Perfumes of Ancient Egypt
Stakte, Susinum, Cyprinum, the Mendesian. Once upon a time, those names resonated with the impact of Opium or Chanel Number Five. And for good reason: up until and during the first few centuries of the Common Era, Egypt was the prestigious center of an international perfume industry. Although perfumes were created and mass-marketed elsewhere in the ancient world, it was Egypt that was most renowned and identified with the international perfume trade. Egypt was so identified with perfume that during Julius Caesar's Roman triumphs, perfume bottles were tossed to the crowd to demonstrate his mastery over Egypt.
Fragrance was common and accessible throughout Egypt; perfume was not. Beautifully scented flowers were readily accessible in the Nile River valley to even the humblest individuals. We know from artifacts and art that the Egyptians were fond of floral garlands, much in the manner of today's Hawaiian lei. However, perfume was an expensive luxury item created in Egypt for the elite and for export.
As befitting a luxury item, the Egyptians taste in perfume ran towards the exotic. Perfume formulae remain to us; although we have countless images of lotuses being worn and sniffed, nowhere does this indigenous and, at that time, common flower appear in perfumery recipes. Instead, imports like myrrh, frankincense, cinnamon and cassia were favored. With the sole exception of timber, fragrant materials were ancient Egypt's top import. With these materials, precious, lavish fragrances were created and then exported throughout the ancient world. Because these materials had to be transported over great distances, the most popular perfumes were created from hardy components: resins and roots.
At least as far as packaging goes, what the Egyptians would have called perfume would be recognizable to us, meaning that specific and reasonably consistent formulas were created and marketed. In other words, if you were to go perfume shopping today, let's say to purchase a bottle of "Miss Dior," you would possess certain expectations of what that product should look and smell like. In much the same way, back in ancient days, were you to purchase a bottle of Susinum, the famed and very popular fragrance based upon the aroma of lilies, you would also have expectations of fragrance and appearance.
Beyond expectations, there was also a standard of excellence to meet. Thus international debate of the time centered on exactly who made the finest Cyprinum, a fragrance based upon the scent of henna (Lawsonia inermis): the perfumers of Egypt (specifically those from Canopus) versus their competition from Ashkelon, Cyprus or Sidon? (Both Pliny and Dioscorides believed the Egyptian product to be superior over all others.)
Ancient perfumes were marketed in elaborate luxurious containers. Just as today, attractive and eye-catching packaging was an integral aspect of the luxury perfume experience. Alabaster, according to Pliny, was the finest material for storing scent. Large quantities of varied perfume bottles have been excavated. Among the cargo excavated from the Ulu Barun shipwreck (named after the Turkish town near where the ship was discovered), were bars of blue glass. This glass is so similar to the cobalt-blue glass beloved by modern aromatherapists that it's quite tempting to speculate that they would have been turned into blue perfume bottles. (The ship, laden with fragrant materials, apparently sank on its way to Egypt, bearing botanical cargo for further processing. The date of the voyage has been approximated based upon the discovery on the ship of a golden signet ring bearing Nefertiti's cartouche.)
Just as the ancient customer held reasonable expectations of a product, so the ancient perfumer held clear goals:
The finished product had to be reasonably consistent: one bottle of Susinum was expected to be reasonably identical with any other.
The finished product could not turn rancid.
The finished product had to maintain a lengthy shelf life.
It was the consistent fulfillment of these three goals that created the fame and reputation of ancient Egyptian perfumers. Bottles of Susinum or the Mendesian were renowned for retaining their scent for as long as twenty years. Modern consumers take those goals for granted. Think about it: if you were to buy a bottle of Chanel, Joy or Guerlain today, and if you care it for it reasonably properly, keeping it tightly capped and out of direct sunlight, wouldn't you automatically assume that the fragrance would last and linger for years? The ancient customer held the same expectations. The finest Egyptian perfumes filled the same luxury niche that fine French fragrances hold today. Purchasers knew that they could depend upon them not only for their beautiful fragrance but also because they were consistent and enduring. The ancient perfumer was more than a craftsperson: he (or she) was an artist. The key to long lasting, consistent fragrance came in knowing which ingredients to blend together, in what order and in precisely what quantity.
The Egyptians used three methods of releasing fragrance. Perhaps the oldest method was via burning. This technique is evoked and recalled in the modern word perfume, literally "through smoke." Fragrant materials could also be added to oils or to animal fats (goose, ox or pork) or fruit pastes, like the legendary kyphi, a temple fragrance, which was based upon raisins. As you can imagine, these fragrances would have felt different from what we call perfume today.
Perfume balls sit atop the head
Unguents, fragrant ointments or pastes, are similar to what we know today as solid perfume or perfumed cream. Because they are liquid, perfumed oils are perhaps closest to the texture associated with modern perfume.
Oil alone was considered a necessity of life in Egypt's arid climate. Even the common working man typically received a daily allocation of oil, amongst his wages, The addition of scent, however, transformed a daily necessity into a luxury.
Although the Egyptians had access to some twenty-one different types of vegetable oil, two were favored above all others by the ancient perfumers: balanos and ben. An oil would be favored for two reasons. First, the oil itself would have to possess a bland, pleasing aroma so as to cause minimal interference with the anticipated final fragrance. In addition, oils that retained fragrance longest, helping to sustain the fragrance over an extended period of time, would be preferred. Balanos oil was derived from the fruit of the Balanites aegyptiaca tree. Although the tree can still be found in Egypt, it is rare and as far as I can tell, no modern oil is derived on any kind of commercial scale.
The ancient perfumer's other favored choice was ben oil, also variously known as moringa, behen, baq or horseradish tree oil (Moringa pterygosperma or M. aptera.) Ben oil was a popular choice, used not only for perfumery but also for various therapeutic purposes. (It was favored in facial skin care.) Unlike balanos, ben oil is once again a component of the perfume trade, grown and extracted in India, from whence it is shipped to Parisian perfume manufacturers. Ben oil is indeed light, pleasantly fragrant and highly absorbent. The scent of the essential oils added to it were vivid and long lasting while the oil itself seemed to disappear quickly, leaving no greasy heavy feeling behind on the skin.
Ancient perfumes were traditionally named for their town of origin or their main ingredient. Thus the Mendesian is named after the ancient city of Mendes, although eventually that perfume would be created elsewhere, even outside Egyptian borders. The Mendesian featured myrrh, cassia and assorted gums and resins steeped in oil. Stakte contained an even stronger aroma of myrrh: it consisted either of bruised myrrh itself, or the resin added to balanos. Cyprinum, is not named after the island of Cyprus but after a plant generally taken to be henna, with the addition of cardamom, cinnamon, myrrh and southernwood. Susinum was a perfume of lilies with myrrh, cinnamon in a base of balanos oil. The eponymous "Egyptian" consisted of cinnamon and myrrh steeped in sweet-smelling wine.
The fragrances the Egyptians loved remain to us: cinnamon, frankincense, lemongrass, myrrh, rose. To approximate the fragrance, if not the texture of their perfumes, add a few drops of essential oil or absolute to a teaspoon of bland vegetable oil: sweet almond oil or grapeseed perhaps. For greater authenticity, mix the fragrance with ben oil.* (Cinnamon and lemongrass can irritate even the least sensitive skin; try a drop on your hair instead.)
* Ben oil is available through http://www.indiamart.com/kodisherbs. Moringa tree seeds are available as well.
For the true fragrance of Egypt, Kyphi Aromatherapy features essential oils and flower waters grown, harvested and distilled in Egypt: firstname.lastname@example.org or 416-383-1586.
For those with greater ambitions, Lise Manniche's beautiful book, Sacred Luxuries: Fragrance, Aromatherapy and Cosmetics in Ancient Egypt (Cornell University Press, 1999) contains actual ancient perfume recipes. (And if you contact me, I will teach you how to extract the goose fat you may need!) Even for those lacking in ambition, the book features a collection of extravagantly wonderful old perfume bottles and vials.
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Editor's Commentary By Jimmy Dunn
Ancient Beauty Secrets By Judith Illes
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Kid's Corner By Margo Wayman
Cooking with Tour Egypt By Mary K Radnich
Hotel Reviews By Juergen Stryjak
Egyptian Exhibitions By deTraci Regula
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Shopping Around By Juergen Stryjak
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Last Updated: Aug 9th, 2011
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