Traces of some of the world’s first perfumes have been found in vials as well as in hieroglyphics, carvings and art, from ancient Mesopotamia to Egypt and the Indus Valley.
When did we make the transition from wanting to blend in with our surroundings, to seeking to stand out? That’s a question we may never be able to answer.
What we do know is that, by the Bronze Age, there was already a rich trade in extracted essences. In 2004-05, a team of archaeologists discovered an ancient perfume factory site in Cyprus dating to between 3300 and 1200 BCE.
Tiny alabaster bottles were found to have once held extracts of lavender, bay leaf, rosemary and pine. At this time, perfume was also being produced in large batches in the Indus Valley Civilisation (which covered parts of present-day India, Pakistan and Afghanistan), and in pharaonic Egypt.
In the 1970s, archaeologist Paolo Rovesti unearthed a terracotta distillation apparatus at the Indus Valley site of Taxila in present-day Pakistan. The oil containers found here were carbon-dated to 3000 BCE.
In Egypt, evidence has shown that perfumes were used as part of the mummification process. Over and over, carvings in royal tombs and inscriptions on temple walls depict perfume recipes, perfume holders, and the water lily, a common ingredient in perfumes.
There was even a god of perfumes and aromatics, Nefertem, said to have emerged from a fragrant blue lotus. He and his mother Sekhmet and father Ptah made up the triad worshipped in the ancient city of Memphis along the Nile river.
Typically, natural substances such as flowers and spices were condensed with unscented oils, to extract floral, woody, and fruity notes. These fragrances served three purposes: offerings to deities, embalming the dead, and personal use by the elite.
Women served as perfume-makers; we know this from a cuneiform tablet dating to 1200 BCE Mesopotamia (in modern-day Iraq). It names a woman, Tapputi, immortalised as the first-ever perfumier on record.
By about 500 CE, perfume making in India enters the historical record. Kannauj in Uttar Pradesh — still known as the perfume capital of India — was then the capital of the Vardhana dynasty. The rich alluvial soil of this region, abutting the Ganga and Gomti rivers, was well suited to growing flowers such as the damask rose and jasmine, and perfumes were produced here under the founding ruler Harshvardhana, in the 6th and 7th centuries.
The first alcohol based perfume came nearly a thousand years later. Hungary Water was created for Queen Elizabeth of Hungary in 14th-century Europe, combining rosemary scented oils with alcohol. It was a precursor to Eau de Cologne, which would be invented in the early 18th century in the German city of Cologne (then called Koln).
By the 16th century, attar (derived from the Persian “atr”, for fragrance) had become an essential element of court etiquette under the Mughals. Historians have noted how the emperor Akbar (1542-1605) dedicated an entire department to developing scents to be used as perfumes.
The Ain-e-Akbari (or Constitution of Akbar), a contemporary, commissioned chronicle of his rule, describes Akbar’s penchant for fragrances, and his standing instruction that furniture and doors in his palaces be daubed with perfume.
By the late 19th century, Western imports from mechanised factories were starting to hurt the bottomlines of the labour- and cost-intensive attar industry in India. Even today, attar makers remain in Kannauj, distilling long-lasting floral and musky perfumes from organic raw materials, to evoke the aura of a long-lost past.
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