Queen of scents: Fancy wearing the same perfume as Cleopatra?

·2-min read
"The Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra: 41 BC" by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1883).

She is without doubt the most famous woman of Antiquity. For centuries, archeologists have been trying to unravel the many mysteries surrounding Cleopatra, the last queen of Egypt. Researchers at the University of Hawaii are trying to shed light on a very specific aspect of her personal taste: her perfume.

Professors Robert Littman and Jay Silverstein embarked on this ambitious project in 2012, when they excavated a perfume-making site in the ruins of the Lower Egyptian city of Thmuis, now called Tell el-Timai. There, they notably discovered perfume bottles and amphorae containing dry residues of fragrance.

The archaeologists then approached researchers Dora Goldsmith and Sean Coughlin -- two experts on ancient Egyptian perfume -- to help them test different ancient perfume recipes. The goal was to reproduce the fragrance that Queen Cleopatra VII Philopator may have worn, according to traditional methods described in ancient texts. In the fourth century BC, Egyptian perfume recipes were written in Greek, and in the first century BC, they featured in Latin texts.

Based on these documents, the researchers found that two fragrances were particularly prized by the elites of ancient Egypt. These were Mendesian and Metopian, two scents based on myrrh, a luxurious aromatic gum produced from the resin of trees growing in a region that corresponds to modern-day Yemen.

A perfume that "no one has smelled for 2,000 years"

The researchers combined different ingredients and cooked the scents in various ways, finally resulting, in 2019, in a potent and spicy smell combining myrrh, cardamom, olive oil and cinnamon. It was a fragrance that "no one has smelled for 2,000 years," as Robert Littman explained in a statement at the time.

While this perfume was included in the exhibition "Queens of Egypt" at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C., there are still some uncertainties about the accuracy of its composition. According to Hyperallergic , the research team is preparing to conduct further chemical analysis to recreate even more accurately the perfume Cleopatra may have worn. They also plan to return to Egypt this summer to bring a sample of the residue to Abdelrahman Medhat, a conservator at the Cairo Museum.

Despite advances in science, it is extremely difficult to make perfect replicas of perfumes worn centuries ago. In 2005, perfumer Mandy Aftel tried, unsuccessfully, to recreate a perfume worn by Sherit, a four- or five-year-old Egyptian girl whose mummy has been preserved for decades in a San Diego museum.

Caroline Drzewinski

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