By Creezy Courtoy, World Perfume Historian and Anthropologist
My first passion has always been the impressive history of perfume and I could never think the way I think today if I did not spend all my life collecting perfume antique artworks and searching for the true perfume history. When you start searching, it never ends and still today I am looking for something; each piece leading me to more research.
In the Arab World, perfume was precious, it was considered as pure gold. Let me invite you to follow me on the history of perfume in that part of the world.
Circa 4000 B.C., the Sumerians built the first City States such as Sumer,
Ur, Uruk or Nippur, along rivers.
“Mesopotamia” literally means “the country between the two rivers”.
Located between Tiger and Euphrates, this region currently corresponds to
Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Southern Turkey and Israel.
Cuneiform writing carved onto the clay tablets reveals formulas and perfumes used by these ancient populations since the middle of the third millennium B.C.
Lebanese cedar, cypress and myrtle were the three most used fragrances. Originally, the gods loved natural perfume and got close to those who wore them. This is why the servants of the temple covered their bodies with myrtle oils before carrying out the rituals and the offerings to the numerous gods. Perfumes were reserved to divinities, kings and temple worship.
Gilgamesh, King of Uruk, lived a rather eventful life, characterized by his vain quest for immortality. Perfume, the most noble and precious element then made its way into his alchemy research.
The relation between medicine and gods was very close.
One of the healing gods was the two-headed snake Ningishzida. The snake, symbol of eternal life, might have been the first icon of caducei. His name in Sumerian is translated as “lord of the good tree”.
About 1000 years later, the Akkadians replaced the Sumerians and created the first empire of the world ruled by Sargo the Ancient.
Phoenicians sailors and traders settled on the coast of Lebanon and build colonies in Cyprus, Crete, sicilia, malta and Northern Africa.
Tyr, their capital, having enjoyed a permanent relation with Egypt and Mesopotamia, became one of the most important ports.
Circa 1900 B.C., Babylonians replaced Akkadians.
Hammurabi (1792-1750 B.C.), created the powerful empire of Babylon.
Babylon remained the main warehouse of spices from all over the world for a long time. It received spices from India and from the Persian Gulf, scented gums from Arabia and balms from Judea.
Nabuchodonosor I (1124 B.C.) had his palace built with cedar beams and cypress doors that smelled kilometers away.
According to Herodotus, over 1000 talents of pure incense were burnt every year on the altar of Belus. Zoroaster prescribed the use of perfumes on altars five times a day.
In the hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the seven wonders of the Ancient World, all the scented plants were showcased. According to Diodorus, (Greek columnist of the 1st century, contemporary of Julius Caesar) cedar, mimosa, Arabian jasmine, lily, crocus, iris, violet and rose, gave the Kingdom the reputation of owning the most beautiful roses of the Ancient Orient.
Chaldeans, circa 600 B.C., represented the last civilization of Mesopotamia with two famous Kings: Nabopolassar and Nabuchodonosor II.
They inherited a great culture, developed astronomy, astrology and added all this science to the Art of Perfumery.
Plants and resins must be collected at certain times in the day, or at a precise moment in the year in order to reinforce their efficiency.
The fall of Babylon, conquered by the Persians in 539, did not upset the trade of perfumes.
Focused on the fringes of the desert, the caravan kingdoms owed an important part of their prosperity to the trade of perfumes. Sidon (then Carthage) replaced Babylon as the capital of perfume and spices. For the Cananeans as well as for Babylonians, Phoenicians and Sabaeans, perfumes and spices were both pure gold and divine message.
For thousands of years, they carefully preserved the trade and even caused wars.
Arabia Felix, also called the “Fertile Crescent”, stretched from Oman to the Suez Gulf and across its length were paths taken by the caravans.
Called “The Perfume Roads”, these ancient trails linked the south to the North of this continent and crossed the deserts of one of the oldest countries in the world. To ensure the security of the trade on The Perfume Roads, in the 10th century B.C., Balkis, the Queen of Sheba organized a meeting with Solomon, the Hebrew King...
If, like me, you are impassioned by World Perfume History, I will be happy to transmit my knowledge to you and tell you more about the Perfume History in the Arab World.
We definitely need more perfume history teachers to make sure the perfume heritage will be preserved and transmitted to the next generations.