Fragrant Fictions #3 - Symmetry
Another in our irregular series that pairs the house’s fragrances with good reads.
If you like your holiday reading to deepen your experience of your chosen travel destination, this is a must-read for anyone making a trip to Istanbul. That said, it makes for topnotch holiday reading, no matter where you are, for anyone who loves an epic, fantastical thriller dripping in historic detail, lyrical writing and an immersive sense of place. If you enjoy Dan Brown’s cryptic thrillers, have fond memories of John Fowles’ ‘The Magus’ or were transfixed by the trail of mystical clues of Umberto Eco’s ‘The Name of the Rose’, this will be right up your ancient, cobbled street.
Selçuk Altun’s ‘The Sultan of Byzantium’ was published in 2012. Though it attained both critical acclaim and a cult following, it’s arguably underexposed as a fine example of a genre that has proven such a big hit for other, now internationally famous, authors.
One of the inspirations for our Symmetry eau de parfum—incidentally the house’s first oud by nose Chris Maurice— was the thinking about the way that the world’s most desired perfume ingredients had literally travelled the world since ancient times, each adding its own story to perfume’s pungent history.
Merchants from North, South, East and West travelled carrying their precious wares over great distances, often at great peril to themselves, to trade ingredients and expertise. Perhaps the place that epitomises these great hubs of perfume’s journey is Istanbul with its legendary Grand Bazaar. This city that even had two other equally famous names in centuries past, Constantinople and Byzantium, was the largest marketplace in the world, famed for centuries as the place to find the best perfume ingredients.
With its rich cultural history that was reinvented and absorbed change over millennia, it’s the metropolis traditionally held to be where Europe meets Asia. Ancient Greek, Roman, Byzantine, mediaeval Venetian and Genoese culture all left their footprints on the place that was later the heart of the Ottoman Empire, a position it held until the 1920s.
In Symmetry we find a world evocative of the Grand Bazaar and its traders heading to and from the bustling port on the Bosphorus. Animalic, unique ouds that travelled thousands of miles. Citrus in its multitude of possibilities—bergamot, petitgrain, neroli, orange blossom—some of it found all over the Mediterranean, some of it with a tale of a far longer journey. Those ancient secrets of amber and cypriol. Some tales say the Vikings first brought amber to the Grand Bazaar, originally derived from the fossilised resin found around the Baltic long before being recreated as an accord. Just as there are stories that traders following Alexander the Great eastwards brought cypriol back from India. Facts may be lost, but legends live forever.
“My favourite is Symmetry… It’s a woody fragrance. For me, it’s all about oud. But it’s also about cypriol...It works great with oud… For me it is a nice combination of oud, cypriol with bergamot…. the animalic touches and the freshness is really, really green-fresh with the bergamot, which is a nice contrast with the deep and rich and heavy oudy woodiness.” -Sebastian Jara, Smelling Great Fragrance Reviews
Selçuk Altun’s ‘The Sultan of Byzantium’ entirely grasps this. As likely to appeal to the scholarly in their off-time as fans of Indiana Jones, it tells the tale of a young professor living in Istanbul who is approached by three mysterious men, members of a secret sect. They tell him that he is, in fact, the successor to the Byzantine Empire, the next emperor to finally reemerge after the fall of Byzantium nearly 700 years ago. But —and who doesn't expect a "but" in such situations?—in order to actualise his destiny, he needs to fulfil his ancient ancestor’s wishes.
This might be less difficult than it sounds if it weren’t for the fact that his august ancestor is none other than Emperor Constantine XI, the last Byzantine emperor. And, of course, because his wishes are all rather cryptic.
In 1453, when Byzantium fell to the Ottoman army led by Sultan Mehmed II, Constantine XI (or Dragaš Palaeologus as he was called locally) was reported to have been killed, but his body was never found. Soon rumours circulated that he had escaped on an Italian trading ship to Genoa. If anyone thinks conspiracy theories are something new, Altun’s book elegantly reminds us that they are most certainly not. His tale full of plot twists and cryptic clues walks an impressive line, combining plausible speculation based on historic fact with pure fiction. And, in the process, he delivers a riveting yarn.
But, there is something else that makes Selçuk Altun’s book all the more special. Through his Turkish POV characters, we feel the love he has for the city and its singular rich history. Furthermore, somewhat encouraging in these uncertain times, it’s a story that ultimately asserts the long, not always easy, history of Istanbul as a place that benefited from the contributions of many cultures and that is exactly why it is unique.
Read it as a thriller or read it as highbrow edification, but read it you should.