Burning Incense in Berlin: on the Power of Herbs and Stay-At-Home Exorcists

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, I noted that some of the stores in the Berlin neighbourhood where I reside took to burning incense ‘for protection,’ as the vendors claimed. At around the same time, an increasing number of stalls in our local open-air market started selling incense and other herbal fumigants. Neighbours and friends recommended to gargle solutions or use nasal sprays that contained essential oils to protect from the coronavirus or took to burning incense or scent diffusers. And one of the adult learning courses offered by our municipality in the second half of 2020 (“Räuchern mit Kräutern und Harzen,” Fumigation with Resins and Herbs) was advertised with the claim that the essential oils released in the act of fumigation not only pleased our noses, but also purified and protected from “sickening germs”. Interested in the olfactory element in different cultures of hygiene in pandemic times, I decided to participate.

Different types of incense on display in a stall at the open-air market on Maybachufer, Berlin December 2020 (Foto: C. Liebelt)

Fumigation and the burning of incense, mostly herbs and resins, are ancient ritual practices that precede the use of personal fragrants. In fact, the notion of ‘perfume’ originates from the Italian parfumare – to perfuse with smoke or smoke through. Incense has a long history as a demonifuge and is an important part of multi-sensorial religious practice world-wide. In many contexts, particular fumigants create a smell of holiness or are considered sacred in themselves, as is the case with camphor in Hinduism (McHugh 2014) or frankincense in Orthodox Christianity. Moreover, incense is commonly considered therapeutic and has long been used for healing, for example in traditional Chinese medicine (Habkirk and Chang 2017). Indeed, many of the resins, herbs and essential oils used for fumigation actually do have antiseptic properties of which its users are usually well aware of. From a medical materialist position, the use of incense is regarded as ‘a superstitious kind of disinfectant’ (Kenna 2005: 6), a survival from pre-Pasteurian miasma theory, the belief that epidemics and diseases are caused by ‘bad airs’ and malodour (cf. Corbin 1986). However, in the Euro-American imaginary, fumigants also carry important symbolic meanings. In Christian and Jewish liturgical traditions, the act of fumigation constitutes a sacrificial offering and evokes spiritual transformation more generally; the ascending smoke symbolises the immortal soul or breath of life, a link between the material and the immaterial, between heaven and earth. As Margaret Kenna (2005: 15,11) points out in her research on Greek Orthodox olfactory practices, the smoke of incense is ‘a medium of inter-connectedness with the transcendent world,’ forming an important part in church services giving the believer ‘a glimpse of what heaven is like’. Incense may also be used to mark territory as sacred, such as in Buddhist or Daoist pilgrimage (Habkirk and Chang 2017).

Burning incense at a Chinese Buddhist pilgrimage site on Mount Wutan. (Foto: David Wilmot, via Wikimedia Commons)

The municipal course mentioned above took place shortly before Germany’s second Corona lockdown in mid-November 2020, in the private suburban home of the course leader, a retired female landscape gardener and herbal expert. Due to the pandemic regulations, the course was limited to eight persons, all of whom were middle-aged to elderly women. Some were already into burning incense while others were simply curious or in search of distraction from dire everyday routines as stay-at-home moms or pensioners. In the introductory round, two elderly ladies talked about the use of frankincense during church services, which reminded them of their childhood; others recounted how they had lately rediscovered incense sticks, which they had last used in their teens. One participant, a palliative caretaker in her mid-fifties, talked about a transformative experience of consuming and buying white sage from “an Indian” in a US American nature reserve that she visited during a journey that she undertook after she lost her first husband. The course leader agreed that “Indians” knew how to use the power of herbs and possessed knowledge that “we” had long lost.

Over the course of three hours, we burned incense with the help of different techniques. We learned about the effects of burning a multitude of herbs, resins and even mushrooms and with the smoke wavering above our heads shared memories triggered by their scents. The course leader told us about spiritual creatures that resided in her garden and encouraged us to use fumigation to purify not only our homes, but also our bodies, for example after using public transport. She was convinced that fumigation could be of great therapeutic help during the COVID-19 pandemic, not only due to its meditative and relaxing aspects, but also to purify and drive away ‘bad energies’. ‘We shouldn’t rely on vaccinations exclusively,’ she stated and gave as an example angelica, a medicinical plant which had been of great use in Cholera epidemics already. She offered us small pieces of the sweetly scented root to chew on and herbal infusion to drink. Finally, we learned that she also burned incense in special house purification rituals to exorcise demons, occasionally performed for an exclusive clientele. These rituals were in great demand these days, she told us. Returning home from fieldwork that day, I could not help but wonder why it took me almost two decades of professional practice before engaging in fieldwork ‘at home’. It turned out that the place where I resided was utterly surprising and actually quite exotic.

Accessories used for burning incense during a municipal training course, Berlin November 2020 (Foto: C. Liebelt)

A few weeks later, I met one of the course participants again, the palliative caretaker, to learn more about her interest in burning incense. Burning incense helped her to regain control whenever she sensed that something was wrong, she said. Since we last met, she had been infected with COVID-19 and was yet to recover from anosmia, a temporary loss of smell caused by the coronavirus. The last time she had burnt incense, she remembered, was during the winter solstice, in a ritual that was commonly celebrated among the female herbal community that she had grown part of in the past few months. Thus, the burning of incense had recently given rise to a digital community of ritual practice across distance as our former course leader was now offering Zoom meetings to connect with her former course participants. Sitting in front of their computers in their respective homes, in these meetings the women burned incense together yet apart, in search of sociality, comfort or healing.


Corbin, A. 1986. The Foul and the Fragrant: Odour and the French Social Imagination. Leamington Spa, Hamburg, New York: Berg.

Habkirk, Scott and Hsun Chang. 2017. “Scents, Community and Incense in Traditional Chinese Religion,” Material Religion, 13 (2): 156-174.

Kenna, Margaret E. 2005. “Why does incense smell religious?: The anthropology of smell meets Greek Orthodoxy,” Journal of Mediterranean Studies, 15 (1): 1–20.

McHugh, James. 2014. “From precious to polluting: tracing the history of camphor in hinduism,” Material Religion, 10 (1): 30-53, DOI: 10.2752/175183414X13909887177501

“Eau de Cologne and the Quest for the Philosopher’s Stone, or: The Birth of Chemistry from Spiritus and Scent”

In August 2020, I purchase a copy of Ernst Rosenbohm’s 1951 publication Kölnisch Wasser (“Eau de Cologne”) from an antiquarian online bookseller near Frankfurt. The scientific literature on perfumes and Eau de Cologne that I read for my current research project on the “Olfactories of Hygiene” is rather limited, so I’m quite excited when I discover what looks like a thorough study on the topic.

A few days later, a heavy book of 600-odd pages complete with dark blue cloth binding, golden letters and thread-stitching arrives by mail. As I open its cover, several sheets of paper fall out. They turn out to be the copy of a verdict brought in by a court in Cologne in 1951. The case was brought to action by a group of ten local producers of Eau de Cologne against another one for using cheap and potentially hazardous methanol instead of high-quality ethanol. I didn’t even know there were so many producers of Eau de Cologne around in Cologne during the mid-twentieth century! The book must have been in the possession of one of those involved, I assume. The most spectacular finding however turns out to be the story told at the beginning of the first of its two volumes: the birth of chemistry from the alchemical quest for the philosopher’s stone; a quest that resulted in the proclamation of an “elixir of immortality” and, eventually, in the emergence of a type of fragrance now commonly known as Eau de Cologne.

Born in 1888 in Northern Poland, the book’s author Ernst Rosenbohm became a lecturer in inorganic chemistry at the University of Hamburg after World War II. Except for an entry on the website of the University of Hamburg, little is known about his life. He completed his Ph.D. in chemistry in Erlangen in 1913 and left Germany to work with Israel Lifshitz at the University of Zurich (Switzerland) and Frans Maurits Jaeger at the University of Groningen (Netherlands). Rosenbohm published a number of articles on thermoelectric behaviour of solid substances, especially metals, electrical resistance, magnetism and magnetochemistry. Apart from his PhD dissertation thesis in 1913, the two volumes about Eau de Cologne are his only book-length publication. Kölnisch Wasser is the last text he published before he died. Why would a chemical scientist, I wonder, devote his opus magnum to a history of Eau de Cologne?

My personal copy of Rosenbohm’s Kölnisch Wasser

The first volume is devoted to the history of alchemy but starts off with a long quote from an approbation issued by the medical faculty of the University of Cologne in 1770, which consists of a long list of illnesses that can be treated and healed with the ‘miraculous elixir’ of Eau admirable de Cologne. The report recommends the water for ‘internal and external application’. For internal application, one is advised to mix ‘50,60 or 80 drops’ of the healing water with ‘white wine, fresh well water or cold bouillon.’ For external application, one washes one’s ‘head, vortex, temple, pulse, joints, or sore limbs’ with it. 

Several hundred years before the approbation was published, medieval alchemists took to the ancient Egyptian idea of a substance or stone that may turn metal into gold and provide its owner with eternal youth and immortality. In ancient times, the so-called philosopher’s stone was imagined as a powdery substance (xerion) rather than a stone proper, translated into Arabic as “al iksir.” In Medieval Latin, al-iksir turns into elixir and is increasingly imagined as a liquid substance. Following the Thirty Years’ War, alchemy booms during the seventeenth and eighteenth century across Central Europe and the search for the elixir of life becomes a major preoccupation of medical practitioners, healers, alchemists, pharmacists and druggists, whose division of labour was not yet as clear-cut as it is today.

The act of distillation, Rosenbohm writes, was of particular interest for alchemists, because it separated a seemingly pure, ‘essential’ substance  from a more profane hydrolate treated as waste. In search of the precious elixir of life, imagined as a pure, concentrated and essential substance capable of working miracles, alchemists distilled all kinds of herbal, floral and animal substances. Stories and tales of alchemists and witches, who were in the possession of elixirs that kept them forever young and powerful abounded. Among those, who were said to possess such an elixir was Albertus Magnus, a 13th century scholar who in his days taught at the newly founded University of Cologne.

The Alchemist’s Quest for the Philosopher’s Stone (1771), Joseph Wright of Derby

For centuries, techniques of distillation, such as the destillatio per descensum (‘distillation by descent’), which emerged in the Mediterranean in the 3rd and 4th century AD and was commonly practiced by Arab medical scholars, remained rather basic and did not allow for the distillation of pure alcohol. The distillation of a pure and highly concentrated ethanol (‘spirit of wine’) –a prerequisite for the production of Eau de Cologne– was developed around the end of the 11th century, Rosenbohm claims. During the 12th and 13th centuries, the production of concentrated alcohol remained unknown to the wider public and was an esoteric knowledge, practiced but by a small group of ‘adept’ alchemists. In northern Italy, alcohol was commonly termed aqua vitae, the water of life, used for expensive healing substances rather than everyday consumption.

One of the precursors of Eau de Cologne, oleum mirabile (‘wonder oil’), was a mix of rosemary oil and alcohol, which first made its appearance in the work of the well-known physician and adept alchemist Arnaldus de Villa Nova, born in the mid-13th-century in Southern France or Northern Spain. During the 14th century, it was produced in a Florentine monastery  as Acqua de Regina, Queen’s Water, probably due to the fact that the Roman name for its main ingredient, rosemary, was rosmarinus coronaria, crown-rosemary. From around 1672, the healing water was marketed as Hungarian Water, or even more prosaic, under the name of “Water of the Queen of Hungary” (Eau de la Reine de Hongrie, 136ff.) by French producers across Europe. Rosenbohm goes to considerable length to show that the renaming of the earlier rosemary oil and alcohol mix into the evocative “Eau de la Reine de Hongrie” and its promotion as a miraculous healing water was a clever marketing strategy, later to be partially copied by the producers of the Eau de Cologne. In spite of its name, it was produced in France rather than Hungary and its sales story –namely that the Hungarian Queen was cured by a healing water which was given to her by an obscure recluse never to be seen again– drew on earlier stories of kings’ and queens’ magical powers and the esoteric knowledge of eremite alchemists. At the Parisian court and among the European upper class the miraculous Hungarian Water created a frenzy soon to be replaced by the Eaux de Cologne (p. 142ff.). 

Arnaldus de Villa Nova, a Medieval physician and, according to Rosenbohm, alchemist, who produced one of the healing waters that preceded the Eaux de Cologne (here in a medical treatise from 1584; public domain).

Some scholars describe the Hungarian Water as one of the plague waters that were common during the so-called second plague pandemic (cf. Stoddart 1990) –and indeed, one of the many names of the plague, which spread westwards from Eastern and Central Europe during the fifteenth until the seventeenth century was the “Hungarian disease.” However, Rosenbohm contends that while rosemary was commonly used as a fumigant, its distilled oil or water was not commonly used against the plague. Nevertheless, the antibacterial and healing effects of essential oils from thyme, lavender, neroli or rosmarin (still used for some of the original Eaux de Cologne) were well known at the time and within the monasteries and cloisters of Western and Central Europe they were produced and sold as healing substances in the complexes’ pharmacies.

By the sixteenth century, the alchemists’ quest for the philosopher’s stone, which would turn metal into gold and provide eternal youth and immortality, was commonly regarded a hoax. Nevertheless, the art of distillation and the analysis of the composition and effects of essential oils stood at the beginning of what eventually became modern chemistry. This must have been the reason for Rosenbohm to devote his opus magnum to the history of Eau de Cologne. Given the usages of scented and alcohol-based waters against the plague in Medieval and early modern Europe, the contemporary use of Eau de Cologne against the coronavirus in Turkey and elsewhere suddenly appears invested with historical meaning and depth. In any case, Rosenbohm’s book shows the multiple entanglement between aromas, fragrances, spirituality, and the quest for knowledge, cults and healing in Europe in pandemic times.

While today, it would be difficult to publish such a wild mix of historical materials, interspersed with poems, chemical formulas, newspaper articles and grey literature –the flyers that accompanied the early flacons of Eaux de Cologne in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century!–, I cannot help but feel impressed by the scholarly zeal and trans-disciplinary curiosity which makes reading Kölnisch Wasser a veritable experience.


Stoddart, D. Michael 1991. The Scented Ape. The biology and culture of human odour. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rosenbohm, Ernst 1951. Kölnisch Wasser. Ein Beitrag zur europäischen Kulturgeschichte. Berlin: Albert Nauck & Co.

Kolonya in the News

In the early days of COVID-19, supermarkets in Turkey quickly ran out of stock in medical hand sanitizer and disinfectants. The day the World Health Organization (WHO) characterized COVID-19 as a pandemic, Turkey’s Minister of Health publicly declared that given the scarcity of medical hand sanitizer citizens should use alcohol-based kolonya, Turkish for Eau de Cologne, to protect themselves from the Coronavirus. Research in the news archives of four Turkish mainstream print media shows that kolonya has remained on the news in Turkey ever since. While mass sales and production are a major topic, articles also deal with what could be termed a particular kind of kolonya nationalism and the cultural effects of the Turkish kolonya renaissance.

In the early days of COVID-19, supermarkets in Turkey, like elsewhere, quickly ran out of stock in medical hand sanitizers and disinfectants. On March 11, the day the World Health Organization (WHO) characterized COVID-19 as a pandemic, Turkey’s Minister of Health Fahrettin Koca publicly declared that given the scarcity of medical hand sanitizer citizens should use alcohol-based kolonya, Turkish for Eau de Cologne, to protect themselves from the Coronavirus. Following his announcement, prices soared almost immediately and the next day, news outlets all over Turkey reported that stores had run out of supply. Some local producers also ran out of stock of ethanol, a major ingredient of kolonya­. The same day, the government banned the export not only of kolonya but also, of ethanol. By the end of March, the price of a kilo of lemon, the most popular fragrant ingredient in kolonya had increased threefold and papers also reported a lemon export ban. Research in four major newspaper archives –of Hürriyet, a liberal mainstream daily, which in 2018 was taken over by a pro-government holding; Posta, a mass market tabloid with high circulation in Turkey; Yeni Şafak, a Muslim conservative daily paper, known to be very close to the AKP government and Sabah, a right-wing and pro-government mass market paper– shows that kolonya has remained on the news in Turkey ever since. While mass sales and production are still a major topic, articles increasingly also deal with what could be termed a particular kind of kolonya nationalism and the cultural effects of the Turkish kolonya renaissance.

The great sale: kolonya mass production

In the first few days after the Ministry of Health’s kolonya announcement, Hürriyet, like many newspapers in Turkey, ran several articles a day under the tag of ‘kolonya’. By March 12, the demand for hand sanitizer had increased 15-fold and the demand for kolonya had more than tripled (Hürriyet, March 12). It was reported that shopkeepers sold more kolonya in one day than they usually did in a year (Hürriyet, March 11), even though individual sellers rationed the portions their customers were allowed to buy (Hürriyet, March 13). While toilet paper was stockpiled in Germany, kolonya was in Turkey. The Hürriyet website ran a picture gallery of the overcrowded sales office of a small kolonya-producing firm in the town of Izmit, located at the eastern Sea of Marmara, showing long lines of customers waiting to be served; the owner was quoted saying that ‘if the situation goes on like this, we will have to produce at night’ (quoted from Hürriyet, March 11).

Izmir residents lining up in front of Tarış, an agricultural cooperative, to buy Eau de Cologne (screenshot from a video posted by Hürriyet, 13 March 2020, https://www.hurriyet.com.tr/video/izmirliler-kolonya-sirasina-girdi-41468117).

Indeed, this is what happened in many kolonya producing factories: By September, Sabah (September 14) reported about a factory in the western Black Sea region of Düzce that organized night shifts to produce kolonya 24 hours a day since March. Similar extensions of production were  reported from large kolonya factories in Edirne, in Eastern Thrace (Sabah, September 17), and Kayseri in Central Anatolia (Sabah, September 24). Moreover, a thriving black market evolved, which also included products based on cheaper, but potentially hazardous methyl-alcohol instead of ethanol. In late March, Hürriyet reported about a large raid in 25 cities across the country, issued by the Minister of Interior, Süleyman Soylu, which resulted in the capturing of 71 and the arrest of four persons involved in the illegal production and sale of hand sanitizers and kolonya, as well as the confiscation of 65,000 boxes of disinfectants, 750 bottles of kolonya, 4,375 litres of ethanol, 340 litres methyl alcohol and eleven tons of other chemical substances. Indeed, explanations and recipes for home-made kolonya or disinfectants had been shared not only in talk shows and among friends, but also in the print media (for example, Hürriyet, March 17). Not least, the boom in kolonya production and sales was not restricted to Turkey. In mid-August, the Turkish Statistical Institute reported that during the first half of 2020, Turkey had sold kolonya to 86 countries worldwide and exports had hit a record high of over 13 million US dollars (see Hürriyet, August 22). Hürriyet (March 18) also interviewed a German producer of Turkish origin about the rise in demand of ‘Turkish’ kolonya in Germany.

Chemical substances for the production of kolonya and disinfectants confiscated during a police raid (published by Hürriyet, 26 March 2020, https://www.hurriyet.com.tr/gundem/son-dakika-haberler-bakan-soylu-talimat-vermisti-25-ilde-operasyon-41478691)

Corona Biopolitics, kolonya nationalism

With the above-mentioned statement by the Ministry of Health in mid-March, kolonya became a quasi-official cure against rising Corona infection numbers in Turkey. Beginning in early April, millions of care packages, including facial masks, a bottle of kolonya and a letter from the President were distributed among elderly and chronically ill citizens. The campaign and the first days of distribution in Istanbul were covered extensively in the Turkish media. The newspapers’ websites offered picture galleries and even videos (for example, Hürriyet, April 7) showing teams of police men knocking on residents’ doors and handing out care packages. In the pro-government newspapers, these packages were closely associated with President Erdoğan himself and occasionally called ‘Erdoğan’s hygiene packages.’ The campaign was part of the regime’s attempt to effect the image of an all-powerful government taking good care of its national community. In its wake, kolonya became a patriotic symbol, part and parcel of Turkish nationalism on the rise.

One example for this kind of nationalism appeared on April 4th in the pro-Muslim government loyal Yeni Şafak under the title of “As the kolonya produced to meet the instructions by President Erdoğan hits the road, workers can’t hold back their tears”. Reporting about a kolonya-producing factory in Düzce where workers laboured for ten days without proper sleep to meet a government order of 300,000 bottles, Yeni Şafak commented not on the horrendous working conditions, but emphasised the workers’ heroic efforts. The accompanying pictures depict almost exclusively female workers uniformly dressed in dark pants, headscarves and wine-red overcoats waving national flags as trucks decorated with “Homeland First” banners leave the premises of the factory to distribute the first shipment. The factory’s executive manager is quoted saying that the order from their (‘our’) President and Minster of Health was so dear to them that they were prepared to continue the pace of production for another three or five months. One of the workers is described as weeping as the first trucks leave the factory; he is quoted speaking of the workers’ personal effort to fulfil the state order out of the hope to provide ‘healing’ (şifa) to the people. He also declares his ‘love’ for Turkey and that he would sacrifice his life for the homeland (vatan).

Yeni Şafak also reported on another of the eight factories that received a tender for producing products intended for theCorona emergency kits, namely Eyüp Sabri Tuncer, one of the oldest kolonya brands in Turkey. Eyüp Sabri Tuncer’s general manager Engin Tuncer, is quoted saying that he motivated his workers by telling them ‘You are working for the public health sector now. Our product is like a medicine’ (Yeni Şafak, April 13).

Workers forming a guard of honour with national flags as trucks leave a kolonya factory in Düzce (photo: Tezcan Solmaz, DHA Samsun, published by Yeni Şafak, 4 April 2020).

Another genre of Turkey’s mediated (kolonya) nationalism during the Corona crisis consisted of comparing Turkey favourably with the ‘Western’ world. Again, the Muslim conservative Yeni Şafak was most eager in this regard: early on in the pandemic, in an article titled ‘Nothing Compares Globally: Turkey’s ‘Social State’ Reflects its Difference’ commentator Şahin Şen emphasises Turkey’s exceptional role in dealing with the Corona crisis. Whereas in the US and Europe, Şen claims, citizens were unable to get hold of disinfectants, masks, gloves or even food, in Turkey, public workers strove relentlessly to fulfil the needs of elderly and chronically ill citizens, distributing kolonya and masks in a national struggle (milli mücadele) against the virus. The crisis thus revealed the ‘social’ character of the state. Also in Yeni Şafak (March 24), featuring pictures from a small kolonya store in Eminönü, kolonya was characterised as Turkey’s ‘secret weapon’ (gizli silah), which had made it into the headlines of European media.

Given the fact that hundreds of journalists have been arrested and the Freedom of the Press in Turkey has deteriorated significantly over the last decade as well as our decision to focus on print media with a high circulation, which are all pro-government or government-controlled, it is perhaps of little surprise that no kolonya-related critical reports on the dealing with the crisis and the widespread use of kolonya as a hand sanitizer were to be found.

Practices of hand hygiene, epidermic anxieties

From early on in the Corona crisis, newspapers distributed practical tips on how to use and produce sanitizing and disinfectant products, including kolonya. In the Muslim-conservative Yeni Şafak (April 4), consultants of Alo Fetva, the telephone hotline operated by the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), reported about numerous queries on the permissibility of using alcohol-based kolonya, given that alcohol was a forbidden substance in Islam. Alo Fetva consultants were quoted saying that the use of kolonya for sanitizing purposes was tolerable for cleansing purposes and did not ‘break’ the ritual ablution before prayer, thus reiterating an official statement by the Diyanet. From mid-March, public health experts and scientists were consulted by media outlets to support the minister’s claim that kolonya was antibacterial and explain its use during the current health crisis (for example, Hürriyet, March 11 and Hürriyet, March 12).

Sporadically, experts were quoted on the damaging side effects of an exaggerated use of kolonya, for example, offering tips on how to care for dehydrated or irritated skin (see Posta, April 2 or Sabah, June 2). The Muslim conservative Yeni Şafak published an article on the cleansing effects of rose water, which has a powerful religious connotation in Turkey and elsewhere in the Muslim world. Under the headline of “Constant use of kolonya creates skin irritation: To protect against microbes, use rose water,” a researcher from Istanbul University’s Institute of Maritime Sciences and Management was quoted saying that rose water was preferable to alcohol-based products due to its beneficial effects on dehydrated and irritated skin. While he did not claim that rose water effectively destroyed the Corona virus (which most certainly, it does not), the article nevertheless suggested that it destroyed ‘microbes’ and functioned as an antibacterial. In late May an announcement by the Clinical Microbiology and Infection Specialist of Istanbul Kent University’s Prof. Ayşe Wilke Topçu that kolonya with a high percentage of alcohol (above 70°) makes the Corona virus stick to the skin rather than destroy it created much repercussion and concern in the print media (see Yeni Şafak, Posta and Sabah on May 28).

Transforming kolonya Cultures: My Mask, My Kolonya

Another set of articles featured various cultural effects of Turkey’s current kolonya renaissance. Yeni Şafak’s Yaşar Süngü wrote about one of the first kolonya producers in Turkey, Eyüp Sabri Tuncer ( “A Perfumer’s Tale”), born in 1898 to a Bosnian family, who started producing and selling his own lemon-scented fragrance in Ankara around 1930.

A number of articles point to the strong affective relationship between fragrances and their users. For example, Yeni Şafak reports about an elderly man from Samsun, who over the years has collected more than 3,000 bottles of different types of kolonya and neatly arranged them in a room of his apartment. Due to the fact that his wife is asthmatic and doesn’t like kolonya, he did so secretly, saying that he loves his fragrant bottles ‘like my children’ (quoted from Yeni Şafak, April 17). Another article features an engineer living in İzmir, who has collected almost 2,500 bottles of kolonya made up of 75 different fragrances from 25 cities (mostly in Turkey). Dreaming of a Turkish kolonya museum, he claims that ‘these days, Turkey can be called the homeland of Eau de Cologne, due to the fact that as a society we are very interested in, and sensitive to scents.’ (quoted from Yeni Şafak, April 22). Yeni Şafak (May 10) also reports about the historical birthplace of kolonya, Cologne, showing pictures from the museum of one of the best-selling, though not the oldest, brands of Eau de Cologne, 4711. (Thus, Farina’s 1709 is certainly older and prides itself on a museum of its own.)

Private Eau de Cologne Collector in Samsun (photo: Yaprak Kocer, DHA Samsun, published by Yeni Şafak, 17 April 2020).

Here, like elsewhere, the early history of Eau de Cologne and the founding myth of one of the later producers of Eau de Cologne in Cologne (4711 among them), Mühlens, is reproduced rather uncritically, probably due to the fact that literature on the topic is hard to come by. Hürriyet’s Doğan Hızlan weaves historical anecdotes and personal remembrances into an essay on the changing role of kolonya in Turkey: from a symbol of hospitality and welcome during Muslim holidays or in the context of sick bed visits to a protective measure in pandemic times. And finally, as the epidemic situation is increasingly out of control and infection numbers are sadly on the rise again in early September, Hürriyet’s journalist Kanat Atkaya transforms Tanju Okan’s 1976 pop song slogan ‘My drink, my cigarette [are my only friends]’ into ‘My Mask, My Kolonya are my only friends’.

Eau de Cologne as a Haunting Matter

As Elizabeth Ettore writes in Autoethnography as Feminist Method, autoethnography means that the author reflects deeply on her actions and describes a ‘plausible journey of transition from “who I was to who I am”‘ (2017: 3). While my current research on the Olfactories of Hygiene is an ongoing journey, I indeed started noticing a kind of sensual re-attunment when it comes to Eau de Cologne. Upon embarking on this project, I readily associated Eau de Cologne, in particular the most classic one, 4711 Echt Kölnisch Wasser (Original Eau de Cologne, in German), with the older working-class relatives of my adopted mother, especially with Elli, her mother. As I grew up, Elli and her husband Fritz, a gardener, lived in a terraced house in a working-class district of Cologne, an industrial German city on the Rhine. Fritz passed away when I was six years old, but his presence lingered on in the large garden’s fragrant herbs and fruit trees as well as in the winter garden on the back of the house, which was filled with orchids and other flowering plants. In contrast, the house itself had an air of cool austerity to it which I readily associated with Elli.

The author and Elli in her house in 1977.

Elli extensively used 4711 and I suspect that she used it not only on her body and embroidered handkerchiefs to refresh herself, but also mixed it with vinegar to mop the stone floor of the house, which she did at least once a day. The slightly pungent scent of 4711, as ephemeral as it was (and still is), accompanied her as she moved in with us after selling the house. It travelled with us on our way south during summer holidays, with her sitting next to me in the back of the car. Later, when my mom could no longer take care of her, it permeated the room of the nursing home where she spent the last year of her life. This was in the late eighties/early nineties and by then, 4711 had long gone out of style. When in June 2020 I interviewed my uncle, born in 1942, about the role of smell and scents in his life, he noted that when he was young, 4711 was already considered something that only the elderly would use.

Nevertheless, it is still being produced and lately has seen increasing demand, especially in the form of wipes. In April 2020, after I had taken an interest in Eau de Cologne, which was now used as a hand sanitizer in Turkey, I discovered bottles of 4711 Echt Kölnisch Wasser at the bottom of a shelf in my local drug store. As I took up the blue and golden flacon and sprayed it on my hands, I sensed Elli’s presence almost three decades after she died: Elli mopping the floor in her apron dress with a flower design; Elli holding her scented handkerchief to her nose as we pass by freshly manured fields in the car; Elli sprinkling her temples with 4711 for relief from anxiety or headaches. The scent of a particular part of my childhood had been sitting on that shelf all along and I never noticed!

In Ghostly Matters, Avery F. Gordon writes of mediations that are of a haunting presence. Eau de Cologne and 4711 in particular, I realized, was such a mediating or haunting matter for me, defined by Gordon as a force or structure that ‘appear[s] removed from us [but] make[s] [its] impact felt in everyday life in a way that confounds our analytic separations and confounds the social separations themselves.’ (2008: 19) Scents and odors are paradigmatic haunting matters in that they may evoke memories one was no longer aware of. In the literature, this has been called “The Proust Effect” (Van Campen 2014), referring to an episode described in Proust’s Remembrance of Time Past, where a cake dipped in tea suddenly evokes a strongly affective childhood memory. The olfactory trigger is transported from the olfactory bulb straight to the limbic system of our brain, which is responsible for emotional processing and long-term memory. The sense of olfaction is the only sense linked directly to the limbic system. (Stoddart 1991)

4711 ad alluding to the disinfecting effects of alcohol and essential oils in front of the 4711 House in Cologne

A few days ago, I took my daughter to visit my hometown Cologne where Eau de Cologne –literally, the water of Cologne– has been traded since the late 17th century, with northern Italian tradesmen from Santa Maria Maggiore, especially Giovanni Paolo (de) Feminis and Giovanni Maria Farina, playing a major role (Rosenbohm 1951). Farina created a fragrance that reminded him of a spring morning in Italy, it is claimed, which he obviously missed while making a name for himself in Cologne. As I entered the 4711 flagship store, rebuilt after the war in Cologne’s almost completely demolished inner city, the scent of 4711 enveloped me once again. It emanated from a large fountain in the middle of the room, a reminiscence of the fact that Eau de Cologne, also called aqua mirabilis, miracle water, used to be consumed not just externally, but also internally (like the Plague Waters, which –some claim– have survived in the form of Eau de Cologne).

Sitting in the newly refurbished exhibition hall on the first floor of the building and talking to a fragrance developer of Mäurer & Wirtz, the manufacturer that acquired the 4711 brand in 2006, the pervasive scent of 4711 slowly lost its awe. The fragrance developer told me about the challenge to compose a contemporary 4711 remix series from its seven basic ingredients –bergamot, lemon, orange, neroli, petitgrain, lavender and rosmarin. Her love of the resulting product and indeed, its refreshing and cleansing feel came as a revelation. Like other visitors and employees that I talked to, the fragrance developer was well aware of the common stereotypes and affective aversions triggered by 4711, especially by those born in Germany before the 1980s. The French tour guide who guided us through the exhibition alongside a group of visitors told the story of a four-year-old who never smelled 4711 but when asked about it responded ‘it stinks’. My daughter turns out to be less indoctrinated and happily collects the tiny 3ml glass bottles of 4711 that I suddenly remember playing with as a kid.

Miniature flacons of 4711 Echt Kölnisch Wasser

‘To be haunted and to write from this location,’ writes Gordon, ‘is not a methodology or a consciousness you can simply adopt or adapt as a set of rules or an identity; it produces its own insights and blindnesses’ (2008: 22). I’m not sure yet what the haunting matter of 4711 Eau de Cologne produces in and around me, but exposing myself to its scent and thus creating new layers of olfactory presence and experience certainly feels like facing ghosts of the past. Elli was certainly haunted herself as a working mother and wife of a rather bohemian plant lover in the conservative post-war period in Western Germany. Her extensive use of 4711 was certainly part of an attempt at self-cure and healing. Like many other women of her generation and social background, she lived the frugal life of a hard-working and, she would have liked me to emphasize, a clean and respectable woman. The luxury promised by more expensive perfumes or fragrances was not just unaffordable, but it was also morally suspect to her. The hygienic freshness and unapologetic presence of 4711 fit well into the world that she created for herself.


Ettore, Elizabeth 2017. Autoethnography as Feminist Method: Sensitising the feminist ‘I’. London, New York: Routledge.

Gordon, Avery F. 2008. Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. Minneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press.

Rosenbohm, Ernst 1951. Kölnisch Wasser. Ein Beitrag zur europäischen Kulturgeschichte. Berlin et al.: Albert Nauck & Co.

Stoddart, D. Michael 1991. The Scented Ape. The biology and culture of human odour. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Van Campen, Cretien 2014. The Proust Effect: The Senses as Doorways to Lost Memories. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Surveying Cultures of Hygiene in Germany and Turkey

Between June 8 and July 15, my research assistant İdil Deniz Şakar and I conducted an online survey on the “Cultures of Hygiene in Germany and Turkey,” which has now been completed by 212 respondents. We were overwhelmed by the many positive responses to our survey and would like to summarize some of our findings in the following.

Who completed the survey? More than half of our respondents (59 percent) resided in Turkey, 37 percent in Germany. Due to the fact that we reached many of our respondents from among our (former) students as well as university staff, university graduates were clearly overrepresented, with 63 percent of all respondents holding a university degree. Nevertheless, we succeeded in reaching persons of many different ages with half of our respondents being 40 years of age or older. 76 percent of our respondents described themselves as female, 22 percent as male and two percent as diverse.

Facial masks for sale in a mobile phone shop in Berlin-Neukölln (Photo: C. Liebelt)

Changes in bodily hygiene in Corona times

According to our respondents, everyday bodily practices and hygienic measures have changed dramatically since the global spread of COVID-19: 89,4 percent of all respondents said that their own hygienic everyday measures have increased; in Turkey, this rate was even higher, with 95.2 percent of all respondents saying that their hygienic measures increased. Respondents in both Germany and Turkey stated that they now washed their hand more often, 96 and 96.7 percent respectively. Some of those, who did not, explained that due to the risk of infection they observed physical distance and therefore did not see the need to wash their hands more often. Forms of greeting have likewise changed, with 90.4 percent of all respondents saying that they now refrained from touching other persons’ hands or faces upon greeting them (89.5% in Germany, 91.1% in Turkey).

69 percent of our respondents also used hand sanitizer on a regular basis, with an overwhelming majority of users (96 percent) saying that they now used it more frequently than before. Hand sanitizer was used more frequently in Turkey (by 79.2 percent of respondents) as compared to Germany (52.6 percent). Those who did not use hand sanitizer on a regular basis said they relied on other hygienic measures (72 percent) or avoided hand sanitizer out of concerns about skin damage (38 percent). Others claimed that during the lockdown they had rarely left the house and therefore did not require it. Most respondents in Turkey and Germany, 88.7 and 86.7 percent respectively, regarded washing hands as the more effective hygienic measure. A majority of respondents living in Turkey (56.6 %) also used sanitizing agents to disinfect objects as compared to just 17.5% in Germany.

The greatest differences between our respondents in Germany and Turkey concerned the use of Eau de Cologne. In Turkey, Eau de Cologne (kolonya in Turkish) is widely used as a hand sanitizer and became the quasi-official national cure for dealing with the Corona crisis following the public declaration of Turkey’s Minister of Health that citizens should use kolonya to protect themselves from the Coronavirus. Whereas 90.4% of respondents in Turkey said that they used kolonya, only 9.2 percent of respondents in Germany did so. In contrast to Turkey, where the disinfectant effect of Eau de Cologne was the main reason given for its current use, in Germany, this effect was rarely quoted (if at all known). In Turkey, Eau de Cologne is traditionally offered to guests in a gesture of welcome and hospitality. In Germany, according to our survey, it is rather associated with “traditionalism” and regarded as something used by the elderly or previous generations.

Covid-19 in Turkey and Germany and hygienic measures more generally

As of today (August 4), the official number of COVID-19 cases stands at 233.851 confirmed cases and 5.747 deaths in Turkey and 212.328 confirmed cases and 9.161 deaths in Germany (see the COVID-19 map by the John Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center). Both countries were among the top ten of countries with the highest number of infections globally at the beginning of the pandemic but managed to eventually “flatten the curve,” starting so-called normalization processes in early May. State measures of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic differed greatly, with the German government imposing lockdown measures that varied between its different federal states and the Turkish government imposing a total curfew for those 65 years of age or older and the chronically ill on March 21, which in early April extended to those under the age of 20. Whereas an overwhelming majority of 98.4 percent of respondents in Turkey agreed with the statement that “the current situation demands substantial hygienic measures, including the sanitization of public buildings and streets,” only 34.2 percent of respondents living in Germany did so. Whereas not a single respondent in Turkey opposed the statement, 42.1 percent of respondents in Germany did. More ethnographic research and data analysis is needed to further explain these and many other findings, including the reservations regarding some hygienic measures in Germany especially, which are most likely linked to the historical connotation of the notion of “hygiene” in Germany and political concerns.

In both Germany and Turkey, our survey finds, respondents’ worries about their own and relatives’ health, their economic, professional and financial situation have increased since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Given that the pandemic has made visible and/or exacerbated political conflicts and social inequalities, it is perhaps of little surprise that the number of those, who reported “great worries” about the global-political situation in both countries has doubled. At the very end of our survey, we asked respondents how they evaluated the hygienic measures taken up by the state to fight the spread of COVID-19. Here again, there were clear differences between respondents living in Germany and Turkey: respondents in Germany tended to be rather or very satisfied (60.5 percent) with the hygienic measures taken up by the state, as opposed to just 9.2 percent who were unsatisfied. In Turkey, respondents were divided almost equally between those, who were satisfied (27.1 percent) and those who were unsatisfied (33.9 percent), with a relatively large number of respondents choosing not to respond to this question or opting for “neither/nor, I don’t know” (42.4 percent). The many open answers to our question about the reasons for satisfaction or dissatisfaction with state hygienic measures spoke of a great deal of concern and reflection among our respondents. Many expressed their sense of appreciation for often far-reaching hygienic measures, authorities’ lack of control (in Germany) or reluctance to impose lockdown measures (in Turkey) and were concerned about other persons’ irresponsible behaviour.

Trained as a social and cultural anthropologist who believes in qualitative rather than quantitative data and loves to engage in ethnographic research rather than online surveys, for me these outcomes are just the beginning for more thorough research. Nevertheless, they offer many interesting insights into the dealings with the current crisis, the transformation in everyday lives and bodily practices, as well as olfactorial, hygienic and political concerns in Germany and Turkey.

Stay tuned for more findings and research outcomes!

A great thank you to all of those, who participated in the survey!

The smell of Covid-19: notes from Berlin during the lockdown

Shortly before the beginning of the Coronavirus lockdowns, I embarked on a new project on the social and cultural configurations of smell. While originally, I planned to focus on perfuming and deodorising in relation to cultural notions of beauty, what came to the fore in both my everyday life and the scholarly literature that I read, was the smell of hygiene –subsequently giving rise to a new research focus and the name of this blog. In this post, I would like to assemble a few research notes and observations on smell in coronatimes and my changing smellscape, living in Berlin during the Covid-19 lockdown. Does the pandemic smell, and how? What are the olfactorial shifts that I noted? In writing about these things, I also grapple with another question, perhaps the most difficult of all, namely, how to write about and record smell and odours?

Smell is ephemeral and cannot be recorded like sound or vision. Moreover, the language we have to describe smell is rather poor. Reading on the role of smell and odours in medical history and history more generally, as I currently do, I cannot help but think that over the past century or two our capability to detect and articulate odours has become even poorer. Not least, I’m certainly not ‘a nose’ (un nez in French), as they say in the French perfumery industry studied by Bruno Latour for an article published in 2004. That is, like most of us, I’ve never been systematically trained and educated in detecting, articulating or creating odours and scents respectively.

One of the first things that come to my mind when thinking about the relation between smell and Covid-19 is the relation between smell and the virus itself. Thus, a loss or a changed sense of smell is one of the effects of the coronavirus, as noted by the World Health Organisation. Rather late, on May 18, the British NHS officially added the loss or changed sense of smell to its list of coronavirus symptoms. Here, the loss of smell is described as ‘unpleasant,’ though usually ‘not serious;’ nevertheless, the experiences of those suffering from this loss, called anosmia, speak of a serious irritation. The olfactorial power of the virus, however, is twofold: what is less widely known is that the virus also produces a particular kind of smell. While this smell is undetectable for humans, even ‘the noses’ described by Latour, in the past few weeks, dogs trained by researchers at the University of Helsinki have succeeded in sniffing out Covid-19 patients by distinguishing between different urine samples.

Blossoming cherry tree along the canal in Treptow donated from Japan in 1990 (photo: C. Liebelt)

Moreover, there are changes in the urban smellscape that are related to the Covid-19 shutdown rather than the virus itself. No longer taking the subway to the university or squeezing into the bus to take my daughter to school in the mornings, my personal everyday smellscape has certainly changed quite dramatically in the past few months. Staying at home most days and keeping physical distance while shopping, I’m hardly ever confronted with the bodily smells of others from close up. Moreover, in the first few weeks, with traffic in the neighbourhood coming almost to a standstill, there was an incredible improvement in the air quality that could not only be heard, but also smelled. Thus, I wonder whether the dramatic change in the urban soundscape during the shutdown –chirping birds, rather than traffic– contributed to a general intensification of attentiveness and sensorial experiences such as the olfactorial, reported by many of my interlocutors and experienced myself?

The period of shutdowns also coincided with the arrival of spring in Berlin and during April and May, intensive musky and floral scents were carried through the air. Not far from where I live, the 45 cherry trees planted in 1990 along the former border between East and West Berlin by a Japanese TV channel as part of the so-called Sakura Campaign to mark the reunification of Germany started blossoming and I walked there almost daily to indulge in this visual and olfactorial spectacle.

Unbranded hand sanitizer in a restaurant in Berlin-Charlottenburg in mid-May (photo: C. Liebelt)

A novel smell that came to dominate the smellscape of our apartment building and indeed, of many public and commercial buildings, is the smell of cleaning and sanitizing agents. In mid-March, in the beginning of the lockdown in Berlin, one of our neighbours used an extensive amount of sanitizing agent to disinfect the staircase and door knobs. Its acid smell continued to waft in the building for days. In the weeks that followed, I heard and smelled a lot of cleaning going on in our neighbours’ apartments. Similar to what has been reported for the epidemics of the 19th and 20th century (as described, for example, in Corbin’s masterful The Foul and the Fragrant) in confronting the pandemic, many of our neighbours obviously resorted to purifying and deodorizing their private spaces.

Newly discovered imported tobacco-scented Eau de Cologne from our Turkish corner shop (photo: C. Liebelt)

Now was the time to take stock of the hand sanitizers that we had at home: there was one in the car, an antiseptic in the bathroom, a couple of Sagrotan® cloths in the medicine cabinet.. To my taste, they all smelled rather horrid. I wondered, will their olfactorial attack on my nose affect my ability to smell? While ‘medical’ disinfectants were sold out almost everywhere, they nevertheless became ubiquitous, especially in their acrid olfactorial presence. Friends, who had rarely ever used hand sanitizers before, now carried them along in their handbags and increasingly used them. Many Turkish friends used traditional Eau de Cologne, rediscovered in Turkey as hand sanitizer due to its high alcohol content. Even my partner acquired a tobacco-scented Eau de Cologne, the classical kolonya used during his teenage years in Istanbul, from our Turkish corner shop. Another friend, whom I met for occasional walks around the block, used lemon-scented spectacle cloths to sanitise her hands. After mid-May, cafés and restaurants, offices, museums, libraries and even swimming pools and sport and fitness clubs reopened, given their so-called ‘hygiene plans’ had been approved by the municipality. Hand sanitizers for employees and customers/ visitors formed an important part of these. Again, I noted that many Turkish-owned cafés and restaurants use scented kolonya instead of ‘medical’ hand sanitizers, creating a different olfactorial atmosphere altogether.

Hand sanitizer offered at the entrance of the municipal library in Berlin-Neukölln; the sign reads ‘Please disinfect your hands’ (photo: C. Liebelt)

Now that we enter month four of the Covid-19 lockdown in Berlin, things are slowly returning to a fragile and different kind of normal everyday life. Cars and buses are back in the streets and with them, traffic emissions and exhaust smell. However, the smell of cleaning and sanitizing agents, I suppose, will stay with us for quite another while.

Celebrating the Feast of Sweet Smells and Tastes during Corona times

From 23–24 May, Muslims all over the world celebrated Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of four weeks of fasting during the month of Ramadan. In Turkey and the Turkish Muslim diaspora, the holiday is commonly known as Ramazan Bayramı or Şeker Bayramı, the “Feast of Sweets,” due to the fact that upon visiting relatives, friends and neighbours, one is awarded candy, chocolates and other traditional sweets such as Turkish Delight.

While I was able to observe the holiday preparations and visits of neighbouring families in Berlin-Neukölln where I live, a district well-known for its large Turkish diaspora community, I had to resort to virtual ethnography to get a sense of how this year’s holiday was celebrated in Turkey. I am especially interested in the changed role of Eau de Cologne and scents during the holiday. Thus, during bayram, visitors are not only awarded candy, but also –in a traditional gesture of welcome and as a sign of hospitality– Eau de Cologne, called kolonya in Turkish. Its use certainly did change in the past few weeks, as is confirmed by countless twitter postings under the hashtag of #kolonya in recent weeks. As one user, Mine Karakoç expresses on twitter on the evening of the holiday, ‘This holiday, kolonya has a different meaning!’

Due to its disinfectant effect, alcohol-based kolonya has recently assumed the role of a staple in everyday life and subsequently, local demand and prices have been skyrocketing. At the same time, for most people in Turkey, the holiday more generally was celebrated quite differently this year: whereas the Turkish government has so far refrained from stringent Covid-19 lockdowns but resorted to weekend curfews in some provinces as well as movement restriction orders for children and the elderly, shortly before the holiday, it announced a strict and nationwide four-day lockdown.

Buying Eau de Cologne for Eid al-Fitr this year (screenshot from a youtube posting)

In preparation of the feast this year, families obviously still went shopping for candies and Eau de Cologne. However, as this youtube video posting of an urban middle class family shows, the shopping was done with rubber gloves and masks. Left alone at home due to the Covid-19 regulations, the couple’s daughter nevertheless directs her parents’ buying decisions via WhatsApp. Filming his tour through the supermarket with his smart phone, the father disappointedly exclaims: ‘I would have loved to get some nice scents for the holiday, but there’s nothing left. Should we get some lemon kolonya, then? The daughter, via the mother’s smart phone, agrees and he picks one for 14 TL.

Many bayram postings on twitter invoked the celebrations of former times, such as a user named Bihter Fidangül, who posted a Turkish state television spot from 1988 wondering ‘where have the old bayram celebrations gone?’ The spot features holiday greetings from a number of Turkish celebrities as well as a typical bayram scene, with younger family members ritually greeting older relatives by kissing their extended hands and touching their forehead as well as a female host offering candies to a group of seated guests.

In the weeks before the holiday, many producers of fragrances and scents launched advertisements that directly refered to the Covid-19 related changes. For example, the video commercial for Selin Limon Kolonyası, a lemon-scented Eau de Cologne produced by a family firm in Izmir, states:

‘This holiday, in our Eau de Cologne, there’s not only your beloved smell of lemon. This holiday, it also includes the smell of your beloved grandparents and great grandparents, who you cannot go to visit. It also includes the smell of the feast table. It also includes the smell of sweets from your homeland [memleket], where you cannot go. This holiday, our Eau de Cologne includes the scents of our loved ones, the ones we miss and the ones we wait for as well as of upcoming beautiful days. Selin Eau de Cologne wishes a happy holiday to all of Turkey!’

One of many postings on twitter this Eid al-Fitr, combining the seasonal greetings with a picture of bottled Eau de Cologne.

Like many others, journalist Ercan Küçük posts his holiday greetings on twitter (on 24 May 2020, 3:39 pm) alongside a picture of his personal kolonya assortment. Among the 14 bottles of all kinds of styles and sizes sitting on a beige sofa, there are the usual scents, such as lemon, rose and olive flowers, as well as one that I’ve never seen before: hamsi kolonyası, an anchovy-scented Eau de Cologne, produced in the Black Sea town of Trabzon. I wonder what it smells like? Was this part of a panic buying as they have been reported for Turkey in March, or is this rather the effect of missing one’s home region (the Black Sea region is famous for its delicious anchovy dishes)?

Finally, I come across a youtube video of a team of the Turkish Red Crescent, walking through the emptied town of Hakkari, on the Turkish Iraqi border, on a rainy day, offering drops of Eau de Cologne and candy to those they meet outside, mostly soldiers and policemen. These images of colourful candy and Eau de Cologne in an atmosphere of ghostly tristesse and melancholy linger on.

Buying hand sanitizer in my local pharmacy

In mid-May, I enter my local pharmacy in Berlin-Neukölln to buy hand sanitizer. Right next to the cashier a handwritten sign announces the sale of hand sanitizers: 100 ml for 5 EUR, 200 ml for 10 EUR. I ask for a small bottle, telling the pharmacist that hand sanitizers are still unavailable at dm, a large drugstore chain in Germany. The pharmacist tells me that I shouldn’t rely on the hand sanitizer offered there, because they are merely bactericidal, not virucidal. It simply doesn’t affect the coronavirus. In contrast, their hand sanitizer is based on the recommendation of the WHO. I ask about the ingredients and he explains that it is basically alcohol mixed with water; they used propanol to reduce skin dehydration. He explains that in order to be effective and similar to hand-washing, hand sanitizer has to be rubbed until completely absorbed, for about thirty seconds.

I ask when they started producing hand sanitizers? He explains that they used to produce hand sanitizers, but a couple of years ago, due to a change in regulations, were no longer allowed to do so. On March 4, the Federal Office for Chemicals issued a new decree in reaction to the spread of Covid-19, which allowed pharmacies to produce their own hand sanitizers once more. Ever since, this decree has been updated several times and most recently also includes the right to produce surface sanitizers.

In early March, he recounts, they hardly managed to produce and bottle sanitizers in sufficient numbers and even alcohol was increasingly difficult to come by. Indeed, in mid-March, the business magazine Capital reported that breweries and cosmetic firms world-wide started producing hand sanitizers to help ease the shortage.

Throughout March, my local pharmacy sold four items almost exclusively, the pharmacist tells me: Paracetamol, hand sanitizers, gloves, and facial masks. Now things are returning back to normal, the pharmacist says.

Their hand sanitizer comes in a plain white plastic bottle with a printed label on it. The production and expiry dates are hand written: according to the label, mine was produced on April 29, 2020 and is best before April 29, 2021. It has an acrid smell to it.

Katılım Daveti

Korona pandemisi sırasında Türkiye ve Almanya’da Hijyenin Kokusu konulu antropolojik araştırma projemiz için 18- 99 yaş arası, koku, hijyen, dezenfeksyon maddeleri hakkında günlük deneyim, gözlem ve anılarını bizimle paylaşmaya hazır katılımcılar arıyoruz.

Katılım için önkoşul 10 hafta boyunca konu ile ilgili haftalık fotoğraf, yazı yada ses kayıtlarından oluşacak bir günlük tutmayı kabul etmek. Bu veriler E-mail ya da Whatsapp üzerinden, Almanca, Türkçe ya da İngilizce olarak tarafımıza iletilebilir.

Bize gönderilen bilgi ve deneyimlerinizden her hafta bir tanesi derlenip seçilecek ve araştırmanın internet blogunda paylaşacağız.

Elde edilen veriler anonim olarak yayınlanacak ve kişisel veriler kesinlikle bir başkasıyla paylaşılmayacak. Katılımcılara araştırmanın sonuçlarının derlendiği kitabı projenin sonunda teşekkür olarak göndereceğiz.

Araştırma başlamadan önce sizinle yaklaşık 20 dakikalık bir online görüşme yapmak isteriz.

Araştırmamız ilginizi çektiyse, sorularınız ve katılım ayrıntıları için bize cultures_of_hygiene@uni-bayreuth.de adresinden E-mail ile ulaşabilirsiniz.

Proje ile ilgili ayrıntılı bilgi edinmek için internet sitemizi ziyaret edebilirsiniz: https://www.ethnologie.uni-bayreuth.de/de/forschung/forschungsprojekte/liebelt_olfaktorien-der-Hygiene_tuerkisch/index.html

About this project

Taking the use of hand sanitizers during the COVID-19 pandemics in Turkey and Germany as a starting point, this projects seeks to analyze the social, cultural and affective configurations of sanitization, bodily hygiene and smell. Drawing on an online survey, Auto- and virtual ethnography (including video interviews, participant observation in social media) as well as the keeping of diaries by selected research participants, Olfactories of Hygiene seeks to enable a deeper understanding of the bodily sensual and everyday hygienic practices in relation to different public containment measures. Moreover, it will contribute to conceptual debates in the anthropology of the senses and science and technology studies, such as, will post-Pasteurianism (cf. Paxson 2008) receive a setback during the COVID-19 pandemics? In what ways are the notions of hygiene and sanitations related to sensorial affects, or: does sanitized modernity smell, or is it rather odourless? What do the smells of cleaning and disinfecting agents remind us of? How do we relate to and what do we associate with cleanliness and disinfection?

Due to the global outbreak of COVID-19 practices of bodily hygiene, cleanliness and sanitation have achived new meanings in their everyday uses. While in many contexts, medical hand sanitizers were quickly sold out, in some, the disinfectant effect of perfumed alcohol-based Eau de Cologne have been rediscovered: For example, in Turkey, so-called kolonya, traditionally associated with hospitality and used in particular social situations, has assumed new meanings and now stands for a cultural understanding of hygiene and self-conscious self-sufficiency. Since early April, millions of Turkish citizens aged 65 and older have received Eau de Cologne as part of a COVID-19 emergency kit from the government. This has sent output figures and prices of locally produced Eau de Cologne skyrocketing. In Germany, olfactory displays of hygiene and cleanliness function in different ways. While it is here that Eau de Cologne first became popular during the 18th century, more recently, its use has been considered rather old fashioned, a thing one’s grandmother might still use. The hand sanitizers agents increasingly provided in shopping malls and public offices in Germany are commonly non-perfumed or smell of their chloride or alcohol-based ingredients.

The Turkish government’s COVID-19 emergency package containing face masks, Eau de Cologne and a letter from the President sent out to citizens above the age of 65 since April 2020 (photo: İhlas News Agency).

Olfactories of Hygiene aims at studying the everyday practices and multi-sensorial meanings and affects of bodily hygiene, sanitation and smell in relation to cleaning and disinfecting agents during times of rapid societal change. How are bodily hygiene and cleanliness manufactured and what is the role of smell in these processes? How have these practices changed in Germany and Turkey during the COVID-19 pandemic? What kind of affects, emotions and meanings are ascribed to different notions of hygiene and cleanliness? What are the material and immaterial effects on sanitizing practices? In what ways are the Olfactories of Hygiene bound up with intersectional categorizations of age, class, gender and ethnicity? And finally, what are the public politics of hygiene in Turkey and Germany and in what ways are these tied to what could be called olfactorial politics? To sum up, the research project seeks to contribute not only to scholarly debates, but also to highly relevant sociopolitical understandings of everyday olfactorial practices of hygiene.


Heather Paxson 2008. ‘Post-Pasteurian Cultures: The Microbiopolitics of Raw-Milk Cheese in the United States.’ Cultural Anthropology, 23(1): 15–47.

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