The Splendour of Splendours

Pharaoh Hatshepsut

Pharaoh Hatshepsut

 

They were talking about the female Pharaoh Hatshepsut on the radio the other day and I was taken back 20 years to my visit to her mortuary temple on the West Bank of the Nile. To the ancient Egyptians this was the land of the dead, the domain of the setting sun. From a distance the Splendour of Splendours looks like an Art Deco cinema or a 3,000 year old shopping complex rising in three pillared tiers and terraces hewn out of the rockface backing the Valley of the Kings.

On the silver-blue and apricot early morning of my visit the air was full of the scent of fresh mint and sweet basil. 3,500 years ago it was here that Hatshepsut planted the myrrh trees brought back from the Land of Punt, the Realm of the Gods beyond the Red Sea: the guides still show you the plots where the bushes grew between the paving slabs. Among them flowered fragrant henna: strands of hair dyed with the leaves can still be seen on the skulls of certain mummies, though the body of the Woman-King has vanished, probably for ever. Myrrh was a sacred substance in Egypt as in so many other ancient middle eastern cultures. Today we recognise it as a powerful beneficial antioxidant (once prescribed for my mouth ulcers) and a natural preservative, so it is not surprising that the Egyptians used it in embalming, believing it to be the scent of their gods’ immortal flesh, the flesh that was all of gold.

Hatshepsut had it recorded that she was herself semi-divine, conceived by the supreme god Amun. Her royal mother recognised the intrusive deity by the heavenly scent of myrrh emitted by his gilded skin. The legend of the phoenix originated or at any rate was elaborated in Egypt: the unique gold and crimson bird that lived for 500 years and nested in cinnamon, cassia, spikenard and myrrh, dieting on drops of frankincense. When the old bird died its offspring was said to enclose the corpse in an egg of pure myrrh and bring it for burial at the temple at Heliopolis, the former City of the Sun now prosaically incorporated into the suburbs of Greater Cairo.

Anyone who thrills to these old tales will love Papillon’s ANUBIS by perfumer Elizabeth Moores, a poem in perfume to the arcane beliefs of the ancient world. It is also very apt for Christmas by the way: as one of its central ingredients is – you’re sure to have guessed it! – myrrh, the gift brought by the Magi to presage Christ’s suffering and entombment. “Myrrh is mine / Its bitter perfume / Breathes a life of gathering gloom…” . And don’t forget that genial old Santa started life as St Nicholas of Myra, the city in modern Turkey where his sarcophagus was said to weep miraculous tears of sweet-scented myrrh resin: which is why the saint is now the official patron of perfumers and all things fragranced.

Anubis from Papillon Artisan Perfumes

Anubis from Papillon Artisan Perfumes

ANUBIS is not Liz Moore’s only scent – there are two other beauties – but it is perhaps the most exotic. Anubis was the god of embalming & mummification, the guardian of cemeteries, the conductor of souls to the afterlife. At the core of his perfume is absolute of pink Nile lotus, not flowery and pretty but dark, vegetal and virile like the vital sediment of the inundation which fertilised the green East Bank of the Nile. Then around this Liz wraps a series of powerful pungent oils, as intricately as the linen bandages swathing a dead monarch. One can almost hear the funerary priests in their black jackals’ head masks intoning the ritual names of benzoin, castoreum, opoponax, saffron, labdanum, tolu and sandalwood. There’s jasmine too, like the dried flower wreaths sometimes found by archaeologists in the tombs. ANUBIS is a precious and unique thrill: don’t start worrying that it might be a touch morbid – the Egyptians believed that all the joy they found in life would be redoubled after death. So with this scent: ANUBIS is an explosion of life-affirming energetic delights!

You can meet the wonderful Elizabeth Moores at our Seymour Place shop on Weds 10th December, alongside two other incredibly talented British perfumers.

 

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Lion’s Maid

Mekhmet

Don’t know about you but this recent heat has been all too much for me; far too much, desiccating Lemon Wedge to a piece of shrivelled if still sweet candied peel. Can’t sleep, can’t think clearly, pacing about like a mad dog. And why do I crave sugar (“Pure, White and Deadly”) during hot weather? Extra salt as we know is a sound precaution but why the sucrose? When many years ago I spent a boiling summer on the buses all my breaks were spent in the cool crypt cafe of St Martin-in-the-Fields eating iced Chelsea buns and drinking pots of scalding syrupy tea: it was all I could fancy and it pulled me through. Boosts your energy level, I suppose: I always remember H Rider Haggard recommending cold tea as the most refreshing drink in the world. Served hot it has a peculiarly attractive smell on a broiling day – maybe fighting like with like, in a homeopathic manner. The slightly bitter leaf infusion, the hot china or (even better) the metal of the pot: flip up the lid to inspect the brew and your face is steamed in fragrance. The body, heated up by the liquid, steps up its own cooling mechanism: that’s why it’s best to avoid cold baths which tell the good body that it’s in danger of becoming chilled and needs to turn up the inner thermostat.

The ancient Egyptians, baked on the banks of the Nile, personified the sun as a whole galaxy of deities each with different characteristics and properties. Sekhmet is my favourite: the Divine Lioness Lady who represents the destroying power of her father the sun, and who in that capacity also burns out disease and plague and incinerates the enemies of Pharoah. In one of those bewildering theological complexities of the Egyptians, Sekhmet also assumes the aspect of the goddess Hathor and has to be turned aside from murdering mankind by being made drunk on red barley beer, which she laps believing it to be human blood.

Yet her images and statues are lovely to look upon. In the British Museum (if you journey no further) there is a gallery of Sekhmets carved from black basalt, a beautiful female form with the head of a handsome and serene lioness. When I spent a week in Luxor I used to go up to the temple complex at Karnak most evenings (always smelling of dried herbs, woodsmoke, dried horse dung and a million cigarettes) and inspect the guardian lionesses there. Rather beyond the ruins spread a whole field of Sekhmets, lopsided and leaning among reeds and grasses: very picturesque but said to be blessed with their own guardians – nests of cobras ( Cleopatra’s holy asp) – so I kept my distance.

But I combed the bazaars and curio shops for my own image of the goddess who had taken my fancy and in the end I found one, about a foot high and made I suppose of painted plaster. Not expensive, and I took her back to the hotel ignominiously wrapped in old newspaper. But it’s a curious thing: that statue began to prey on my mind and over the next couple of days it began to assume the properties of a demon. Its face appeared to change from benevolently feline to malevolently diabolical and in the terrific Luxor heat (it was over 120) I persuaded myself that carrying it on the flight home would cause the plane to crash. Sekhmet had to be jettisoned. As perhaps you know, it is very difficult to lose things on purpose – they keep being returned by kindly people. (As I had once found with a redundant copy of Moby Dick in Tunis ). But in the end, once again swaddled in layers of old paper, She of The Chamber of Flames was successfully buried and abandoned beneath the cushions of a banquette in the hotel main lobby. Even then I worried that the outraged lioness might burn out the Luxor Imperial during the night. Of course, had the weather been cooler and I saner, I should have just smashed the thing on the bathroom floor and binned the pieces.

Heat has its own smell but it is very difficult to tell it from the appurtenances of heat: the cigarettes which taste toastier and nuttier, the panicky deodorant, the dry pavements, sticky tarmac. Panting dogs and ice cream vans reeking pleasantly of vegetable fat, frosted vanillin, saccharine and petrol; a stuffiness as though of a huge feather pillow over the face. Heat accentuates every odour – doesn’t cooking smell brazen in a hot spell? Aren’t barbecues aggressive? For me all sorts of perfume, liberally applied, go good in a heat wave. I have a pet theory that the heavier and more exotic the better: applying a blast of amber, incense, waterlily, ylang ylang or jasmine seems to return those oils to their native element and the extreme climates that bred them.  In the freakish British summer they once more bloom again in all their florid magnificence on the sticky air, turning heads in more ways than one. A bit like Marilyn – “She started this heat wave / By making her seat wave”. Go wild: the dog days are upon us.

Land of the Pharoahs

Kyphi worn atop the headMy 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?