Perfume in Ancient Egypt

An Egyptian woman wearing a perfume cone

The Ancient Egyptians loved beautiful fragrances. They associated them with the gods and recognised their positive impact on health and well being. Perfumes were generally applied as oil-based salves, and there are numerous recipes and depictions of the preparation of perfume in temples all over Egypt.

The god of perfume, Nefertum, was also a god of healing who was said to have eased the suffering of the aging sun god Re with a bouquet of sacred lotus. He could be described as the world’s first aromatherapist!

A perfume press, depicted on a relic from an 11th dynasty tomb, MET
A perfume press, 11th dynasty relief, MET
Making lily perfume, 4th dynasty, Louvre
Making lily perfume, 4th dynasty, Louvre

Egypt was the world leader in the creation of perfume and was closely associated with the international perfume trade. When Julius Caesar took control of Egypt, he demonstrated this fact to the Roman people by throwing bottles of precious perfume to the crowd during his triumphant return to Rome.

Alabaster perfume jar from Tutankhamun's tomb (copywright 2005 Daniel Speck

The most highly prized perfumes of the ancient world came from Egypt. Of these, arguably the most popular were Susinum (a perfume based on lily, myrrh, cinnamon), Cyprinum (based upon henna, cardamom, cinnamon, myrrh, and southernwood), and Mendesian (myrrh and cassia with assorted gums and resins). Mendesian was named after the ancient city of Mendes, and although the perfume was produced in other locations at a later date, the best variety was still thought to be that from Mendes.

They also loved Stakte, a perfume with a fairly strong aroma of myrrh, Rhondinium (based on the highly popular scent of rose), and a scent simply known as “the Egyptian” which seems to have been based on cinnamon and myrrh with sweet wine.

18th Dynasty perfume bottle shaped like an amphora, MET
18th Dynasty, MET
Second Intermediate Period perfume bottle decorated to look like two ducks, MET
Second Intermediate Period, MET
New Kingdom perfume bottle in the shape of a monkey, MET
New Kingdom, MET

Perfumes were generally stored in beautiful alabaster bottles. These varied widely in design, often taking their inspiration from nature. There is also some evidence that blue glass bottles may have been used at times.

  • Sacred Luxuries: Fragrance, Aromatherapy, and Cosmetics in Ancient Egypt (1999) Lise Manniche

Copyright J Hill 2015