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Perfumes in Ancient Egypt
Edited and prepared by Prof. Hamed A. Ead

These pages are edited by Prof. Hamed Abdel-reheem Ead, Professor of Chemistry at the Faculty of Science -University of Cairo, Giza, Egypt and director of the Science Heritage Center
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Throughout the ancient world the Egyptians were famous for their scents and perfumes. The country was considered the most suitable for the manufacture of such commodities. As the distillation of alcohol was not known until the fourth century BC the scents were extracted by steeping plants, flowers or splinters of fragrant wood in oil to obtain essential oil, which would then be added to other oils or fat. The materials were placed in a piece  of  cloth which was wrung until the last drop of fragrance had been retrieved. Alternatively they were boiled with oil and water and the oil skimmed off.

As for the oils, there was a wide choice, the most commonly used being moringa, balanos, castor oil, linseed, sesame, safflower, and, to some extent, almond and olive. According to Theophrastus, who made a thorough study of fragrant substances in an essay entitled concerning odours, balanos was the least viscous and by far the most suitable oil, followed by fresh raw olive oil and almond oil.

 One of the most famous Egyptian 'perfumes' was made in the city of Mendes in the Delta, whence it was exported to Rome. It consisted of balanos oil, myrrh and resin. Dioscorides  adds cassia. The order in which ingredients were added to the oil was important, as the last one imparted the most pungent scent. Theophrastus mentions as an example that if one pound of myrrh is added  to half a pint of oil, and at a later stage one third of an ounce of cinnamon was put in, the cinnamon will dominate. The secret of the Egyptian unguent-makers was obviously to know at which precise moment to add the various ingredients, and at which temperature. The Mendesian 'perfume was known as 'The Egyptian' par excellence. Unlike many others, it was left its natural colour. It had the added advantage of keeping very well: one perfumer in Greece had had a batch in his shop for eight years, and it was even better than the freshly made 'perfume'. Once applied to the skin it lasted well, too. As Theophrastus said: 'A lasting perfume is what women require'. If 'The Egyptian' was found to be too heavily scented, its strong odour could be lightened by being mixed with sweet wine.
Metopion was the name of another Egyptian ointment, Metopion being, according to Dioscorides, the Egyptian name of the plant from which  galbanum was derived. It consisted of oil from bitter almonds and unripe olives scented with cardamom, sweet rush, sweet flag, honey, wine, myrrh, seed of balsamum, galbanum and turpentine resin. The wine apparently entered the preparations either to soak the herbs, or to give a certain 'point' to the ointment. According to Dioscorides the best Metopion was the one that smelt more of cardamom and myrrh than of galbanum. In medicine the ointment was considered generally mollifying, heat- and sweat-producing, and it was used to 'open the vessels', draw and purge ulcers and to treat cut sinews and muscles.