Fragrant and beneficial – the quest for recreation of fragrances from early Islamic states
Fragrances may appear to be a frivolous topic in the modern world, but well into the early modern period they were firmly located at the intersection of medicine and luxury products.
The fragrances created by physicians, pharmacists and perfumers in the early Islamic states influenced the olfactory traditions of Europe and Far East Asia. To study the fragrances of medieval China or the middle Byzantium, one needs first to understand the how they were made at the source.
Many if not most of fragrance recipes are hidden in medical texts, cookbooks (as art of food preparation was considered a part of medicine), and independent treatises on perfumery. Besides being used for pleasure, as aphrodisiac, or to satisfy the desire for luxury exotica, pleasant odours were associated with good health, and therefore were believed to have a therapeutic effect. In many cases, we have the direct statement of the author that given incense or scented powder could cure body weakness, alleviate pain, or help with confusion after a stroke (Hamerneh, 1965). The beneficial effect may have been related more to the placebo effect though it is confirmed that odours can influence human mind.
In my quest for accurate recreation of the beneficial fragrances, I study the processes used to prepare them by the original creators. This includes preparation of compound ingredients like ramik and sukk or distilled fragrant waters. I cross-reference different sources to identify ingredients though the ambiguity of identification cannot be fully eliminated. I attempt to source my ingredients, pending financial and legal limitations, from the same geographical locations as it was done in the early medieval period. When the original ingredient is no longer available due to overharvesting or changes in plant biology, I look for suitable replacement in contemporary sources as many authors included chapters on substitutions (Levey, 1971).
As independent scholar, my ability to study the effects of these recreated fragrances is limited to the assessment by olfactory approach (like in the experimental archaeology of food). I observe the stability and maturation of fragrances over time, as well as their longevity when applied to skin. A group of my volunteer testers helps with this task. They report if they liked the fragrance undergoing assessment, and how they felt about the odour. I am often surprised how the view of the same scent can range from ‘absolute stench’ to ‘good mood fragrance.’
I also organize presentations of the fragrances to introduce public to the forgotten scents. I believe it is our duty to celebrate the traditions of all cultures, and this includes the amazing fragrances from the early caliphates, from Al-Andalus to Near East and beyond.
Hamerneh, S. K. (1965). THE FIRST KNOWN INDEPENDENT TREATISE ON: COSMETOLOGY IN SPAIN on JSTOR. Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 39(4), 309–325.
Levey, M. (1971). Substitute drugs in early Arabic medicine. With special reference to the texts of Māsarjawaih, al-Rāzī, and Pythagoras. Wissenschaftliche Verlagsgesellschaft.
Katarzyna Gromek is a molecular biologist who studies bacterial proteins involved in regulation of cell cycle.
She is also an independent scholar interested in experimental archaeology. She researches how fragrances and beauty care products were made and used across time and cultures. To answer these questions, she recreates fragrances and cosmetics from Europe and Asia, from the Bronze Age to early seventeenth century. She sources her recipes from extant texts, ranging from Materia medica works and cookbooks to “books of secrets” and analysis of bioorganic material from excavations.
She shares the results of her experiments through talks, displays, participation in conferences, and written contributions to specialty websites.