Scent and sensibility

Lubna Abdel-Aziz
Tuesday 23 May 2023

You cannot see it, hear it, taste it or touch it, yet its dominant presence is unmistakable.


It fills the air with visions of paradise, of roses and hyacinth, of jasmine and orange blossoms, of sunny Mediterranean shores and soft snow-capped mountain- tops. It is the enticing scent of subtle, soothing, seductive perfume that has been an essential component of our lives since our primitive existence.

Preoccupied with his quest for food, early man believed the greatest sacrifice he could offer his gods was his most precious possession — a slaughtered animal. To mask the stench of burning flesh he burned sweet smelling leaves and woods to deodorise the carcass.

Perfume, from per fumare (through the smoke) is an accurate description of how the fragrant aromas reached worshippers, through the smoke of the burning sacrifice.

In time, those smoking fragrances in themselves became the symbolic substitute for the offerings.

Scent affects 75 per cent of our daily emotions. Scientists believe that our sense of smell ties directly into our limbic system, the process responsible for our memory and feelings, which is what makes it so powerful. It explains our obsession with aromas which can stimulate or calm, shape memories, and induce positive emotions.

Fragrance has been entrancing and beguiling us for millennia, at least for 5,000 years judging from the hieroglyphics in Egyptian tombs. Priests and Pharaohs were entombed with fragrances. When those tombs were opened in 1897, the perfumes were discovered to have retained their sweet smells.

Many of the ingredients are still prized in perfumery today — jasmine, handpicked in the morning, frankincense resin, found mainly in Oman, Yemen and Ethiopia; myrrh and lilies.

Perfumes were first discovered in the Orient, in Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, and China. The Greeks learned of Egypt’s euphoric perfumes and Greek males copiously embraced the various scents. Roman soldiers were quick to copy macho Greek males.

As the Roman empire expanded, they acquired cedar, pine, ginger and mimosa from the Far East and from the Middle East citric oils of tangerine, orange and lemon. Emperor Nero was partial to roses, spending the equivalent of $560,000 for rose oils, rose water, and rose petals in one single night. At his wife’s funeral in 65 AD, more perfume was doused, splashed and sprayed “than the entire country of Arabia could produce roses in one year”.

The early Christian Church scorned such excesses of “decadence and debauchery” and condemned the personal use of perfumes in the second century.

For the next few hundred years, perfume-making was chiefly an Oriental art. It was returned to Europe in the 1200s by the Crusaders.

The first perfume in history (oils blended in an alcohol solution) was “Hungary Water”, a blend of lemon, orange blossoms, thyme and rosemary notes, especially made for queen Elisabeth of Hungary in 1370.

How did France become the capital of perfume? Could it be because the French have the best “noses” in the world?  

Apart from their sophistication, sensuality, luxury and chic, it turns out that they have the best climate that produces unique plants in Provence and the French Riviera, particularly in the town of Grasse, known as “the perfume capital of the world”. It has the best roses and houses the largest farms of plants which influence the locally grown perfume ingredients.

One may also add that hygiene practices were poor and perfume helped combat unpleasant odours.

Ironically, the father of the industry in modern times is an Italian barber, Jean Batiste Farina, who arrived in the city of Cologne (Koln) in Germany in 1709, with a concoction of lemon spirits, orange bitters, and bergamot fruit. He called it Eau de Cologne (water of cologne).

Soon the city became the major producer of the famous cologne throughout Europe. In the 1800s some members of the Farina family moved to Paris and established a branch of the business. It was taken over by two cousins, Roger and Charles Gallet in 1860. They upgraded the Eau de Cologne to Eau de Parfum (for the smells produced by burning incense). Their products were known as “Roger et Gallet” and since the 19th century the French have dominated the perfume kingdom. France is the first largest exporter of perfumes in the world.

Everyone is getting in the game now. Apart from the famous houses of Guerlain, Chanel, Dior, Couture Houses, Jewelers, film stars and even liquor houses want a piece of the pie which amounts to $54 billion worldwide.

Scientific advances created synthetic products that replaced hard-to-find ingredients, but flowers remain the basic components of all perfumes.

The most renowned fragrance of all time was created by Ernest Beaux for Gabrielle (Coco) Chanel in 1921. The bottle “Mademoiselle” chose was the fifth presented to her. She launched the perfume on the fifth day of the fifth month and called it Chanel No. 5. It is the best seller fragrance to this day and will always be associated with what the century’s love goddess Marilyn Monroe wore to bed.

What is perfume? A foolish excess, a petty product, a frivolous delight?

It is so much more. It speaks about oneself. It is a tool to balance mind and body.

Like atoms in physics or molecules in chemistry, the senses represent the most basic units of our being.

No elegance is possible without perfume.

It is the unseen, unforgettable ultimate accessory.


“In the course of time, a woman’s perfume is a more moving memory than a photograph of her.”

   Guy de Maupassant (1850-1893)     

A version of this article appears in print in the 25 May, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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