Ancient Egypt was famous for its perfumes, with a long history of fragrant remedies and scents used for everything from funerary rites and temple rituals to personal hygiene, dating back to the Early Dynastic period (c.3,100 BC). Perhaps the best-known scent of ancient Egypt was a perfume called the Mendesian – sometimes referred to as ‘the Chanel No.5 of antiquity’. The Mendesian was the most-popular fragrance in the ancient world for more than five centuries, but the recipe has since been lost. Now modern researchers have used a combination of different approaches to work out exactly how this celebrated perfume was made, and what it smelled like.
The Mendesian was originally named after the city where it was made, Mendes, in Lower Egypt. However, in the Ptolemaic period (305-30 BC), Mendes was replaced in importance by its nearby sister-city Thmuis. Situated perfectly in the Nile Delta, Thmuis became the centre of a thriving perfume industry, with spices arriving from India, Arabia, and Africa, and ships sailing to Alexandria and across the Mediterranean carrying Thmuis’ most-famous export: the Mendesian.
The recent efforts to recreate the perfume were set in motion by excavations at Tell Timai, on the site of ancient Thmuis, which uncovered evidence of a 2,300-year-old perfume factory. Analysis of the residues found in amphorae from this factory helped researchers to identify the ingredients used and better understand the process by which the Mendesian was produced.
The team also compared the residue samples from Tell Timai to the ingredients described in literary sources. There are no surviving Egyptian records of a recipe for the Mendesian, but most Graeco-Roman references list four ingredients: myrrh, cassia, resin, and ‘oil of balanos’. This last ingredient is the subject of some debate: literally translated as ‘oil of the perfume nut’, it is commonly believed to refer to a species of Moringa (a flowering plant with a seed that contains a fragranced oil), but some argue that ‘balanos’ could instead be the desert date tree, Balanites aegyptiaca. Several sources also mention cinnamon as an ingredient.
With this information, the researchers then attempted to recreate the Mendesian using experimental archaeology. As a starting point, they drew on the records of Paul of Aegina – a Byzantine Greek physician who lived in the 7th century AD – which is the only known source that details both quantities of ingredients and a method of production for the Mendesian. The archaeologists cross-referenced Paul of Aegina’s instructions with other Egyptian, Greek, and Latin sources, and tested different combinations of ingredients and procedures to see what would produce the best end-result.
They tested both Balanites and Moringa oil at different temperatures – heat-treating some samples, while leaving others untreated – and combined them with myrrh, cinnamon, cassia, and resin, which had been ground to a fine powder. The researchers also tested two different ways of combining the ingredients: cold digestion, in which they were agitated daily for several weeks, and warm digestion, which involved mixing them over a bain-marie (a heated water bath). These tests revealed the two oils had very different reactions to heat: the untreated Balanites had a distinct smell, which was mellowed considerably by heating; in contrast, untreated Moringa oil was fairly neutral, but it developed a strong burnt smell when heated. However, they found that the non-heat-treated Moringa oil in the cold digestion sample became contaminated by white growth after just a few weeks.
Eventually, though, the researchers ended up with a recipe that had an extremely pleasant scent with ‘a spicy base note of freshly ground myrrh and cinnamon, accompanied by sweetness’, and which lasted for at least two years – a quality associated with Egyptian perfumes in records. This new Mendesian was placed on display in the ‘Queens of Egypt’ exhibition at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, DC, where the celebrated perfume once again captured global attention. The research has been published in the journal Near Eastern Archaeology (https://doi.org/10.1086/715345), and excavations at Tell Timai and analysis of residues from the perfume factory are ongoing, with more results to come in the near future.
TEXT: Amy Brunskill
Images: Dora Goldsmith and Sean Coughlin; Jay Silverstein.