Mesopotamian cultures had a significant influence on all the others of their time and on those that followed over the course of history. Among the first is ancient Egypt, which fostered one of antiquity’s most important cosmetic and perfume industries.

In fact, the life of the Egyptian people was centred around two focal points: one was their deeply rooted and structured religious beliefs that gave meaning to life and death, regulated their relationships with the various divinities, including the Pharaoh, and played a special role in the great festivals and celebrations that marked the private life of its inhabitants. The other focal point was the culture’s natural inclination to a peaceful existence on the banks of the Nile, the great river, the backbone of the country, source of life and wealth.

The use of cosmetics and perfumes was pronounced in both these aspects, the religious and the secular. Those in charge of their production were the priests who lived near the temples and had laboratories in one of their rooms, where they created the ointments and fragrances that were used so profusely in religious ceremonies.

In a bas-relief of the temple of Edfu, hieroglyphics depict many of the recipes that were used to make perfumes. Their use in the liturgy was indispensable. Every morning a priest would enter the innermost part of the temple and, after prostrating himself before the statuette of the god that was worshipped there, would anoint the figure with fragrant ointment and perfume it with incense.

The same ceremony was performed with the Pharaoh when he visited the temple or participated in the solemn processions that were periodically held from Karnak to Luxor, which the Pharaoh, with his bright makeup, presided over with pomp and majesty, accompanied by the entire court and over two hundred virgins who, with smoking incense in their hands, perfumed the entire route. The creation of other perfumes for non-liturgical uses was also allowed, and many other aromas and ointments were used in daily and social life by the time the Israelites enjoyed a certain level of prosperity. Perfume use peaked during the reign of King Solomon. When the Queen of Sheba, who came from the “land of perfumes”, visited King Solomon, she arrived with a large number of camels loaded with perfumes, gold and precious stones and the Bible adds: “Never again came such an abundance of spices as these that the queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon”. No people, until then, had used so many perfumes in their social celebrations.
Another interesting fact was a new custom introduced by the women of Egyptian high society, who placed “cones” of fat mixed with perfumes under the wigs they wore; body and ambient heat melted the cones, releasing the aroma. Since this system fell out of use with later civilizations, it was likely not a very effective method. That said, legend has it that Egyptian people had the healthiest hygiene habits in history.

Accustomed to daily ablutions first thing in the morning before eating, both women and men always liked to be clean, which encouraged not only hygiene but also the use of cosmetics and perfumes. Even soldiers carried a bottle of scented oil on their belts in time of war to protect their hair and skin from the dry climate. Many of the first materials used were obtained from other countries on commercial expeditions or military incursions. The preferred place for the former was the Land of Punt, today Somalia, which they called “the land of all the fragrances”. The religious ceremonies for which these fragrances were used included the mummification of the corpses, a process that aimed to preserve them for eternity. A great variety and quantity of fragrant substances were used in the celebration of this rite.

Sahure was the first Pharaoh to plan an expedition to Punt, but the most famous trip was made during the reign of the only woman who held the title of Pharaoh. Hashepsut brought back forty myrrh trees, along with a great deal of riches, from her trip to Punt and planted them in the gardens of her palace at Deir el-Bahari, where a large relief on a façade graphically depicts this expedition. The Egyptians kept their perfumes in jars made from a diverse range of rich materials, from gold and gemstones to coloured glass and others; but the most used jars were made from alabaster sourced from the neighbouring desert of Libya. The most common ones had simple shapes, but some were true works of art, like those found in the tomb of Tutankhamun, which can today be seen in the Museum of Cairo.