My niece is teaching her class the modes and manners of the ancient Egyptians this term so we’ve all thrown ourselves into the compilation of colourful material for her use. Egyptian history is a perennial passion with me and I find it hard to let my old school prizes out of the house, even on temporary loan. Twenty years ago I spent two weeks in the land where perfume began, sailing down the Nile with 30 other passengers, most of them in the throes of heat prostration and food poisoning (the mercury went up to a freakish 130 degrees F). I protected and survived by keeping my hat on and living on the inside of the loaf with a disinfecting brandy chaser (bottle brought with).
The never-forgotten smells of that timeless land…. On my first morning we came ashore at the Temple of Hathor (the cow-headed goddess of love) at Dendera in a grey-green dawn river mist, our noses eager as those of new born babies to explore scents; the cool morning air was full of the odours of red mud, Nile water, fresh banana leaves and blue lotus flowers. Then we climbed up to the temple where Cleopatra had worshipped, with its ruined walls and pylons baking already in the rising sun and shimmering in fragrant smoke rising from one of those bonfires that seem ever-present in the East: dried camel dung never smelled so good. But then this is the very dung rolled across the sky by the sacred scarabs to manifest as the morning sun.
The inner chambers of these temples are so lacking in oxygen and so stifling with the atmosphere of the millennia – the paint, the prayers, the incense – that visitors often feel strangely oppressed and depressed ( one of the origins of the tomb-curse legend? ). As you come out into the open again the air hits you like champagne, making one exuberant, excitable and light-headed as though inspired by the goddess. “Pooh, those old crocodiles smell terrible” said a visitor to Kom Ombo as we peered at the embalmed reptile-gods that once led the Imperial Egyptian army or swam, braceleted and jewelled, in the temple pools. But after 3,000 years the aroma was only of heat and dust, defunct piety and maybe a lingering whiff of kyphi.
Kyphi was the all-purpose Egyptian incense, mentioned and listed in all the old inscriptions, burned continuously in the sacred places. Some say it was mixed into the mud bricks to permeate the precincts for eternity. Caron’s Parfum Sacre, full of pepper, rose and incense is partially inspired by it; but if you ponder the classic ingredients kyphi seems to be the living link with Lauder’s Cinnabar and Youth Dew. Wine was mixed into a paste with honey, raisins, juniper, cinnamon, frankincense, myrrh, labdanum, spices, cassia and fragrant woods. Is there anything new under the sun in the perfume shop?
The old gods fed on kyphi, its smoke made a pathway from earth to heaven and kyphi’s heady fumes impregnated priests and worshippers. Like other perfumes it was rolled into cones of animal fat which were painted and worn on the head at festivals both sacred and profane: these then slowly melted to coat the body in a slick of fragranced grease. Whole-hearted in their love of life, Egyptians were never shy in their embracing of perfume. Exiguously and scantily dressed, they relied on jewellery, artful cosmetics, elaborate hair and heavy scent to make their fashion statements.
Can these attractive people really be gone? Or have they turned into fashionable metropolitans of 2013?