Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Divine Aromas: Perfume in Ancient Egypt

If you'd been present on Luxor's West Bank in roughly 1500 BC your eyes would have been met with an unusual site, at least for a non ancient Egyptian. There, in the presence of her magnificent memorial temple (today known as Deir el-Bahri), you'd have seen queen turned king Maatkare Hatshepsut running around in circles, gripping two grain measures in her hands. Her courtiers and priests, more used to extravagant meals than exercise, follow closely in her wake, kicking up dust as they try to keep up.

As she runs, her skin glistens in the intense sunlight, its rays causing the fine perfumed unguent - rubbed onto her skin before the ceremony - to shimmer and sparkle like clear water on a crisp summer's morning.

Those in attendance cheer her, adoring her majesty with all their hearts, and none more vehemently than the Overseer of the Gold and Silver House, Senemiah. Although trying his best to keep focused on the solemn rituals being performed right before his eyes, however, Senemiah cannot help but get lost in his own sense of achievement; after all, he had been the one to choose the oils that now glistened so captivatingly on the queen's skin and smelled so sweet in the air as she passed. He had given the instructions to the royal workshops and he had personally ensured its quality. Now, his precious unguent allowed the king to take on the characteristics of a god. It transformed her, and transfixed the court. Without his hard work, the ritual would have been an ineffective waste of time.  

Divine Scent

To the ancient Egyptians, a pleasing scent was not simply a handy way to conceal a bad odor, it was a way of communing with the divine; this can be seen in the ancient word for incense, senetjer, which literally means 'to cause to be divine'. Indeed, the aroma of myrrh and frankincense was the smell of the gods, it came out in their sweat, and was sourced by the ancient Egyptians in the land of Punt, also known as 'God's Land'.

In the divine birth scenes, carved into the walls of Hatshepsut's memorial temple at Deir el-Bahri, and at Luxor Temple under Amenhotep III, the reigning queen is visited during the night by the god Amun, who has taken the form of her husband, the king. She immediately recognizes that all is not as it seems, however, because (and this is not to say that the pharaohs smelled bad) her husband has a divine, pleasant odor: he smells like the land of Punt.

Hatshepsut was also responsible for providing Amun, her divine father, with fresh supplies of myrrh and frankincense from Punt. This was not a straightforward task. During the Second Intermediate Period, when political unity fragmented and Egypt's trade with its neighbors stalled, contact with the land of Punt was severed, breaking a connection that had existed since the Old Kingdom. In the New Kingdom, to gather fresh supplies, trading relations had to be re-established. So, at Amun's command, Hatshepsut had grand ships built, which were sent sailing south along the Red Sea towards Punt.

Happily, the mission was a success, and the many exotic goods brought back to Egypt were offered to Amun, including myrrh or frankincense trees (it is not clear from the depictions); the god now had his own private supply.

It was not only kings and gods that admired pleasing aromas, the Egyptian elite also reveled in beautiful smells at the grand banquets held in the grounds of their villas. As guests entered the banqueting tent, servants rubbed sweet smelling oils onto their skin and placed a cone of unguent upon their wigs; this cone, presumably a solid mass of fat, slowly melted into the wig over the course of the evening. Large vessels of solid unguent were also placed around the banqueting area, releasing their scent into the air over the course of the evening.  

Making Perfume

When manufacturing their perfumes, the ancient Egyptians had access to numerous flowers, such as the white lily and lotus, fragrant woods, plants, and imported goods, such as jasmine from India. Little is known about the cultivation of flowers and plants used for perfume production, though individuals, known from later in Egyptian history, held particular offices in the Temple of Karnak associated with perfume, such as the cultivator of lotus flowers and the chief perfumer.

Once gathered, the flowers, woods, or plants were taken and placed in oil - derived from moringa, balanos, castor seeds, linseed, sesame, safflower, olive or almond - which allowed the essential fragrant essence to be released. The resulting mixture was then placed into a cloth bag, which was twisted and wrung, until all the aromatic essence had dripped from the linen into a container below.

Alternatively, the flower, plant or fragrant wood could be boiled in water and oil, with the oil then being skimmed off the top. It was also possible to trample plants to release their essence. Whatever the case, the extract was then sealed in a calcite vessel and transported to a workshop; there, armed with extracts of all kinds, the master perfumer combined his ingredients to create a perfume.

When combining his sweet-smelling extracts, the perfumer placed them, one by one, into a large heated cauldron, mixing them with oil. Evidence for this can be found in the tomb of Kenamun, from the reign of Amenhotep II, where a scene depicts three men standing around a large cauldron; here, one man prepares the perfume's ingredients, one stirs the pot, and another pours an extra ingredient into the mix from a small vial. Heating and mixing was a complex process, with each ingredient having to be added at exactly the right moment, when the temperature was correct, and in just the right quantity. Apparently, when mixing the perfume, the last ingredient added was always the most pungent.

Storing Perfume

Once the perfume had been produced, it had to be stored. Perfume vessels were traditionally made from calcite, a soft, easy to carve stone sometimes referred to as Egyptian alabaster or travertine, which the Egyptians quarried at Hatnub, just south of Tell el-Amarna in Middle Egypt. This was chosen because it was far less porous than ceramic vessels, and so less likely to leak its expensive, precious contents. The Egyptians also prized calcite for its aesthetic qualities: this naturally pale yellow-white stone, when finely carved, appeared translucent, allowing an ethereal glow to shine through it. They also found its natural banding of grey and black an attractive quality. From the New Kingdom, perfume vessels were also made from glass; these are often quite rich in color, showing shades of blue, white, and orange. Others were made from faience. 

Over the course of Egyptian history, perfume vessels were manufactured in various shapes and sizes, including in the form of animals, such as monkeys and trussed ducks. Perhaps the most elaborate examples known, however, were discovered in the tomb of Tutankhamun. One, a lion-shaped vessel, with its right arm raised and its left arm resting on the sa-symbol of protection, has gilded eyes and a mane incised directly into the stone. The lion's teeth and tongue are carved from ivory and painted red, while its floral crown served as the vessel's lid.

Another of Tutankhamun's elaborate perfume vessels was carved in the shape of the hieroglyphic symbol sema meaning 'union'. Two fecundity figures flank the symbol, gripping it by their hands, one holding onto a papyrus plant, representing Lower Egypt, and the other a lotus, symbolizing Upper Egypt. These symbols, representing the unity of Egypt's north and south, are surmounted by rearing cobras. Both figures and the sema-shaped vessel stand upon a base, where vultures, carved from the stone, flank the cartouche of Tutankhamun, their wings outstretched in a gesture of protection. The whole is made from four separate pieces of carved calcite, perfectly fitted together.

Originally published in Al-Rawi: Egypt's Heritage Review, issue 6 (2014).