I already had Cleopatra’s nose (at least that’s what I am often told), and now thanks to Dora Goldsmith I smelled what was very likely her perfume
Author sniffing Mendesian
Read the most accurate, detailed interview with Dora Goldsmith about the olfactory reconstruction of this enigmatic perfume so far.
Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra (with her tiny nose)
There is something enigmatic and immensely powerful about the sense of smell. It doesn’t just transport us to our personal past, like Marcel Proust demonstrated in his novel ‘In Search of Lost Time’. According to neuroscientist Richard Stevenson, no other sense is capable of yielding such a strong historical sensation, even if we have never smelled the scent in question before.
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that when I – a scent historian – read about Dora Goldsmith’s and Dr. Sean Coughlin’s recreation of the famous Mendesian – a perfume allegedly used by Cleopatra herself – I was close to euphoric.
Recently I was lucky enough to smell it myself, after visiting Dora Goldsmith in Berlin, where she works on her PhD on ancient Egyptian smells at the Freie Universität. I must say the scent evoked very sensory and lively images of Cleopatra. It made her a living and breathing human being, instead of a distant legendary character numerous films and books are based on. To my nose the scent was incredibly voluminous, red-coloured, strong, warm, rich, sweet and slightly bitter. A perfume fit for an elegant gala.
Dora Goldsmith putting Mendesian on her skin during an interview with the BBC
Goldsmith was willing to answer some questions about the reconstruction to shed some light on this mysterious matter from her professional practice as an Egyptologist:
CV: You reconstructed the famous Mendesian perfume in collaboration with Dr. Sean Coughlin. When it was finished, and you smelled it for the first time, what was that like? Did you feel more closely connected to the past? What was the first thing you said to each other?
DG: I remember that when Sean and I smelled the Mendesian for the first time, all of a sudden, we both understood why the written documents call it luxurious and elegant. That’s exactly what the perfume smells like to me.
I consider the reconstruction of this ancient perfume a learning method – learning by doing or experimental archaeology. By following the ancient sources step-by-step and working with the materials, I believe that researchers can better understand the ancients and the way they perceived the world through scent. Moreover, recreating an ancient scent is a great learning tool. It gives students of the ancient world and the general public an opportunity to learn about ancient Egypt through their nose. Smell is humanity’s long-lost sense, considered primitive and animalistic by many modern scholars, thus left mainly ignored in their work. By engaging with the aromas that the ancients inhaled through their nose, we gain a new perspective into their culture. By reviving the Mendesian, a piece of ancient Egypt comes back to life.
CV: What made you decide to recreate this famous composition and how did you learn about the preparation and materials?
DG: Prof. Robert Littman from the University of Hawaii contacted me and asked me to reconstruct the Mendesian after he had heard about my perfume workshops, where I recreate an ancient Egyptian scent called kyphi based on the hieroglyphic recipes I translated. Prof. Littman was curious about the Mendesian perfume, since he has been conducting excavations at Tell Timai, the ancient city of Thmouis, which served as the industrial area of the city of Mendes in late antiquity. Mendes and Thmouis were renowned throughout the ancient world for special perfumes that were manufactured in the Mendesian nome. Prof. Littman and his team, including Dr. Jay Silverstein unearthed an extensive complex of kilns that were used to produce perfume at Tell Timai. It was here that the Mendesian, the most desired perfume of late antiquity was manufactured.
My research goal with Sean Coughlin was to combine archaeology, philology and science to recreate the Mendesian, as it would have been found in the ancient world. We translated and followed the ancient sources step-by-step. The botanical identifications of the plants mentioned in the recipes played a key factor in our research. Sean used the most up-to-date botanical identifications in ancient Greek science. I compared these with the flora of ancient Egypt known to the Egyptians before the Greek-Roman period, and assessed which plants could have been available in pharaonic Egypt based on archaeological and philological evidence. We regarded the Mendesian as a case study for understanding the knowledge transfer of ancient Egyptian perfume recipes from pharaonic Egypt to Greek and Roman authors.
CV: Can you elaborate on some of the materials? Are they still used in perfumery?
DG: The main ingredients of the Mendesian perfume, which make up its characteristic scent, were myrrh (Commiphora), Ceylon cinnamon or “true cinnamon” (Cinnamomum verum) and cinnamon cassia (Cinnamomum cassia). Cinnamon is banned from the perfume industry nowadays, as it could cause allergies. Myrrh, on the other hand, is still widely used in perfumes and cosmetics, and even in the pharmaceutical industry.
CV: As the perfume was popular for a very long time, how likely is it that is was constant? Was it adapted over the centuries?
DG: The ancient authors mention that later on, a more elaborate version of the Mendesian was developed, called the Metopion. The Metopion is an Oriental, woody fragrance, which is first very strong, but it becomes subtle with time on the skin. The main ingredients that made up the scent of the Metopion were bitter almonds, cardamom, mastic, myrrh and camel grass.
CV: Mendesian – named after the city of Mendes – was also referred to as the ‘emblem of Egypt’. Why was that?
DG: The Mendesian was the olfactory emblem of ancient Egypt in late antiquity, hence its nickname, “the Egyptian”. The perfume unfortunately did not survive in the Egyptian sources, however, numerous Greek writers praise its scent, calling it luxurious and expensive. The perfume was already known in Greece as early as the fourth century BCE, and it was then known as one of the costliest and most desired perfumes available. The popularity of the fragrance quickly spread throughout the ancient world and remained sought after for hundreds of years.
The Mendesian has a great significance in the history of perfumery. It was not only a perfume – it was a piece of culture in a bottle. The Mendesian was a piece of Egypt. Our research suggests that while the perfume was not recorded in the Egyptian sources, there is evidence that its origins go back to as early as the building of the pyramids. Its ingredients are known to have had a long tradition in Egypt for a cultic and medicinal purposes, for perfume preparation and for embalming the dead.
CV: Allegedly, the Mendesian was worn by the illustrious Cleopatra. How likely is this? Would she have worn it all year round or only on special occasions?
DG: We looked through the ancient Egyptian and Greek sources in an attempt to find a link between the famous queen Cleopatra VII and the perfume produced in Mendes. There is no written evidence linking the queen directly with the Mendesian. Nevertheless, it is clear from the ancient texts that Cleopatra was well-known in antiquity for her love of fragrances. The Greek physician Galen informs us that Cleopatra was well-educated and wrote about the application of perfume for medical purposes. Thus, it is highly likely that Cleopatra had access to the Mendesian, which was the most popular fragrance at her time.
CV: Can people purchase your reconstruction of the Mendesian perfume somewhere?
DG: Yes, they can. I have designed a scent collection I call “Ancient Egyptian Smell Kit” for educational purposes. The smell kit includes six of my smell reconstructions, which are all based on my PhD research on the sense of smell in ancient Egypt. One of the six scents in the collection is the Mendesian. The kit comes with a detailed description of the significance of each scent for the ancient Egyptian culture.
About Dora Goldsmith and Sean Coughlin
Dora Goldsmith and Sean Coughlin in Berlin have conducted several experiments in recent months to reconstruct the Mendesian perfume strictly following the ancient sources and employing the latest botanical identifications.
Dora Goldsmith is PhD student of Egyptology at the Freie Universität Berlin. The topic of her PhD project is the sense of smell in ancient Egypt, the exact title of her research being “The Archaeology of Smell in Ancient Egypt. A Cultural Anthropological Study Based on Written Sources”. Dora’s PhD project incorporates linguistic and cultural anthropological research. She records and translates all ancient Egyptian texts that include words related to olfaction, which help her define the role of smells in the ancient Egyptian society. In order to better apprehend the ancient Egyptian documents she works with, Dora also employs the method of experimental archaeology or ‘learning by doing’. She reconstructs the smells the ancient sources describe.
Dr. Sean Coughlin is a research fellow in the department of Classical Philology at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and the Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften. He works on the history of pharmacology and herbaria, including the theories and practices of flavor and scent in ancient science and medicine. He is currently completing a translation and commentary of one of the most transmitted herbal compendia of late antiquity.
Installation of the ingredients of the Mendesian. Among the main ingredients are myrrh, cinnamon, and cinnamon cassia. Copyright Dora Goldsmith.
Installation of the ingredients of the Metopian, which was based on Mendesian. Copyright Dora Goldsmith.
Stevenson, R.J (2014), ‘The Forgotten Sense’, in Levent, N. and Pascual-Leone, A (eds) The Multi-Sensory Museum, Plymouth: Rowman & Littlefield, 157-58.
Goldsmith. D. (2019), ‘Fish, Fowl, and Stench in Ancient Egypt’, in Schellenberg, A. and Krüger, T. (eds.), Sounding Sensory Profiles in the Ancient Near East, Ancient Near East Monographs 25, Atlanta, GA: SBL Press, 335-360.