en zh es ja ko pt

Volume 25, Number 5September/October 1974

In This Issue

Back to Table of Contents

All The Perfumes of Arabia

Written by Karen De Witt
Illustrated by Ed Davis

In a magazine recently I noticed that the latest thing in cosmetics is the "natural" ingredient. Women can now put roses in their cheeks with such substances as earth pigment, beeswax, honey and wheat germ and freshen their pollution-dried complexions with lotions made from avocados and almonds. I also noticed that this great discovery is called the "yummy new look."

Fine. I'm for nature and I don't even mind if you call it "yummy." But new? No way. In the Middle East they've never done it any other way, and I do mean never. They were making cosmetics back when most people thought the world was flat, and in the 16th century they were putting out a complexion cream using honey, beeswax and sesame seed oil. Surprising though it may sound, the cosmetics industry was not only born in the Middle East, but is flourishing there today.

It probably all started as a result of the Middle East climate, where harsh sunlight and dry desert winds do awful things to a girl's complexion. Somebody sometime began to make aromatic oils and ointments as protection and the archeologists are still digging up palettes and perfume vials. Not long ago, in fact, they reported that a cosmetics shortage nearly caused a strike in the reign of Pharaoh Ramses III. Workers at a Theban graveyard, the archaeologists said, went on strike because there were "no ointments."

Early Middle Eastern peoples, moreover, had virtually all the creams, tonics, lotions and powders that clutter modern vanity tables—although the ingredients may have been slightly different. One recipe for a facial, guaranteed to smooth the skin and prevent wrinkles, was made from powdered ostrich egg and wheat germ. And among numerous recipes for removing dandruff were some calling for hippopotamus fat, fish oil and soft grease.

Ancient men and women also used perfumes. Unlike today's alcohol-based scents, though, they were made from animal fats or vegetable oils—radish, lettuce and sesame seed oils impregnated with natural perfumes. The ancient unguent maker and perfumer produced a variety of scents from natural products which, until the advent of man-made smells only a few years ago, were the same ones his modern descendants used. Bitter almonds and anise seeds, jasmine, rose, peppermint, cassia, and heliotrope flowers, ginger root, cinnamon bark, citrus fruits, and cedar and sandal woods were just some of the things used in providing the scent for perfumes.

Using only the arts of the kitchen for their laboratory technique, the ancient perfumers had several ways of extracting scent from these natural products. One was by putting flowers in layers of fat and replacing them as soon as their scent was exhausted. This technique—called enfleurage —produced perfume pomades which were part of every ancient Egyptian woman's regular make-up; tomb paintings picture slant-eyed beauties at festivals or parties with perfumed balls or cones of this pomade attached to their heads. Even today it is still the best, if most expensive method there is.

Another way of extracting scent was by dipping flowers, seeds and fruits into hot oils or fat. But as early as 2700 B.C. an improved method was introduced based on the technique for producing oils and wine. The flowers were placed in a cloth whose ends were attached to sticks; these were twisted in opposite directions so that the pressure would squeeze out the essential oils. One of the 4700-year-old tombs at Saqqara near Cairo has pictures of women gathering lilies, the heraldic flower of Upper Egypt, and extracting their scent in this way.

Eye paints, mascara, lipstick and powder puffs can also be traced to the Middle East. Both Egyptians and Mesopotamians colored their lips and cheeks with small pieces of red ochre inserted in a hollow reed, while the Sumerians used a face powder made of yellow ochre and called it "Golden Bloom." Max Factor couldn't do better.

Originally, painting the eyes was a protection against eye diseases which are still prevalent in some areas of the Middle East. Women painted their upper lids black with the mineral galena and their lower lids green with powdered malachite. Later they switched to painting both lids black with antimony, an ingredient still used in modern eye preparations. The Mesopotamians too made up their eyes. Indeed the Accadian term for galena, guhl, gave birth to the Arabic word for eye paint, kohl .

There was also a religious aspect. Where modern woman uses cosmetics only for cleansing and general beautification, her ancestors attributed medicinal, magical and religious qualities to them. One of the ancient Egyptian words for perfume is "fragrance of the gods," and their word for the cosmetic palettes used for grinding eye paints suggests religious "protection." Indeed, eye paints were offered to the gods and their statues were painted with them.

That aspect died out eventually, but without affecting the popularity of cosmetics. By then, in fact, it was big business, particularly in Alexandria whose "Royal Ointment" and a brand of jasmine perfume were especially popular with the ladies of Imperial Rome.

But not just the ladies. Perfumes became so popular that many Romans used it in lamp oil and even wine in order, as Cicero put it, "... to enjoy the lavish scent both inside and outside." Perfumes even spread to the army. As Cicero wrote, "This horrid indulgence has even spread to the camps. The anointing of the steward and eagles on holidays is only an excuse for using hair oil under a helmet."

Within the Arab world itself, cosmetics were equally popular. In the 13th century, Ibn Arabi, an Hispano-Arab mystic, wrote in his "Pearls of Wisdom " that "of all the wordly goods, three things are dearest to my heart, perfume, women and prayer." Another Arab writer, speaking of the trade which made Arabia famous, wryly remarked, "If I am told to transact in goods, I choose perfumes. For if I miss the profit, I'll not miss the smell."

In the golden days of Abbasid rule (775-847), flowers were cultivated on a large scale for cosmetic purposes. The preparation of perfumes from roses, water lilies, orange blossoms, violets and other plants flourished in Damascus and also in Persian cities like Shiraz and Jur. Jur was noted for its attar of red roses and Jurian rosewater was exported as far east as China and as far west as Morocco, but the extract of violets was the most popular in the Arab world.

Rose perfume also enjoyed a wide acclaim. Al-Mutawakkil, the ninth-century Abbasid caliph, loved rose perfume so much that he monopolized its cultivation, saying, "I am the king of sultans and the rose is the king of the sweet scented flowers, each of us is therefore worthy of the other." Other scents favored by the Arabs were myrtle, narcissus, jasmine, poppy and safflower.

During the Crusades, Europe was again introduced to the cosmetic products of the Middle East. Frankish knights became so addicted to the heady aromatic gums of Arabia, the sweet scents of Damascus, and the numerous fragrant oils and attars from Persia that their tastes later supported the commerce of Italian and Mediterranean cities. And, although the role of cosmetics in fashion fluctuated, we know they were still popular as late as the Elizabethan era when Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth was bitterly complaining on stage that "all the perfumes of Arabia" could not wash her hands of the blood of the murdered King Duncan.

But if the use of perfumes and cosmetics went in and out of fashion among Westerners, in the Middle East their use remained fairly constant. In the 19th century, for example, Isabel Burton, whose husband was the British Consul at Damascus from 1869 to 1871, devoted a whole chapter of her two-volume book on the customs of the Arabs to the make-up and bathing practices of the "hammams," or public bath houses. Oriental ladies, she wrote, put soured goat's milk on their faces to clear complexions, cucumbers on their eyes to freshen them, and henna on the tips of their fingers.

Although the cosmetic industry is no longer restricted to the Middle East, many of the natural scents used in modern perfumes, creams, hand lotions and powders still come from Egypt. About 90 percent of the essential fruit and flower oils produced in Egypt are marked for export to Russia, France and Holland. Though this export does not play nearly the role that it did in antiquity, Egypt is still the third largest producer of essential oils for the perfume industry in the world.

Egypt exports geranium, cassia, water lily, orange and lemon, jasmine and safflower oil. The jasmine is especially prized by the perfumers of Grasse, center of the perfume industry in France, for the specific note it lends to different perfume formulas. The formulas for some of France's most famous perfumes would all have to be altered if Egyptian jasmine had to be replaced with Italian or Moroccan jasmine. Perfumes are as temperamental as wines about the soil in which their basic ingredients grow: indeed, for the perfumer there are even vintage year flowers that go into perfume.

In 7,000 years, the only real change in cosmetics has been in their manufacture and marketing. Despite the achievements of science and technology in developing synthetic scents, the cosmetics industry more than ever is turning to natural ingredients. New shampoos commend the benefits of their herbal ingredients, beauty magazines laud the superiority of kohl , and henna once again becomes a popular coloring for the hair. Modern woman, dabbing perfume behind her ears and blackening her eyelids, has more in common with the ancient queens of the Middle East than either would have dreamed possible.

Karen De Witt, formerly of Beirut, now lives in Washington, D.C. She has contributed to the New York Post, The Washington Post, National Geographic and ABC Radio.

This article appeared on pages 24-25 of the September/October 1974 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 1974 images.