Of all the areas of historical inquiry, those of private life are some of the most fascinating. Knowing the intimate manias, private practices, and preferences of someone from the past—things which might go unnoticed or seem miniscule—help us to better conceive of these people as real and close. Such is the enormous role of a small thing like perfume, and there’s no perfume in history more famous than Cleopatra’s. 

Ancient records indicate that the queen of Egypt perfumed the sails of the ship on which she traveled. When she was first visited Mark Antony in Tarsus, one legend recalls, this smell travelled across the sea and reached the coast long before she did. Other records speak of the perfume of Cleopatra who, over the centuries, became a legend. Even Shakespeare would pay homage in Antony and Cleopatra  (1607). In the voice of Enobarbus, he described the royal vessel: “The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne/Burn’d on the water: the poop was beaten gold; Purple the sails, and so perfumed that/The winds were love-sick with them.”

Few perfumes in history merit such immense legend. Today, thanks to technology and two expert archaeologists —Robert Littman and his colleague, Jay Silverstein of the University of Hawaii— the remains of a tomb have given clues to the recreation of that smell which thousands of years ago characterized Queen Cleopatra. It’s one of the most coveted perfumes of antiquity.

Experts relied on the residue in an ancient amphora found in an excavation of the ancient Egyptian city of Thmuis, founded in 4,500 BCE, north of Cairo. The region was the birthplace of two of the most famous perfumes of antiquity, the Mendesian and the Metopian. When the researchers found a place appearing to have been a perfume factory —full of small glass jars and clay amphorae— they knew there was a chance to recreate the scents of the Egyptian world of thousands of years before.

The amphorae found did not retain any odor. But they contained dry residues of what had once been there. Analyses of these substances are still underway. But two other experts, Dora Goldsmith and Sean Coughlin, replicated the essence of Thmuis, using ancient Greek medicinal manuscripts. Both fragrances are known to contain myrrh, a legendary resin from a spiny shrub. The experts added green olive oil, cardamom, and cinnamon —all following the ancient recipe. The aroma of the replica is intense, spicy and with a musky finish. It’s also a very long-lasting perfume.

In ancient Egypt, perfumes were used ritually and were often applied as  wax cones full of essence, like tiny hats that were placed on the head to slowly give off the fragrance. The consistency was much oilier than that of modern perfumes. Although their current versions are approximations of ancient perfumes, they may give us olfactory clues to the kinds of scents that Egyptians liked. It’s still unknown whether this was the perfume that Cleopatra used. What is known is that she made her own perfumes in a personal workshop. From discoveries in Egyptian mummies, it’s understood that two of the most used aromas were those of myrrh and oliban, another aromatic resin extracted from a tree.

Although invisible, the power of aromas is still certainly magical. In this case, the approximations of the perfumes of ancient Egypt and the possible mixtures that have been made, invoke the ghost of a legendary figure. Endowed with mystery and beauty, they bring us closer to the private life of a powerful queen who lived thousands of years ago, and whose story reappears in myths and legends from all over the world.

Image: Public domain 

Of all the areas of historical inquiry, those of private life are some of the most fascinating. Knowing the intimate manias, private practices, and preferences of someone from the past—things which might go unnoticed or seem miniscule—help us to better conceive of these people as real and close. Such is the enormous role of a small thing like perfume, and there’s no perfume in history more famous than Cleopatra’s. 

Ancient records indicate that the queen of Egypt perfumed the sails of the ship on which she traveled. When she was first visited Mark Antony in Tarsus, one legend recalls, this smell travelled across the sea and reached the coast long before she did. Other records speak of the perfume of Cleopatra who, over the centuries, became a legend. Even Shakespeare would pay homage in Antony and Cleopatra  (1607). In the voice of Enobarbus, he described the royal vessel: “The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne/Burn’d on the water: the poop was beaten gold; Purple the sails, and so perfumed that/The winds were love-sick with them.”

Few perfumes in history merit such immense legend. Today, thanks to technology and two expert archaeologists —Robert Littman and his colleague, Jay Silverstein of the University of Hawaii— the remains of a tomb have given clues to the recreation of that smell which thousands of years ago characterized Queen Cleopatra. It’s one of the most coveted perfumes of antiquity.

Experts relied on the residue in an ancient amphora found in an excavation of the ancient Egyptian city of Thmuis, founded in 4,500 BCE, north of Cairo. The region was the birthplace of two of the most famous perfumes of antiquity, the Mendesian and the Metopian. When the researchers found a place appearing to have been a perfume factory —full of small glass jars and clay amphorae— they knew there was a chance to recreate the scents of the Egyptian world of thousands of years before.

The amphorae found did not retain any odor. But they contained dry residues of what had once been there. Analyses of these substances are still underway. But two other experts, Dora Goldsmith and Sean Coughlin, replicated the essence of Thmuis, using ancient Greek medicinal manuscripts. Both fragrances are known to contain myrrh, a legendary resin from a spiny shrub. The experts added green olive oil, cardamom, and cinnamon —all following the ancient recipe. The aroma of the replica is intense, spicy and with a musky finish. It’s also a very long-lasting perfume.

In ancient Egypt, perfumes were used ritually and were often applied as  wax cones full of essence, like tiny hats that were placed on the head to slowly give off the fragrance. The consistency was much oilier than that of modern perfumes. Although their current versions are approximations of ancient perfumes, they may give us olfactory clues to the kinds of scents that Egyptians liked. It’s still unknown whether this was the perfume that Cleopatra used. What is known is that she made her own perfumes in a personal workshop. From discoveries in Egyptian mummies, it’s understood that two of the most used aromas were those of myrrh and oliban, another aromatic resin extracted from a tree.

Although invisible, the power of aromas is still certainly magical. In this case, the approximations of the perfumes of ancient Egypt and the possible mixtures that have been made, invoke the ghost of a legendary figure. Endowed with mystery and beauty, they bring us closer to the private life of a powerful queen who lived thousands of years ago, and whose story reappears in myths and legends from all over the world.

Image: Public domain