Centre of the rose industry                 Population: 210,000

Isparta1Market day: Wednesday and Sunday

Most famous son: Süleyman Demirel (1924 - -)

Midway between Lakes Burdur and Eğirdir in Western Anatolia lies Isparta, one of Turkey’s many easily overlooked inland towns.

Because its name sounds so like “Sparta” it’s almost impossible for anyone brought up on the stories of Ancient Greece not to prick up their ears whenever it’s mentioned. But of course Isparta is nothing like Sparta (the name is a corruption of the Psidian “Baris”). Instead it’s one of those places that most travelers whisk past on their way to smaller and more immediately inviting Eğirdir.

But for anyone who does bother to stop and take a look round Isparta may turn out to be a pleasant surprise. It’s one of a growing number of small inland towns that exudes a comfortable air of self-confidence, its tree-lined streets framed sometimes by the usual dull apartment blocks but sometimes by duplexes and triplexes built on a more human scale that suggest the existence of a stable and prosperous middle class. 

Around town

At first glance the town centre is not especially promising. Right at its heart in Kaymakkapı Meydanı stands a statue of Isparta’s most famous son, Suleyman Dermirel, five-times prime minister of Turkey and later the ninth president, tipping his hat to passers-by in trademark fashion.Demirel

Demirel was born in the nearby village of İslamköy which duly hosts a small museum to him. Not altogether surprisingly, every other street and public buliding is also named after him.

Scattered around the main square are most of Isparta’s more interesting buildings. They include a pleasant, if unspectacular, Ulu Cami dating back to 1417 and the Firdevs Bey Cami which was built in 1561 and is sometimes attributed to the great Ottoman architect Sinan, as is the adjoining bedesten (covered market).

Also worth a quick look is the dainty porticoed Kavaklı Cami (Prophet Mosque) which was built in 1782-3 and incorporates some Kütahya tiles in its facade. 

It’s also worth spending a few hours poking about in the back streets. Until the 1923 population exchange Isparta had a large “Greek” population and many of their lovely wooden houses still survive, albeit in a shocking state of neglect.

To find then you should head for Gazikemal Mahallesi, where, in street upon street of erstwhile Ottoman finery, Isparta’s poorest residents now make their homes. Many of the houses here come with tall stone walls, solid wooden gates and overhanging red-tiled roofs so that they look like country houses which have somehow strayed into town.

IspartahosAmid the wreckage is one short pedestrianized street where several of the houses have been restored with varying degrees of sensitivity.

In one of them the famous Islamic thinker and philosopher Said Nursi (1878-1960) lived for the last 10 years of his life. His house is now open to the public although the arrangements for visiting are hardly user-friendly. It’s not possible, for example, for a lone woman to enter while there are male visitors present, and women must also dress in the same way as they would to enter a mosque.

However, if you do venture inside you will find a typically Ottoman-style house which will seem surprisingly devoid of furnishings to Western eyes. On display here are are some of Nursi’s clothes and personal effects as well as a collection of his books, which have been translated into numerous languages. Also preserved here are some poignant children’s books written in Arabic which were retrieved from the nearby mountain village of Barla.IspartaSN

Isparta has a fine local museum (closed Mondays) although its location, on a residential back street, means that virtually no casual visitor is going to stumble upon This is a great shame because for a small museum it houses a very interesting collection of items. (In May 2015 it was closed for restoration.)

As ever, they are divided into two separate sections, one archaeological, the other ethnographic. The archaeological section houses the finds from Seleucia-in-Sidera and from the great Roman site of Adada, high in the mountains above Eğirdir, as well as an assortment of rather cute Roman gravestones.

It also showcases some vast ceramic urns from the Early Bronze Age Harmanören cemetery that were dug up during recent road-widening works north-west of Isparta. The dead were apparently buried inside these pots along with their most precious possessions.

For those saddened by the abject condition of the old Ottoman houses, one corner of the museum has been set up to show what their living rooms would have looked like in their heyday when they were adorned with some gorgeous wooden carvings. An upstairs gallery also displays a dazzling selection of the sort of Isparta carpets which you are unlikely to find on offer in local carpet shops tday.

DSC08314Yet another corner of the museum celebrates the town’s main claim to contemporary fame, the tiny pink roses which, when harvested, are used to make attar of roses, the strong-smelling oil used for perfume.  

The roses were brought here by Bulgarians who moved to the area in the late 19th century, bringing with them the distilling technology that they had grown up with. Today most rose oil is produced in large modern factories, although it’s still possible to find it being made in old-fashioned stills in some of the surrounding villages. If you look carefully at the bits and pieces dotting the small park off Demirel Bulvarı you will recognize several battered old stills stripped of their function and turned into frippery decoration.

Down the road from the museum is Isparta Railway Station with, standing outside it, a magnificent old steam locomotive, sadly no longer in service. Around the station are several fine examples of old railway architecture, including an impressive stone water tower about which the locals appear to know nothing at all.

Out on the east side of town near the Devlet Hastanesi (State Hospital) the remains of two enormous stone churches, St Payana and St George (1857-860), are a reminder of the Greek population that was lost in 1924.

Finally, if it’s a sunny day and you feel like picnicking it’s worth hopping on a bus and heading one km south to Gökçay Mesireliği (Gökçay Picnic Place). Here in a beautifully landscaped park stand several fine new restaurants as well as a lake, all offering views out over Isparta. Here, too, there is an amphitheatre where, in the first few days of May, the rose harvest is celebrated with a festival offering fireworks, folk dancing and a sprawling outdoor bazaar.


Hotel Bolat

Basmacıoğlu Otel. Tel: 0246-223 7900

Barida Hotel. Tel: 0246-500 2525

Transport info

There are regular buses to Isparta from Konya and Antalya as well as minbuses from nearby Eğirdir (34km). The minibuses end up at the Köy Garaj making connections difficult. Only a few transit the town centre. 

The otogar is on the outskirts of town with shuttle buses running into the centre. Local buses leave from a separate otogar, the Köy Garaj, in an equally out of the way location. Getting between the two is time-consuming. In May 2015 there was talk of moving the main otogar out towards the eastern area around the Süleyman Demirel University. 

Burdur buses leave from the main otogar rather than the Köy Garaj. Ağalsun buses for Sagalassos leave from the Köy Garaj.

Day trip destinations






Seleucia in Sidera

Read more: http://www.todayszaman.com/news-319562-three-great-lake-towns-exploring-burdur-egirdir-and-isparta.html

This article about the rose-growing industry first appeared in Sunday’s Zaman in 2007


At 5 o’clock in the morning, before most people have even opened their eyes Dudu and her 20-year-old daughter Hatice are already hard at work in the Isparta rose fields. Wearing fingerless gloves to protect their hands and sacks tied like aprons around their waists, they work methodically along the rows, plucking the small pink blooms of the Turkish damask rose (Rosa damascena triqintapetala), one of only five rose species in the world that can be used to make rose oil. The roses must be picked early in the morning when their scent is at its strongest, and Dudu, Hatice and the many other women like them form the backbone of an industry worth a fortune to Isparta.

Picking roses sounds quite romantic until you actually try it, whereupon its less glamorous side is quickly revealed. The gloves may protect the women from the thorns, but nothing can save them from having to bend for the blooms on the lowest branches and stretch for those on the highest. At first light the sun is pleasantly warm but by 9am the sweat is already trickling down their backs and work finishes for the day. On rainy mornings the sandy soil thickens into mud. And then there are the bees. As the sun gets into its stride so do these anti-social insects who buzz jealously around the flowers. “Last year I was stung by a bee and my whole hand swelled up,” Hatice tells me. “My mother calls their sting a kiss, but I had an allergic reaction and couldn’t work for two days.”Ispartapickers

Dudu has been picking roses for five years, Hatice for only two. Together they pluck between 45 and 70 kilograms a day, which sounds a lot until you learn that it takes 40 kilograms of petals to make just 10 millilitres of rose oil. Their labor earns them between YTL15 and YTL25, and by the time they go home for breakfast it looks as if a plague of locusts has worked its way through the field. After them, a second set of women go through the sacks and remove all the pieces of stalk.

“You can sit down to do that,” Hatice says which makes the work a good deal less onerous. Inevitably, however, the pay is lower, so she and her mother prefer to brave the bee stings.

Isparta’s roses are mainly grown in small family-owned fields. They flower between mid-May and mid-June which is peak season for the rose industry. It is also the time when Joanna Klein Woterink, the vivacious Dutch “Queen of the Roses” brings study groups to Turkey to learn how rose oil is extracted from the petals.

IspartrosetourI meet Joanna at the family-owned Sebat factory in Senir on the shores of Lake Burdur. An aromatherapist by profession, she first came to Turkey’s Lake District in 1998 and quickly fell in love with with the Isparta rose. In her wanderings around local villages she found some people still extracting rose oil in the traditional way, using large copper stills. Impressed, she approached the Sebat factory where Hasan Ali Kinacı, the owner’s son, readily agreed to install a still in the grounds. Nowadays it is used to make rose oil in the old-fashioned way on two days of the week.

I find Joanna at the factory with a group of half a dozen Dutch rose enthusiasts. What for Dudu and Hatice is just work is for them a chance to take a hands-on holiday. “We’re all very tired,” Joanna says apologetically, “Because we got up early to help with the picking.”

While group members retreat to a village house to sleep off their exertions, Joanna guides me through the traditional distillation process with the help of Sami, an elderly villager who learned to make rose oil in his childhood. Now he has come out of retirement to pass on his knowledge to these rather unlikely visitors from Europe.

The process of water vapour distillation turns out to be surprisingly straightforward. First roses are placed inside the stills with plenty of water. Then they are heated slowly to just below boiling point. The steam given off is directed into pipes running through a trough of cold water so that it cools and condenses. As it drips slowly down into a glass jar, the precious rose oil forms a paper-thin layer on top of a much larger quantity of rose water. Then the liquid is returned to the still and reheated, and the whole process begins again. This second distillation is the one that ends up in the shops as rose oil for aromotherapy, and rose water for skin care and food flavouring.

Of course even at Sebat most production is carried out in modern factory conditions. I watch as big sacks stuffed with roses arrive in trucks to be offloaded onto conveyor belts and whisked into the factory. There a great sea of pink petals spreads out across the floor. “If you leave the roses inside the sacks they quickly heat up and start to ferment,” Joanna explains, her sensitive nose twitching at the very thought.  To prevent this from happening the roses are spread out on the floor to air until their turn comes for distillation. It makes an extraordinary sight and the scent is almost overwhelming. “Sometimes people in my groups are reduced to crying by the power of the roses,” Joanna says as she sweeps up great handfuls of petals.

The modern rose-oil factory resembles a milking parlour, all stainless steel vats and pipes to distil the  products as quickly and efficiently as possible. In his airy office nearby I meet Hüseyin Kınacı, the man behind Sebat. He and his jolly wife Faden tried their hands at all sorts of other businesses before finally settling for rose oil. Almost 20 years later, they and their sons run a thriving concern that exports to  Europe and the US. Mr Kınacı tells me that he has 43 people working for him at the height of the season, although only 16 of them work year round; the rest are farmers and builders topping up their income when the rush is on. Recently he has noticed a big increase in the popularity of organic produce. “When we started,” he says, “organic roses formed a very small part of the business. Now it is roughly 50-50.”Ispartastills

Sebat is a relatively small operation, but elsewhere in the Lakes there are much bigger factories including the four owned by the Rose Cooperative (Gülbirlik), a company that started business in 1954 and now runs to four separate sites. At the factory I meet general manager Tangut Çetin. He tells me about Gülbirlik’s flourishing cosmetics business, Rosense, which exports perfumes, shampoos, creams and lotions to countries as far afield as Azerbaijan and Vietnam. “The Arabs are especially fond of roses,” he says, “so we also do a lot of business with them.”

Until 50 years ago when it was replaced in popularity by lemon cologne, many Turks used rose water as a scent with which to sprinkle the hands of guests. Mr Çetin hands me a glass of blush-pink drink. “In Ottoman times rose-flavoured şerbet was also very popular,” he says. “Then Coca-Cola came along and everyone stopped drinking it. This year we have started making gül şurubu (rose syrup). We hope it will be popular especially with people who don’t want to drink alcohol.” Served with ice, the syrup turns out to be deliciously refreshing. They could be onto a winner, I think.

Isparta high street is one long homage to the rose. Gülbirlik has a shop there, a classy place, full of skin creams and body lotions in tasteful Clarins-style packaging. Elsewhere, however, everything is bright Barbie pink. Shop windows positively glow with everything rosy, and the shelves are weighed down with rose cologne, rose soap, rose lokum (Turkish delight), rose candles and rose jam. The scent is overpowering, and some of the colouring remarkably synthetic.

Back at Sebat, Joanna’s rose study group have recovered from their morning’s exertions and are learning to make jam under the supervision of Mrs Kınacı. Under close observation she stirs sugar and water into a saucepan, adds lemon and then feeds in the rose petals. The end product is sweet and thin, and very tasty provided you don’t mind the slightly unnerving sight of rose petals on your bread.

For a few brief weeks the Lake District lives and breathes roses. Every other woman I bump into seems to be helping an aunt or cousin pick the harvest, and they smile at the scratches on my arms, a badge of honour which marks me out as one of them. Out in the fields Dudu and Hatice have just a few more days to fill their apron pockets with roses. Then another season will come to an end, and Dudu will move onto the cherries while Hatice returns home to prepare tea and dream of her wedding day.


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