Insight & Analysis

Eau de ancient Egypt

Published: Sep 2019

Forget CHANEL No 5 or Christian Dior. A perfume which may have been worn by the famous ancient Egyptian pharaoh Cleopatra has been recreated with the help of two American archaeologists.

Following a decade-long excavation at Thmuis, a site just north of Cairo, Professors Robert Littman and Jay Silverstein uncovered what was believed to be the home of a perfume merchant. Within the site, the professors unearthed an ancient amphora, a ceramic vessel used for carrying liquids.

While the amphora did not smell, the professors took the delicate find to two experts on Egyptian perfume for chemical analysis of the residue left inside. Following the results, the two experts managed to replicate the scent using formulas found in ancient texts.

The perfume was found to contain myrrh, a natural resin found from a small, thorny tree. It also contained cardamom, olive oil and a hint of cinnamon. According to Littman, the reproduced scent smelt strong, spicy and faintly of musk. “I find it very pleasant, though it probably lingers a little longer than modern perfume,” he said.

Mr Littman added: “What a thrill it is to smell a perfume that no one has smelt for over 2,000 years and one which Cleopatra herself might have worn!” However, even if Cleopatra did not wear the perfume of Thmuis, it was certainly used by some residents of the city.

Those keen to smell it for themselves can do so at a National Geographic Society Queens of Egypt exhibit, running until 15th September in Washington DC.

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