Get to know the importance of perfume in ancient Egypt, and how the making of this unique product became an art form in those times.
Perfume was at the centre of aesthetics and therapeutics for both men and women in Ancient Egypt. Although the techniques used are mostly unrecorded, historians look to the literature of Greek and Roman writers and relief paintings and artefacts to determine the production, fashions and uses of perfume in this fascinating era.
The act of making perfume was considered an art form in Ancient Egypt. The craftsperson was considered to be an artist and the profession was open to women as well as men. The perfume making process of extraction can be determined by reliefs on the walls of tombs in Petosiris. These show that perfume making had an overseer, workers who completed the extraction and a professional tester who completed rigorous testing using the sense of smell.
The reliefs also pictorially detail two extraction processes. The first process shown was an ancient mechanical extraction process which was similar to wine production. This required a large bag and two staffs which were used as a press. The second was a form of chemical extraction with the assistance of heat and soaking in alcohol. The processes are early versions of modern perfume extraction techniques that have only really advanced in terms of equipment available and synthetic ingredients.
The reliefs also show red berries poured from a container, which details the nature of the products used to extract different scents. The ingredients used in perfume were usually plant in origin such as henna and cinnamon. The ancient natural philosopher, Pliny the Elder, records floral scents such as iris, bitter almond and lilies in his Natural History as being used in abundance. Myrrh which is a resin from shrubs and other aromatic woods were used. Animal fats such as musk are also recorded as being used in some perfumes. Some Egyptian recipes are still in existence though they are difficult to replicate.
However, the Egyptians had typically exotic tastes, and in addition to home grown essences, they also imported aromatics such as ladanum from Arabia and East Africa, galbanum from Persia, and the coveted frankincense due to unsuccessful attempts to grow it in Egyptian climes. The fact that ingredients were imported even in ancient times shows the importance of perfume. The imported varieties were expensive and initially reserved for the use of the gods or export only.
Excavated reliefs show that from ancient times the blend and quantity of perfume was as important as how long the scent would last. Perfume was a major export material in ancient times with various countries battling to produce the highest quality. Susinum was a particular favourite, and the competitive nature shows that in ancient times, some form of uniformity and standard was expected. Pliny the Elder described an Egyptian perfume that retained its scent after 8 years, and the ancient Greek botanist, Dioscorides, agreed that Egyptian perfume was far superior to that made by other civilisations.
Egyptian perfumes were usually named after the town of production or the main ingredient. Storage was in glass or stone vessels, with alabaster being the most coveted. The decoration was ornate and often bejewelled, with packaging reflecting modern day requirements of functionality and attractiveness.
Perfume was burnt as incense, as named in documents from the reign of Thutmose III which detail different varieties such as green incense and white incense. Perfume was worn for aesthetic reasons, in the form of oil based liquid infusions, or wax and fat for creams and salves. This suggests there was also a medicinal purpose recognised. Perfume was mainly for the elite classes until the Golden age. It was used by kings who were believed to be of divine descent as it was believed that the gods favoured perfume. High officials were anointed with perfume when they were appointed to office to call the favour of the gods. Incense was used to hide the smell of animal sacrifice during ceremonies. Balms were seen as medicinal as perfume was thought to repel demons and win the favour of the gods. Perfume was also an important part of death and burial rites. Bodies were perfumed during mummification as it was believed the soul would visit the gods and so perfume would repel demons. Interestingly, 3300 years after Tutankhamen death Feature Articles, scent could still be detected in his tomb.