The sands of time hold beneath them glistening treasures of civilizations that have long past, but the real magic that lies beneath their surface is something far less tangible, the faint reminisce of the first scents. It is said that you could smell the faint aroma of Frankincense nearly 3,000 years after King Tut’s death as his tomb was unearthed. Filled with perfume bottles and incense, he was outfitted with perfumed currency for his journey into the afterlife.
Standing at the base of the Nile Delta, the calming smell of the blue lotus fills the air. The flower can be seen throughout the ancient Egyptian world, often depicted in paintings and carvings. The smell of the blue lotus is among many that would place Ancient Egypt at the forefront of perfume production and scent development throughout the ancient world.
Scent was a major part of ritual for the Ancient Egyptians. They often adored themselves with scented perfume head cones, salves and perfumed oils; perfume bottles filled the tombs of Pharaohs alongside offerings of incense for the Gods as they made their journey to the afterlife.
Incense filled the air as the Ancients’ walked through palaces and temples. Notes of frankincense, myrrh, cinnamon, cardamom, cassis, resins, and musk were among the most common scents. Flowers, resins and woods were commonly used as bases of fragrance oils and ointments that were applied after bathing.
Just as we retrace the steps of time for the foundations of todays modern marvels, we look to the alluring temples, palaces and landscapes of the ancient world to understand how candles, incense, and perfume came to play a roll in society.
I suppose if the temples and palaces of Egypt were well lit with the flip of a switch, the atmospheric element of their mystery would certainly be missing an element. The Ancient Egyptian’s would bundle reeds together, dipping them in animal fat, nut, or seed oils and light them to create torches. This method was also used in bowls, creating floating wicks for illumination.
Incense was burned 3 times a day in Ancient Egypt. Frankincense at dawn, Myrrh at midday, and Kyphi at dusk. Kyphi was the most popular of these incenses. The recipe for Kyphi seems to vary a bit throughout the ancient world; ingredients for this incense were often boiled in honey and resins and typically included mint, cinnamon, frankincense, myrrh, and steeped in wine over a period of time. Temple drawings throughout the ancient world often depicted these recipes.
Popular perfumes from Ancient Egypt included, Susinum, Cyprinum, Mendesian, Stakte, and Rhodinium; many of these scents shared the base of cinnamon or myrrh.
The ancient world gives us a perspective into scent and it’s use as part of offering and ritual, and later the role it came to play in personal adornment. Today scent is still rooted in these ancient practices, but as perfumery grew into an industry of its own, the continued development pleasing fragrances has become representative of self-expression, status symbol, as well as a source of attraction.