After travelling to Asia, Africa and South America, our olfactory world tour continues to discover a land that has been conducive to perfumery since the dawn of time. Sensual scents and spicy fragrances, the perfume of the Middle East holds lot of treasures and mysteries. Thanks to ancestral know-how and emblematic raw materials, the Arab world has strongly influenced the art of fragrance over the centuries. Discover all the secrets of this fragrant stopover in the Middle East.
On the road of perfume in the Middle East
In the Middle East perfume is everywhere. It is deeply rooted in society, daily practices and customs: a true cultural element. As a mode of expression, it stirs up conversations among both women and men. All day long, Middle Eastern fragrance evolves on the skin and in the houses with the rays of the sun and its typical ingredients.
An olfactory journey of a thousand scents
At sunrise, our exploration begins on the slopes of the Jebel Akhdar, a region of Oman. On this mountainous massif, roses and their bewitching scent grow in abundance. Our nose awake, we then set off to explore the alleys of the Istanbul souk. Here, you can personalize your fragrance with rose oil, musk or amber. Compose, assemble and test to leave behind a unique wake. At the exit of the market, while women go to hammams, men put on a traditional outfit. This one has a small pompom on the neck, specially designed to be perfumed!
The time has come for a well-deserved sweet break… You will still find rose, whose water perfumes the sorbets, loukoums and other very popular pastries. To accompany this sweet note, enjoy a coffee mixed with ambergris, delicious! All you have to do now is light the perfume burner beside you and let yourself be lulled by the soothing smell of the smoke.
A fertile land
If perfume is a capital element of oriental culture it is because these lands are very favorable to the cultivation of different fragrant plants and vegetables. The fertility of these lands was praised by the poets Hafiz and Saadi who sang the rose, the most prized scent in the Arab world. The Latin poet Propertius spoke of an “Arabia of a thousand perfumes“.
We also find in the East a multitude of herbs such as coriander, sage and mint. As early as Antiquity, Arab civilizations used these herbs for their healing properties. Even today, the Middle East still perfumes the whole world with a woody and spicy atmosphere. There is a multitude of scents specific to these regions, but the common denominators of these fragrances are sensuality and power, thanks in particular to amber and musk.
Mathematics, chemistry, philosophy… Many fields have been influenced by the discoveries of Arab civilization. As the Roman Empire collapsed, the East emancipated itself and developed a great scientific culture. The perfume manufacturing techniques that we know today are notably due to inventions from the East. In the 5th century, the chemist and son of apothecary Jabir Ibn Hayyan created the alembic, from the Arabic al imbiq, which means vase. An invention that will considerably improve the distillation techniques to spread this new knowledge throughout Europe. In the Middle Ages, this Arab scientific culture will influence the schools of Salerno and Montpellier, specialized in pharmaceutical research related to perfumery.
The use of perfume in the Middle East
Perfume and religion
In the Middle East, perfume is an integral part of the Muslim religion. It is mentioned many times in the Koran. Muhammad says “Women, children and perfumers are what I like most in the world“. The sacred texts evoke a paradise of sweet scents, a garden full of fragrant plants. There are even writings about women made of the “purest musk“. In religion, the importance of respect for others is paramount. This respect is expressed in words and gestures. It is also affected in more concrete aspects of daily life such as body odors. Smelling good goes beyond hygiene and becomes a way of not offending others. To purify themselves, men regularly went to public baths. Women in the harems spent a large part of their time taking care of their bodies and hair.
Fumigation and tradition
Contrary to what we might think, incense (the act of burning fragrant materials) is used only as a perfume. Even if it is burned in mosques, it is not a form of offering. The etymology of perfume per fumum, which means by smoke, refers to a traditional use of perfume in the Middle East. In every house you will find a mabkharah, a traditional burner of perfume. Pieces of oud or a mixture of aromatic oils and wood in the form of small pebbles are burned on hot coals. The principle of fumigation as an odor diffuser is called bakkhour and it is a key element of oriental culture.
To show your hospitality to visitors, to deodorize a kitchen or to perfume furnishing fabrics, the bakkhour releases a pleasant and long-lasting smell. It can also be used for special occasions. To close receptions, the high Muslim society passes a perfume burner between the guests so that everyone can breathe and perfume themselves with the precious smoke. The week before a wedding, the bride-to-be will impregnate her clothes with the smoke of the bakkhour and she will take a “smoke bath” the day before the wedding to perfume her skin and hair.
The composition of perfume in the Middle East
In Western culture the majority of perfumes are made of alcohol in which the odoriferous materials dissolve. In the East, the use of alcohol is prohibited by religion. Oil is thus used as a composition support. The selected flowers, spices or herbs are therefore distilled and added to a base essential oil, usually sandalwood oil. This oily perfume is called attar in the Middle East. Everyone can personalize their own compositions by adding the ingredients of their choice: rose, amber, musk… These dry oils are applied to the body and hair to perfume and moisturize. Voluptuous and tenacious, these oily fragrances offer another way to experience perfume. People do not hesitate to mix the fragrances together to obtain new notes and vary the intensity.
Beyond form, the codes of fragrance are also perceived differently in the Middle East. While scents in the West are still very gendered, Eastern culture is freeing itself from those aspects, and men and women wear the same fragrances. No difference is indicated on the bottles and men like to wear rose, for instance. You can read here our article about the gender of fragrances.
Emblematic raw materials of perfume in Middle East
Spices, flowers, wood, and other balms… Ingredients from the East are used in many compositions. Each of these raw materials brings to a perfume an irresistible note and a sensuality specific to oriental fragrances.
The oud, scent of the Orient
Oud is one of the most popular ingredient of the Arab culture, and is now invited in the creations of perfumers from all over the World. In the East, it is said that oud was discovered by an Arab merchant while he was in India. According to the legend, the man walked by a burning forest whose smoke gave off a particularly pleasant scent. Oud wood comes from the Aquilaria, a wood with many names. When it is attacked by a particular species of fungus, this wood secretes a very fragrant resin which it soaks in to protect itself. Once cut into small chips, oud (in Arabic al-oud meaning wood) can be used in various ways. It is burned as incense in the form of shavings, and its oil is used in perfumes to enjoy its animal, leathery and absolutely sensual scent. Due to its rarity and the long time necessary to produce it, oud is extremely expensive.
Opoponax: an unavoidable ingredient
The opopo-what? If you have never heard of the opoponax, there is nothing surprising. Yet behind this name that makes you smile is a raw material that is widely used in oriental fragrances. Opoponax is a plant found in the arid lands of the Middle East. In perfumery, the resin that comes from the shrub’s stem is used. It is used as incense to be burned for its relaxing virtues and to purify the air in the home. This warm, woody and velvety note is mainly found in the base note of amber fragrances. Its scent is very similar to myrrh, only sweeter and more earthy.
The fragrant power of cistus-labdanum
Cistus is a small shrub with pink and white flowers native to the Middle East. When you look at it more closely, you can see a resin that covers it to protect it and prevent it from dehydrating, called labdanum. In perfumery, the resin is used, and once extracted, it gives off a resinous, woody, and animal smell. Labdanum gum is also widely used as incense and as a base note in oriental fragrances. This ingredient also blends well with oakmoss, patchouli and bergamot accords in chypre perfumes.
Between traditions and bewitching scents, our fragrant journey to the Middle East comes to an end. See you next month to discover a new destination filled with perfume!
Do you like oriental fragrances or do you consider them often too powerful for your nose?