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The Peculiar Scent of Turkish Customs found in Istanbul Streets

Istanbul, a beautiful city where East meets West, is sensationally charismatic. With the visual richness in its amber cityscape, the call of prayer echoing in its damp air, and the abundant flavours in its traditional cuisine, Istanbul is marked with unique sensual experiences. Our memory of the city is especially linked with the common scents found on Istanbul’s streets. More interestingly, we find these scents wonderfully profile Turkey's peculiar cultural characteristics as a nation. Below is our take, through our noses, to interpret our trip experience.

1. The Scent of Nargile in Tea Gardens

A sip of çay and a puff of nargile is a Turkish experience one cannot miss.

Cultivated by its Ottoman Empire traditions, Turks are gravitated socially with a high sense of communal value. Sniffing a trace of nargile (NARG-ee-leh) in the air can easily guarantee spotting a gathering place for locals to huddle and reflect on their society. At these functions, Turks enjoy smoking a nargile while sipping a cup of steeped brewed Turkish tea between each puff.

Tea, or çay (Chai) in Turkish, also plays a strong part in the social custom. As people from Sivas, Turkey say, “conversations without tea are like a night sky without the moon (Caysiz sohbet, aysiz gok yuzu gibidir).”[1] To the locals, drinking a cup of freshly brewed tea is more than just to quench the thirst; it is a symbol for Turkish hospitality.

2. The Scent of Cigarette Smoke on Every Streets

From men to women, young to old, almost everyone in Turkey smokes.

Ever wonder why “to smoke like a Turk” is used to describe a person who smokes like a chimney? Well, although nowadays Turks’ tobacco consumption rate is declining,[2] the tobacco smoke is diffused in almost every corner of Turkey. Just like nargile, cigarette smokers are well accepted socially. However, as according to a Turkish smoker, one thing setting nargile and cigarette smokers apart lies in the smoker’s inner state.

''Cigarettes are for nervous people, competitive people, people on the run,'' he said. ''When you smoke a nargile you have time to think. It teaches you patience and tolerance, and gives you an appreciation of good company. Nargile smokers have a much more balanced approach to life than cigarette smokers.''[3]

3. The Scent of Feet in Mosques

The smell of tourist feet trapped in mosques is indeed an unforgettable memory.

It may be seem as a negative association to link stinky feet with mosques. After all, cleanliness is an essential part of Muslim living. But, come to think of it, isn’t the smell trapped inside each mosque’s tourist designated area symbolizes the world’s admiration towards the beauty of Turkey’s Islamic beauty and culture? Curious about these magnificent structures prominently supporting the Muslim lifestyle, thousands of tourists respectfully remove their shoes to enter the mosques for a chance to inspect the beautiful craftsmanship hidden inside each mosque themselves. If mosques lack the magic to lure tired tourists in, the dense rotten vinegary smell would never accumulated in these stunning dome-shaped architectures in the first place.

4. The Scent of Grilled Fish Sandwiches by the Sea

The irresistible balik ekmek smell around Galata Bridge can surely make a person hungry!

Balik ekmek (bah-luhk ehk-mehk), Istanbul’s popular quick grab at various seaside vendors, is a grilled fish fillet dressed with a dash of freshly squeezed lemon juice served with a lightly toasted bread and salad. As a street snack enjoyed by the locals and tourists alike, it may seem farfetched to call a fish sandwich a Turkish quintessence. Of course, the weight of fish sandwich is insignificant when compared with the Empire history in shaping the modern Turkey. But its historical insignificance does not inundate its brilliance to reflect Turk’s resourcefulness. Fishing has been taking part in Istanbul’s water for a century, so why not grill the freshly caught fish right on the boat and sell it to the hungry people ashore?[4] The clever fisherman started selling the fish bread, which slowly becomes a must eat when visiting the Golden Horn. Nowadays, a walk on Istanbul’s seaside is most likely accompanied by the smell of charcoaled grilled fish in the air.

5. The Scent of Exotic Spices in the Spice Market

A powerful mixture smell of spices, herbs, dry fruits, nuts and Turkish delight pervaded in the air in the Spice Market.

It is visually stimulating to see the piles of red, green, yellow, and black powders neatly displayed at each spice vender in the Ottoman bazaar. With the aroma of freshly grounded spices and herbs filled the air, the experience is even more intriguing. These sensual stimulations rewind the time, bringing people to witness the historical evidence of spice trading and its importance to today’s Turkey. Needless to say, spices not only made Turkey an influential country in the past,[5] it is also rooted in the Turkey’s food culture.

Turkey is a cultural exchange of the East and the West. As the hub of the cultural exchange, Istanbul’s common smells reflects not only the uniqueness of the city itself, it also carries the value of Turkey’s history and culture. Perhaps a discussion of smelliness is typically used in a negative context, it is really a fresh perspective to learn about and experience a city from the smell it bears.


Intrigued by how symbolic smells can be in a city? Interested in what scents shape a city or how smells can signal urban lifestyles? The late Dr. Victoria Henshaw's work in understanding the smells in our urban environments can be a fun read. Great practical insights and interesting concepts can be found on her blog, Smell and the City, and her book, Urban Smellscapes.



[1] Aylangan, P (August 2011). ”Turkish Tea”. Turkish Cultural Foundation. [2]Turkey marks progress in fight against noncommunicable diseases”. WHO. September 2012. [3] Kinzer, S (10 June 1997). “Inhale the Pleasure of an Unhurried Ottoman Past”. The New York Times. [4] Brosnahan, T. “Istanbul Fish Sandwiches”. Turkey Travel Planner, [5] Woodward, Geoffrey (March 2001). “The Ottomans in Europe”. History Today.








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