Ancient Egyptian & King Tut's Perfume

Perfumes of Ancient Egypt


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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.

Tutankhamun's Perfume

When the tomb of the young pharaoh Tutankhamun was opened, among the luxurious contents found within were various beautifully crafted jars and containers. To the excitement of the excavators, one particular jar was discovered to contain a perfumed unguent, still radiantly fragrant after so many centuries.

Unguent is the classical word used to describe what modern English-speakers might better understand as an ointment or a solid perfume. Despite the occasional ancient Egyptian image or the discovery of what certainly seems to be functional distillery equipment in the ruins of Mohenjo-Daro, as far as we know today the distillation process was not popularized until the 10th century of our time. Thus, Egyptian perfumes were very different in texture from the liquids now considered "perfumes". For a close modern comparison, consider the solid perfumes currently imported from India, packaged in small carved wooden or stone containers. (The resemblance is in texture, presentation and appearance, not necessarily in fragrance.)

The perfumed ointment found in Tutankhamun's tomb was of a solid nature, although it was noted that it melted and became more viscous within the heat of a hand. Observers at the time found the aroma similar to coconut oil and also remarked that it resembled the scent of valerian (Valeriana officinalis), the first tip-off to what the jar probably contained.

The perfume was analyzed in 1926 and was found to consist of a "neutral animal fat" and a resin or balsam. At the time they were unable to be more specific. However, the primary fragrant component is now believed to be valerian's close cousin, the ancient and precious spikenard (Nardostachys jatamansi).

Still reasonably rare and reasonably expensive, most find spikenard's name much more familiar than its fragrance. Its reputation is ancient. It is an ingredient in some formulas for Kyphi, the famed sacred Egyptian temple perfume. Spikenard was also a component of the sacred incense offered in the Jewish Temple of Jerusalem. It is mentioned no less than three times in the Song of Songs. The ancient Greeks had a beloved perfume fragrance based on spikenard. Spikenard's main claim to fame comes from its prominence in the New Testament. It was ointment of spikenard that Mary of Bethany (whether she is one and the same with Mary Magdalene, now matron saint of perfumers, is still the subject of intense debate, as it has been for centuries) used to anoint the feet of Jesus Christ, filling the entire room with its aroma. Rather than its wonderful fragrance, however, what is most famous about spikenard is its high cost. Two of the gospels comment on its price. Judas Iscariot was apparently offended at the anointing of Jesus, demanding to know why the jar of ointment wasn't sold and the proceeds given to the poor. In the light of its discovery in Tutankhamun's tomb, it can be appreciated that spikenard was truly a fragrance fit for a king.

Why was spikenard so expensive? Because of where it grows and the difficulty in obtaining it. Spikenard is not native to Egypt, Punt or the Middle East. It is native to the Himalayas and grows at high altitudes. Its use in the ancient world is a demonstration of their sophisticated trade routes and of the importance placed on aromatic material: they went to a lot of trouble to obtain this little root. Spikenard was packaged in carved alabaster boxes, carefully brought down by caravan and exported over the ancient world. As recently as one hundred years ago, spikenard was imported from Nepal to Egypt for use as a folk medicine. Beyond various medicinal uses, like valerian, it has relaxing, sedative properties, spikenard was anciently believed to bear mystical and romantic powers.

Today, spikenard is available as an essential oil. It is steam distilled from dried and crushed rhizomes and roots, resulting in a pale golden liquid. What does it smell like? Not necessarily what you might expect a perfume to smell like, if your expectations are of a floral garden. Spikenard has a profound and complex aroma, a combination sweet/spicy/musky, a very organic earthy scent. The root from which the finest fragrance is obtained is tufted and sort of "hairy" in appearance; at one time it was surmised that spikenard was an animal's tail. (Remember, the plant came from very far away. Those who obtained it many miles away never saw the living plant and the perfumers of the time were a mysterious bunch, who kept their trade secrets to themselves.) Pliny called spikenard root "little goat".

A historically correct re-creation of Tutankhamun's precious unguent might involve rendering goose fat for a base. A version more palatable to modern tastes might substitute coconut oil. The original excavators of the tomb noted the unguent's resemblance to coconut oil; like animal fats, this vegetable material solidifies at cool temperatures, thus approximating the texture of the ancient perfume.

Tutankhamun's Perfume

One quarter cup coconut oil
6 drops of essential oil of spikenard
6 drops of essential oil of frankincense

For blending purposes, the oil should be liquid. If the oil has solidified, place one-quarter cup of the solid oil in the top of a double boiler and warm gently. (If you don't have a double boiler, improvise by creating a water bath. Put the oil in a container and place it within a pot of water. Warm the water gently on the stove, under constant supervision. The oil must not actually be in the water.) When the oil is liquid, blend in the essential oils. Place in a container and allow to harden at room temperature again.Perhaps instead of a historically accurate texture, you'd like to avail yourself of some of spikenard's therapeutic gifts. Beyond their evocative fragrances, both spikenard and frankincense are considered especially beneficial for mature skin, minimizing wrinkles and delaying the signs of aging.

To reap those benefits instead, substitute a thinner vegetable oil, less inclined to clog pores than coconut, perhaps grapeseed or jojoba. These oils will not solidify but will remain liquid. There is no need to heat the oil; merely add the essential oils. Massage a little into your face before retiring in the evening. (Both oils also have reputations as romance-enhancers, so the possibilities are endless.)