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1153x0x The roses and rose oil of Yaylabeli

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  • Turkish Radio Hour
    Dec 3, 2004
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      x0x The roses and rose oil of Yaylabeli

      By Hunkar Sibel Gorel

      Roses are the oldest source of perfume. Ancient Sanskrit documents
      mention rose oil, which is the strongest form of this scent, and in
      the Iliad Homer relates how Aphrodite rubbed Hector's dead body with
      rose oil. What was meant by rose oil in these texts was not what we
      mean by this term today, since we learn from Hippocrates that it was
      obtained by stirring rose petals into hot olive oil. The method of
      extracting essential oil of roses was not discovered until much later.

      The most delightful story told of the discovery of the essential oil
      relates to the Mughul emperor Jihangir (1569-1627), who is said to
      have had distilled rose water poured into channels in the extensive
      garden of his palace so that the air was filled with this beautiful
      scent.

      One day when the emperor's wife was strolling through the garden she
      noticed a thin layer of oil on the surface of the rose water, and
      examining it realised that this was where the power of the perfume was
      concentrated. From that time on she used the oil of distilled rose
      water for her perfume. In fact, however, charming as the story is,
      rose oil was known centuries earlier. Ibni Haldun, who lived in the
      8th to 9th centuries, wrote that the finest rose oil was obtained by
      distillation. Distillation is the technique still used today to
      produce rose oil, whether in factories or in the cottages of rose
      cultivators.

      While in factories huge stills are employed, traditional producers use
      smaller copper stills heated over wood fires. One of the few Turkish
      villages where rose oil is still produced today is Yaylabeli in the
      province of Burdur, which is second only to Isparta in terms of rose
      cultivation. Yaylabeli lies in the foothills of the Sogut Mountains
      overlooking Lake Burdur about 150 kilometres north of Antalya. This
      beautiful spot, with the juniper clad mountains behind and the lake
      below has the perfect altitude and climate for roses.

      Yaylabeli is a picturesque village with narrow labyrinthine streets
      and adobe houses. Here time seems to have lost its way and slipped
      back many decades. The friendly hospitable inhabitants seem to be
      always working busily.

      For at least 150 years the people here have been pruning their rose
      bushes and gathering the blooms. Until around 25 years ago every
      household here produced its own rose oil, but today only the family of
      Ismail continues this old tradition. The rose season begins on 18-20
      March and continues until the end of June. This is the time when the
      village is at its busiest, above all in Ismail's house. Before the sun
      has risen over the horizon the people set off on their tractors and
      donkeys to the rose gardens through the sweet scented streets of the
      village. Almost all the 150 households grow roses, and the families
      must be up early to gather the pink blossoms before noon. They
      carefully pick the mature blooms, leaving the buds for the following
      day, filling basket after basket. I was surprised to see them break
      off the blooms by hand, but they explained that the thorns are lower
      down the stems. 'And if we were pricked it would not matter,' an
      elderly man named Mehmet told me. 'No one who loves roses minds the
      thorns.'

      While most of the roses are taken to the local cooperative, Ismail and
      his family take theirs home and fill the copper boilers of the stills.

      To every 100 kilos of petals 240 litres of water are added, and the
      wood fired beneath is lit. Behind the stills is a huge tank of cold
      water which is used for cooling the distilled rose water. The petals
      are boiled for two hours, during which time the steam passes through
      pipes which run through the tank, evaporating in the process. The
      resulting rose water is emptied into tin containers, each holding 100
      kilos. This rose water is then poured back into the still while the
      other petals are still boiling, and is finally poured into bottles.

      The oil which rises to the top is removed using syringes and poured
      into separate bottles. It is now ready for sale to repay everyone for
      their hard work. Just 1 gram of rose oil is obtained from 3 kilos of
      rose petals. In other words, 3 tons of rose petals must be gathered
      and distilled to produce 1 kilo of rose oil. 'Is it worth it?' we
      asked Ismail, who replied, 'I have been doing this work as long as I
      can remember. I cannot imagine giving it up.'

      Old traditions and crafts have their own ancient harmony that nothing
      can replace when they die out. In Yaylabeli roses are a way of life.

      Every spring and summer the people daily make their way back and forth
      to the gardens to harvest the blooms whose scent will give pleasure
      throughout the year.

      * Hunkar Sibel Gorel is a freelance writer.