of the many compounds concocted by ancient perfurmers, none is as evocative as
Kyphi which was burnt as incense in temple rituals. Plutarch wrote that Kyphi's scent "purifies and polishes like a mirror the faculty that is imaginative and receptive to dreams'. Dissolved and taken as a beverage, Kyphi was said to 'dispel anxiety' , perhaps partly because one of the ingredients was 'strong- smelling wine'. Recipes for the temples of Edfu and Philae, and throughout time people have tried to reproduce it. Some say that a version of Kyphi may still be found in cairo's bazaars
where today's herbalists prescribe tried and true ancient remedies.
Cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum)
A scent both familiar and exotic, Egypt imported warm spicy cinnamon from China as early as 2000 BC for use in perfumes and unguents.Cinnamon is mentioned in the bible's Book of Exodus, where Moses was commanded to make a 'holy
ointment' by mixing it with myrrh. wealthy Romans used cinnamon on funeral pyres and the Emperor Nero is said to have burned a year's supply at the funeral for his wife in 65 AD. Although the best cinamon is said to come from Sri Lankak, Iraq was
once Known for the sweetness of it's cinnamon. the powder made from the tree's bark is used in many cooking traditions, but cinnamon is also employed for treating digestive ailments and low blood pressure.
Juniper is a member of the cypress family, native to parts of the Middle East and Arabia. it's sweetly aromatic wood was once burnt in temples as a ritual purifier and resins from the tree may have been used in mummification. Amidst the treasures Tutankhamon's tomb were juniper berries, intact after thousands of year The versatile berries were an ingredient in kyphi, but they had medicinal properties as well. Although juniper is best known these days for its use in gin (which some would call a remedy in itself) the ancients recognized its anti-inflamatory effects, that have since been scientifically verified.
in antiquity, myrrh (along with a similar resin, frankincense) was as valuable as gold.
it figured in temple rituals and is still burned in churches. originating in the Arabian
peninsula, harvested from the bark of trees (Commiphora myrrha) it was used in
mummification as well as in fragrances. Egypt's queen hatshepsut imported large
shipments from Oman and yemen, a region then called punt. According to the
Bible's Old testament, the queen of sheba controlled the spice trade there. she
challenged king solomon to a test of wits and as a tribute to his intelligence gave
him murrh.the three kings brought myrrh for the newborn jesus. it seems there
was no better gift. Perhaps myrrh's great value lies in its healing powers,since it is
a virtual cure-all, working as an anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, astringent, expectorant
and sedative. Despite its transporting aroma and therapeutic value, the Arabs who first traded in the resin focused on its taste. Myrrh, in Arabic, means 'bitter'. Henna
Egypt is the home of henna, a shrub-like tree that produces sweet smelling yellow and white blossoms. The ancients made a perfume called cyprinum from the flowers; today an essential oil called mehendi is distilled from them. The oil of henna flowers was said to make the limbs supple, and it is used to treat jaundice, leprosy, smallpox, and other affections of the skin. However, most popular use of henna in the Middle East and India is as a decorative skin dye for women on their wedding night. Using a fine henna paste, lady experts draw intricate arabesques, or floral designs on the hands, feet (and sometimes breasts, back and abdomen) of the soon-to-be bride. When dried, the paste is removed leaving only the ornamental tracings that last through several baths. Henna parties are popular in Egypt, when girlfriends of the bride gather to groom themselves for the wedding. Eating and dancing are part of the celebration focused on feminine beauty and sensuality.
Another precious substance that comes to us from antiquity, saffron is mentioned by the Hebrews in the Song of Solomon. It was used in kyphi and as treatment for a variety of gastrointestinal ailments. The yellowish-orange saffron threads are actually the dried stigma (pollen-carrying center of the blossom) of a lily-like flower called the crocus sativus, now cultivated in parts of Europe and Morocco. So bright and enduring was the color derived from the stigma, that saffron-based pigments were identified in 50,000 year-old Iraqi cave paintings. Saffron's pungent taste makes it a choice ingredient in several cuisines. But perhaps the most delicious use was devised by Cleopatra. Before her romantic encounters, she put a quarter-cup of saffrom in her bath because of its colouring and cosmetic properties, but also because she believed it would increase her powers of seduction. If Cesar and Marc Anthony are any indication, she appears to have been right!