Something resembling the perfume Cleopatra used to make first Julius Caesar and then Marc Antony fall in love with her has been reconstructed, using a combination of historical recipes, chemical analysis, and trial and error.
Blaise Pascal said that if Cleopatra's nose had been shorter, it would have changed the whole face of the world. The question assumes it was her beauty, not her brains that made Cleopatra so fatally attractive to two of the ancient world's most powerful men. Others may ponder how things might have gone if her perfume had been a touch less enticing. If the question is unanswerable, at least we can now have a taste of what that perfume smelled like.
Egypt was famous in the ancient world for the scents it produced. By the time of Cleopatra VII they'd been practicing for at least 3,000 years and had got rather good at the art. Shortly after her death a book appeared of recipes attributed to the recently deceased royal. Another 2,000 years on, scientists have attempted to replicate the process as well as the ingredients, reporting their work in Near Eastern Archaeology.
“The base for [Egyptian] perfumes and unguents was vegetable oil or animal fat rather than our modern alcohol,” the paper notes. “Scents were created through smoke from burning fragrant resins, barks, and herbs (“perfume” derives from per fumum “through smoke”), or through maceration by steeping resins, flowers, herbs, spices, and wood.”
However, the exact meaning of the hieroglyphics with which these recipes were recorded have been lost with time. We know the names of the oils used in funerary rites and temple rituals of Cleopatra's day, but their composition is uncertain. Greek and Roman records are easier to translate, but considered less reliable, as the authors were usually outsiders, not the perfume makers, despite centuries of Greek and Roman rule. A particular controversy refers to an ingredient known as “oil of the perfume nut” with the nut in question unknown.
However, the discovery of what appears to have been a perfume factory at Thmouis has brought new opportunities. Thmouis was an extension of Mendes, whose perfumes were famed throughout the Mediterranean. Ceramic perfume containers are so abundant at the site, the archaeologists think they must have been for commercial, not domestic, use.
Using X-ray fluorescence the molecules present in the jars have been analyzed, including the Nile silt used to make the containers and residues from the contents.
Combining historical texts and modern chemistry, authors Dr Dora Goldsmith of Frele Universitat Berlin and Dr Sean Coughlin of Humboldt-Universitat zu Berlin tested a range of potential substances in the hope of discovering a scent so enticing it might make a ruler might risk half an empire. Using a variety of ingredients and cooking methods the pair report: “One constellation of variables produced a scent that was extremely pleasant, with a spicy base note of freshly ground myrrh and cinnamon and accompanied by sweetness.” Moreover, the attractive odor lasted for two years, consistent with reports that Egyptian perfumes kept their quality when transported.
Although Cleopatra's exact perfume will probably never be confirmed, visitors to the National Geographic Museum's Queens of Egypt exhibition in 2019 had the opportunity to sniff an approximation the makers call Eau de Cleopatra.
The product would have done more than smell good itself. Antifungal and antibacterial compounds in the mix suppressed unpleasant odors, allowing the desired ones their chance to shine.
The work is part of a small but growing field recreating ancient scents. As ScienceNews reports, the work extends to reviving less pleasant odors as well, with Goldsmith creating “smellscapes” of ancient Egyptian cities including the royal court, temples, and workshops where items from sandals to weapons were made.