The role of perfume in ancient Egypt

Perfume has been a cherished luxury product for thousands of years and ancient Egypt was no exception. Perfumes had many uses. Initially, the rarity of perfume made it a product for the gods: aromatic powders were burnt to honor the gods and to curry favor.

Later, perfume became a part of everyday life, with men and women using it for its “sacred virtues”: its seductive powers, its ability to purify the body and its therapeutic effects.

Making perfume in ancient Egypt

As with all major periods of history, there are lots of questions about what perfumes might have been like in ancient Egypt. How were they made, what plants were used, what scents were common during the pharaohs’ time?

It seems that the ancient Egyptians did not use distillation. How did they make their perfumes? They were experts in enfleurage. The details of their technique were not written to keep this knowledge secret; instead, they were passed on orally to prevent other people from finding out how to create perfumes.

Which perfumes were most popular in ancient Egypt? 

The most widely known is Kyphi, made with terebinth resin, saffron, raisins, cinnamon, wine, myrrh, honey and other ingredients. The recipes remained secret, because this scent was used to honor the gods. The perfumes of the time were thicker than those of today, with a consistency similar to olive oil rather than water. Pssst: you can smell Kyphi at the Osmothèque perfume archive in Versailles. The formula has been revised and this perfume can be enjoyed by the public during “smelling sessions”! 

What remains of the perfumes from ancient Egypt?

Like every other significant period in world history, ancient Egypt still holds many secrets. A team of researchers set themselves an incredible challenge: recreating a perfume worn by Queen Cleopatra herself. How did they do it? These researchers collected residues from amphorae and gathered information from ancient texts to try to bring an ancient perfume back to life in the modern era.

The amphorae were analyzed by scientists with the help of Egyptian perfume experts. By studying ancient Greek texts to find the formulas of the famous ancient perfumes Mendesian and Metopian, they were able to make several conclusions. Myrrh was found in both amphorae; they added cardamom, cinnamon and olive oil. 

Of course, it’s impossible to know whether Queen Cleopatra wore such a perfume. According to some sources, she had her own workshops to create fragrances. But the idea is amazing and that’s good enough for a 2,000-year-old perfume.

It may be impossible to become a pharaoh these days, but you can still wear a perfume inspired by ancient Egypt. Our 301 features notes of amber, cardamom and sandalwood and our 902 boasts Armagnac, blond tobacco and cinnamon.

Learn more about kings and perfume, Renaissance perfumes, perfume in Islam, perfume in the Middle Ages, modern perfumes and the history of perfume by reading our articles.

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