught up in the fast pace of life, with their fatigue and search for meaning?

It happens, but unfortunately there is a pollution of information in recent days. They say “Use lavender” for insomnia; but which type of lavender? The Hybrus species makes you sleepy, the Angustifolia species makes you sleepy. Recently, Karabaş herb, which looks just like lavender, is sold very cheaply. All of these cause sleeplessness as well as aggressive moods; you need to use the right one. Secondly, lavender works for you and vetiver works for me. Just as the same medicine is not given to every patient for high blood pressure, so it is with odors. According to what, according to whom, according to what age and according to what nature is very important. At the same time, if there are heavy metals, chemicals and pesticides in the essential oils used, we also drink or smell them. Buying cheaper is only possible by increasing production without compromising quality. Everything we smell is absorbed into hormones in six seconds, into the bloodstream in the second minute and into the cell in the twenty-eighth minute.

It is an incredibly fast healing tool, but if used incorrectly, the damage is also rapid.

Unfortunately, most people use it wrongly.

Here I am reminded of a saying you quoted from Hazrat Abdulkâdir Geylânî: “Fragrance is a blessing for a servant who observes etiquette and manners.” Therefore, there should be etiquette in growing, buying and using it so that it will benefit us.

At breakfast, none of us eat what we have for dinner. For example, we don’t eat ravioli with lots of garlic for breakfast. Smell is like that, it has its own etiquette and procedure. It is not used randomly; it directly affects our subconscious, our energy.

Speaking of etiquette, can you tell us about the rose picking method?

The roses are picked in the dew between five and seven in the morning. It is not cut with scissors or mowed with a sickle. It is gathered with the essence of “Yâ Rahîm”. You pick them with thorns in your hands. The love of the nightingale and the rose comes to mind; this is the love between God and the servant. The nightingale is the servant of the servant, the rose is the symbol of divine love. Its bud is wahdat, its opened state is fraction. In Sufism, everything in the spiritual realm is defined from the material realm; it refers to the spiritual. In Sufism, as in every sect, the rose is an indispensable symbol. Because it is the smell of the Prophet’s skin.

At this point, the Prophet I would like to move towards Islamic mysticism with a quote from Mevlana’s Masnavi. Hazrat says the following about odor, referring to the sûrah of Yusûf:

“Don’t just say smell! Smell reveals many traces, many secrets. Every beauty, every wisdom, even the path of God has a scent. Smell is the one that brings near many distances and gives news of many losses. When the shirt of Yûsuf brought the scent of his son to Yâqub, whose back was bent with grief and old age and whose eyes were blinded with weeping, did not his eyes open?”

Here we see that scent carries a secret. It is said that this secret is a secret that belongs to the Prophet and is expressed with the symbol “rose”.

We don’t know the secret of the smell. No other perception is mentioned in the Qur’an like the perception of the nose. It is mentioned not only in Surah Yusûf, but also in Surah Yunûs, Surah Anfal and many other verses. Here in Sûrah Yusûf, it talks about seeing, about their eyes being opened. Rose has been used for eye diseases throughout history. Both the eye of the heart and the eye of the body are meant.

You will see that the organic rose water that you will pour on cotton in the eye burrs of babies or eye problems of kittens solves the problem. Let me give an example of this; it is an event narrated in the stories and told by Kerrâ Hâtun who witnessed the event. One day the Prophet. Mevlana and Hz. Shams is in deep conversation; one of the walls of the room where they are chatting opens and six imposing men enter. From night to morning, and from morning to night, they have a very deep and silent conversation, never speaking, never looking at each other. As they leave the same wall, one of them takes out a bunch of roses from his bosom and leaves them on the coffee table. Behind them, a wonderful scent of roses fills the room. Kerrâ Khâtun, who witnessed the incident, asked: “O Master, who are these six imposing men?” Mevlana says, “O Hâtun! Take this and put it on your eyes; may your eyes find healing and your heart find cure.” At that time, Kerrâ Khâtun was about to lose her eyesight. Then Kharrâ Khâtun asked again about these six majestic men. He says, “On the night of the Prophet’s ascension, six drops of sweat fall from him to the earth, and the six majestic men are the gardeners of the vineyards of Irem.” Thereafter, Kerrâ Hâtun became the go-to person for those who had problems with their eyes, from seven to seventy, in that region. On the day Kerrâ Hâtun died, the roses withered.

How did the Prophet use fragrance in his daily life?

The Prophet used to apply four main fragrances such as oud, rose, amber and musk in his right palm, first on his beard, then on his eyebrows, then on his hair and finally on his jugular vein. Other fragrances he would rub on his left palm and apply them in the way I have described. Since this has become a sunnah, and since the sultans became caliphs after Yavuz Sultan Selîm Khan, this is the way they do it. Especially Abdul Hamid Khan uses the scent of oud.

İhe importance that the Islamic religion attaches to scent can be observed at every level in the Ottoman Empire, from the sultans to the people. The sultans have an annual ritual that expresses their humility regarding the holy relics and they describe themselves as “Hâdimu’l-Harameyn”, that is, the servant of the holy relics; can you tell us about it?

The Sultan is responsible for the cleanliness of sacred relics. He has a silver dustpan and sweeps with it; the sweepings are collected in a sifter. What was accumulated there was collected a year later on the night of Qadr, and some special oils such as musk, rose and amber were taken from the Harem-i Hümâyun by the lalas and mixed. The walls are wiped with geranium water; the wiped water is not thrown away, it is mixed with the powders that have been kept for a year, blended and made into small pastes, which are distributed to the people on the morning of Eid.

There are many manifestations of this interest and respect among the people. However, I would like to mention one piece of information that I learned for the first time in your book. You mentioned that the mortar used in the construction of the minaret of the mosque, which was built during the Akkoyunlu period in Sur district of Diyarbakır, but was restored by Abdurrahman Hacı Hüseyin in 1531, was made by adding sixty ounces of musk oil along with fragrant flowers grown in the region.

Sixty musks of musk and roses are put in it – and we are talking about a hot place – and a light breeze blows during the Fajr adhan, and this was done so that people would wake up more vigorously for prayer with this wind.

Thank you for your time and fragrant information.

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