Getty Iris: What Did the Byzantine Empire Smell Like?
If you lived at the time of the Byzantine Empire, what would your daily life be like? Read about this attempt to recreate the scents of worship, home, and humanity in Constantinople – including instructions for bringing these aromas to your own modern-day home.
What Did the Byzantine Empire Smell Like?
by Saskia Wilson-Brown
The founder of the Institute for Art and Olfaction sniffs out the scents of medieval Constantinople
Humans have long sought to harness nature—and scent is no exception. Attempts to master our olfactory surroundings date back thousands of years.
We have tantalizing hints of early efforts at perfumery. A 4,000-year-old perfume factory, for instance, was found in Cyprus, while a Mesopotamian cuneiform tablet provides a record of the first known perfume chemist (a woman named Tapputi-Belatekallim). And there’s ample record of distillation of scent in places as far-flung as Egypt and China in the first centuries A.D.
By the time the Emperor Constantine rechristened the town of Byzantium as Constantinople in A.D. 330, human use of aroma was sophisticated, intentional, and above all, well established. Moreover, thanks to great trade routes such as the Silk Road and the Spice Route, rare materials could be obtained from far away, though often at a fairly high price.
In the earliest years of Constantinople, the new emperor Constantine actually provided instructions about how perfume was to be used in his realm. As an example, take the book known as the Vita Silvestri of the Liber Pontificalis, which records his directions and budgets for the new Christian basilicas he had built throughout the Empire. Plans were customized to each basilica, but most often included a budget for spikenard oil to perfume the chandeliers, balsam oil for the Baptistries, and enough spices and incense to fill the holy days with holy smoke. For worship, scent mattered.
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