Distillation in Muslim Civilisation

Historically Scented: Perfumes of an Ancient World

Perfume has been around since the ancient days of civilization. Although it wasn’t always used as a spray. I am going to tackle a few popular perfume ingredients that have been around since the days of old. Do keep in mind that these are the natural variations of these ingredients and mostly synthetics are used today. Also, I would be remiss to not advise you that this article is based on history.

Perfume History

Many historians have different takes on some things pertaining to this. I am just going with what is considered common knowledge that is agreed upon by most historians. I am not a historian, but I do love history. This is meant to be a brief history and not complete, because that article would take far longer to compose and would require sources.

Perfume History
Perfume History

Let’s start with a brief history of perfume. Perfumus means smoke in Latin, and that is how we came to the modern word, perfume. The reasoning for this, is that in the bygone days, people would use incense smoke to scent their clothes. You can still find this being done in the Middle East and Eastern Asia to this day. The birthplace of perfume is somewhat debated. Most believe that it started in Egypt, while some believe it was in China. A few believe it started in southern Europe.

John Weguelin, "The Obsequies of an Egyptian Cat," (1886)
John Weguelin, “The Obsequies of an Egyptian Cat,” (1886)

Even though the incense method was still used, Egyptians adopted the practice of using scented oils, but these were mainly used for religious ceremonies and not used for pleasure. From what most people believe, it was probably the Greeks that first used scented oil as an everyday thing.

The first widespread use of alcohol-based perfume didn’t come until the 1700s in southern Europe. Even though the Greeks and Romans did have perfume shops in the ancient days, it was not a massively produced product then.

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One side note, the Chinese and Japanese even used scented ink. Talk about a special love letter!

Let’s now look at a brief scented history of some popular ingredients. Many ingredients that we enjoy today were also loved in the past eras, and some were as medicine. However, I am only going to touch on the scented uses for the most part.

Any mention of medical properties here is purely for historical reasons. Always consult your physician before using any of these ingredients for an illness or general health. I am not a doctor.

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I have a love affair with lavender. I am not sure if it’s a healthy relationship, but it’s always welcomed in my home. The Egyptians and Romans used the fragrant petals to make oils to wear. The Romans even used them to scent their soaks in their infamous bathhouses.

www.vitexnatura wholesale.com Lavendelol Dioscorides Lavender Ancient Greeks

In Europe, the petals were scattered on the floor to ward off disease and even used to stuff pillows to promote rest and wellness. It wasn’t until the French, who are pretty well-versed on the fragrant plant from the mint family, used them to scent gloves that spurred the scent into the mainstream. The way that leather was made back then was foul, so the gloves were quite smelly, and lavender helped to soften the smell. Trust me, you don’t want me to go into details about how leather was made back then.

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Most of us know about the story of frankincense and myrrh from religious scripts. What some don’t know is that these were not given to Mary and Joseph for incense.

They used it as a medicine to help ease the pain of childbirth. Many civilizations still chew on frankincense as a medical treatment for pain and good health.

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Source: Mary Evans Picture Library/Hubertus Kanus

Frankincense or olibanum has been used for incense since the ancient Egyptians burned it in temples for religious ceremonies. It has a bad history of being transported through Africa into the Middle East by slaves, but I attribute that to human greed and not the fault of the plant. It was very sought after in those days and people considered its value to be equal to that of gold.

Europeans even started to seek this and use them in their Christian rituals. It is also burned in Mosques. It has a spiritual feeling to it, so it’s no wonder that it has been used for ceremonies that extend beyond out mortal shells.

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Another ingredient that is attributed to the Egyptians. This sweet tree resin was used in the sacred kyphi incense blend, which was used for religious purposes. It is also cited in the Bible as the balm of Gilead. Some historians say the Greeks were the first to cultivate this precious material in Crete.

Arabian perfumers started using it as a fixative, and it worked so well that they just continued using it. The sweet ambery aroma just worked so well that it is now appreciated worldwide.



This one is mostly attributed to India, which is of no surprise considering the finest Mysore comes from there. The use of this ingredient goes back thousands of years. The creamy wood has been enjoyed as an oil and incense in India and the surrounding regions since before Europe even knew it existed.


There is some debate on where it was first used. Some say that the Egyptians used it as a material to embalm mummies with. Others say it was used as an oil in incense in India first. If the Egyptians did use it first, then where did they get it from? Surely India knew about how to use this ingredient with the Egyptians buying it. Unless ancient Egypt also had sandalwood, which is possible due to how the world has changed, then I will have to give this one to the Indians.


Papyrus is well-known to grow in Egypt along the banks of the Nile. They mostly used it to make paper for scrolls, which sadly no longer have a scent to them. There isn’t much that says that Egyptians used this as a perfume, but it’s quite possible that it wasn’t recorded. It would be kind of ironic for a scroll that is made from the raw ingredient of perfumed oil to not contain information about its use as an oil, don’t you think?

There is a history of it being used as a scent in India though. Since I gave the other ones to the Indians due to them growing it, I will also give this to the Egyptians for the same reason. Logic would have me believe that they knew about this since they were always using scented oils at the time.

This was just a brief introduction. If you would like to see me cover any other ingredients from the past, let me know in the comments. Also, let me know if you want me to go more in-depth with it. Just keep in mind that these must be natural ingredients that were used in ancient times. Something like Ambroxan wasn’t around back then. Even though I could do a history article on Ambroxan, it wouldn’t span back very far.

Images Credit:

fieldtofragrance.com, ajasthanstudio.com, naturalnicheperfume.com, wikipedia.com, and amazon.com