All the perfumes of Arabia

David Tresilian , Saturday 24 Feb 2024

A new exhibition at the Arab World Institute in Paris is exploring the history of Arab perfume.

Arab Perfumes


“All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand,” says Lady Macbeth in Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, written in London around 1606 and bearing witness to what were perceived to be the close links between Arabia and perfume in 16th and 17th-century Europe.

However, these links of course go back considerably further than just 400 years, since the eastern kings that visited the infant Jesus in Bethlehem at the beginning of the Christian era also brought gifts of perfume. According to St Mathew’s Gospel, these kings, or magi, brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the Christ child, the last two being aromatic resins harvested from trees grown in Yemen for use in Arab and other perfumes.

This autumn’s main exhibition at the Arab World Institute in Paris, called Parfums d’Orient or “Oriental Perfumes,” takes this long historical association between the Arab world and perfume as its starting point, tracing it back well over 2,000 years.

As a note in the exhibition reminds visitors, the ancient Egyptian queen Hatshepsut had frankincense and other perfumes brought back from the Land of Punt, probably Southern Arabia and the Horn of Africa, in the 15th century BCE. According to the Old Testament of the Bible and in a different version in the Qur’an, the Queen of Sheba, thought to have reigned in Yemen around the 10th century BCE, also shipped precious resins and other materials northwards, this time as a gift to King Solomon.

Plant-based resins like frankincense and myrrh, originating in Yemen and some other Arab Gulf countries, are still used in some perfumes today, along with essential oils extracted from other plants and flowers long grown in different parts of the Arab world and including roses, jasmine, and orange blossom.

While advances in chemistry have meant that many of the compounds found in contemporary perfumes are synthetic, substituting for the aromatic substances found in nature, the trade in such ingredients still thrives today in many parts of the Arab world. Many traditional markets in Arab towns and cities still include areas given over to vendors selling ingredients for perfumes. There is a suq al-attareen, or perfume market, in Islamic Cairo, for example, and similar markets can be found in traditional areas across the region.

The Arab World Institute’s new exhibition, which opened at the end of September and runs until March next year, begins by looking at the ingredients used in traditional Arab perfumes. Many of these came from the Arab Gulf countries, which also functioned as important way-stations on trade routes from Southwest Asia and further afield, bringing ingredients not available in the Arab countries to entrepots in the Gulf and the Eastern Mediterranean from where they could be distributed to Southern Europe and the wider world.

Most of these ingredients come from plants and include aromatic resins like frankincense and myrrh, which come from small flowering trees that are native to parts of Southern Arabia including Oman and Yemen. Other plant-based ingredients include aromatic woods like agarwood and sandalwood, as well as essences extracted from flowers, most famously roses and jasmine flowers, and some herbs and spices also used in cooking such as mint and saffron.

There are also other traditional ingredients that come from animals, though these are not usually used in modern perfumes. They include musk, a glandular secretion from musk deer, civet, a similar secretion from civets, a kind of mongoose, and ambergris, a substance produced in the digestive systems of sperm whales and sometimes found washed ashore.

The first room of the exhibition introduces these ingredients and places them on a map of trade routes stretching from Southeast Asia to Europe with the Arab Gulf countries at their midpoint. Samples of many of the substances are on display, along with some of the tools that traditionally would have been used to gather them. There are also copies of books bearing witness to the long tradition of producing perfumes in the Arab world, among them early copies of books by the 14th-century writer Ibn Fadlallah al-Umari, the 10th-century cosmologist Zakariya al-Qazwini, and the 14th-century geographer Shams al-Din al-Dimashqi.

The latter author’s treatise Nukhbat al-dahr fi aja’ib al-barr wa-l-bahr lies open at a recipe for making rosewater, while al-Umari’s Masalik al-absar fī mamalik al-amsar, a sort of encyclopaedia, and al-Qazwini’s Aja’ib al-makhluqat wa-gharaʾib al-mawjudat (“Wonders of Creation and Existence”), as its name suggests an account of natural wonders, include information about the origins and production of perfumes, along with many other items.

Another feature of the first room of the exhibition, continued in those that follow and adding greatly to the interest of the show, is the array of machines used to generate whiffs of the ingredients described. Visitors to the exhibition, thankfully no longer obliged to wear facemasks against Covid-19 or other viruses, can breathe these in at the push of a button or by blowing into rows of machines.

In the week the exhibition opened, these machines proved popular with many visitors who may have never had the opportunity to smell raw musk before or many of the other substances on display.


Perfume in city life: The next two sections broaden the scope of the exhibition by moving away from the origins and trade in the ingredients of perfume and towards their use in urban and domestic life.

Many traditional areas of Arab towns and cities have shops selling either the raw ingredients for making perfumes or the made-up products themselves. Egypt is no exception, and perfume shops can be important stopping-off points on tourist itineraries for visitors today who are looking for appropriately Middle Eastern souvenirs.

The Arab World Institute, nodding to the importance of perfume as a modern as well as a traditional product of many Arab countries, includes a set of photographs of perfume sellers in Muscat, the capital of Oman. It notes that their stores, often crammed to the rafters with herbs and spices as well as with incense and ingredients for perfumes, have managed to survive and even thrive despite changes in shopping habits and the construction of more modern retail environments.

Display cases contain equipment traditionally used for making perfumes, including tools for grinding and mixing the raw ingredients and then distilling them into essential oils. As this section of the exhibition notes, advances in chemistry in the Middle Ages meant that older ways of making perfumes – often by simply mixing aromatic substances with oil – gave way to more advanced techniques of distillation that enabled the production of essential oils.

These could then be blended to produce more sophisticated perfumes with a wider variety of different notes and usually supported on an oil base. Alcohol is not used as a solvent in making Arab perfumes, the exhibition says, unlike for most perfumes produced in the West.

According to expert perfume-maker Christopher Sheldrake, a consultant to the exhibition and a contributor to its comprehensive catalogue, it is also important not to confuse “an oriental perfume” with a “perfume from the Orient” since it is only the latter that captures the specific qualities of the perfume from the region.

“The first term is used for one of the seven major types of perfumes that have exotic overtones and that typically use notes of vanilla, spices, aromatic wood, and flowers,” he says. However, the second term, oriental perfume proper, is very different in that it refers to the “sensual and resinous perfumes traditionally preferred in the East and above all in the Middle East.”

“These emphasise notes of Damascus roses, saffron, and agarwood, a resin produced from trees originally grown in Southeast Asia. Among the main ingredients are frankincense and myrrh, as used in antiquity, and spices from India such as cardamom and cinnamon.”

By way of illustration, Sheldrake has produced three traditional oriental perfumes specially for the exhibition, either by attempting to reproduce older recipes or by producing modern interpretations of his own. These perfumes are on display in an impressive-looking piece of machinery on the exhibition’s second floor, with different glass flasks representing different stages in the blending process and allowing the perfumes to be smelled by visitors both in their early and in their finished states.

The first perfume, shamama, is a blend of saffron, agarwood, and rose essential oils in what Sheldrake describes as an originally Indian perfume that was swiftly adopted across the Middle East. To the uneducated nose, this may come across as having a rather musty smell. It also contrasts with the second perfume Sheldrake has produced for the exhibition called lune d’ambre (“amber moon”) and inspired by ambergris “with notes of balsam, labdanum [a kind of resin extracted from Mediterranean shrubs], and coriander seeds.” This one smells sweet.

Finally, there is kyphi, a modern recreation of an ancient Egyptian perfume, the recipe for which was found engraved in the Ramesseum on the West Bank of the Nile at Luxor and dates to the 16th century BCE. Sheldrake says that the original hieroglyphs are open to interpretation, but the perfume certainly contained “myrrh, cinnamon, roses, honey, pistachios, and juniper.” The honey can be smelled in this perfume, and the exhibition says that it would originally have been used in religious rites and during mummification.

The final section of the exhibition looks at the different ways perfume has been used in the Arab world and the wider Middle East. One of the main uses of perfume today is as a personal scent, but of course historically and even in the present day it has been used for many other purposes, including in religious rites, to lend ambiance to domestic and other spaces, and in cooking.

One of the main uses of perfume in ancient Egypt was in religious rituals and in mummification, and later Middle Eastern religions took over this emphasis, most notably Christianity where the use of various forms of incense, often burnt in special burners or in the form of blocks or sticks, was an integral part of some religious rituals. The exhibition contains a display of such incense-burners, ranging from simple examples made of clay to more elaborate bronze ones such as a 9th-century piece from Egypt.

Perfume could also be used, and often still is used, to lend ambiance to different spaces, notably domestic and as a way of welcoming guests. Many visitors to the exhibition may have memories of certain smells that can be reawakened at the slightest whiff, something that the exhibition explains by the close connection between certain smells and certain kinds of cooking.

The smell of certain herbs and spices can awaken a range of associations, perhaps most notably visits to childhood kitchens and family meals and other occasions.

“In the Arab world,” the exhibition says, “culinary aromas are inseparable from the world of perfumes. They perfume the house and give it its identity. They conjure up particularly strong memories that are often rooted in childhood, and they resonate with everybody.”

Parfums d’Orient, Institut du Monde arabe, Paris, until 17 March 2024.


* A version of this article appears in print in the 22 February, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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