The year is 2019, but the chemical compound discovered by a team of scientists is transporting their imaginations far back in time. The compound emits an aroma which no one has experienced since the days of the Egyptian pharaohs. Evoking the mysterious and mystical world of ancient Alexandria, the aroma appears to be the bodily scent exuded by Queen Cleopatra…
Of course, the name of Cleopatra, her mythic legacy and, most memorably, the story of her tragic love affair with Mark Antony, has stood the test of time. Indeed, artists and craftsmen have depicted her image since antiquity, despite having no idea how she looked. In fact, her variously imagined form has been sculptured from marble, painted on canvas, inscribed on coinage and etched onto glass.
She has been the subject of Baroque and Renaissance artwork, plays, operas and poetry. And in modern times, films, musicals and novels. Moreover, Cleopatra’s supposed beauty is a relatively recent spin on her tale. In fact, early representations of the Egyptian queen, influenced by negative poems and historiographies recorded by the Romans, tended to be less than flattering.
But whether Cleopatra was as beautiful as Hollywood imagined her – or as plain as Roman artists depicted her – she continues to be a source of popular inspiration and intrigue. Indeed, we will probably never know how Cleopatra looked. However, we now know how she might have smelt, all thanks to forensic evidence dating to the Ptolemaic Kingdom, which flourished more than two millennia in the past.
In fact, the foundations of the Ptolemaic Kingdom were established some 2,351 years ago. In 332 B.C., the king of Macedon in northern Greece, Alexander the Great, invaded Egypt – which was then under the yoke of the Achaemenid Empire – and incorporated the territory into his own domain. When Alexander subsequently died in Babylon nine years later, control of the area fell to Ptolemy I Soter.
Soter had been a close friend, a military general and a historical chronicler of Alexander. He initially ruled Egypt as a loyal and subordinate governor, but as Alexander’s empire crumbled, he pronounced himself pharaoh, independent and autonomous. With an official start date of 305 B.C., the Ptolemaic dynasty ruled Egypt for some 275 years, its territory stretching as far as present-day Syria, Libya and Sudan.
The seat of royal power in the Ptolemaic Kingdom was the city of Alexandria, which had been founded by Alexander in 331 B.C. Alexandria reached a cultural apogee under Ptolemy II Philadelphus, who inherited a stable and wealthy kingdom from his father, Soter. Philadelphus constructed the Library of Alexandria, invested heavily in the arts and transformed the city into an intellectual and artistic powerhouse.
During the ensuing centuries, the pharaohs adopted numerous facets of Egyptian culture in order to legitimize their rule. For example, Ptolemaic rulers participated in Egyptian religious rites and were crowned in Memphis by the Egyptian High Priest of Ptah. Some Ptolemies even married their siblings, as described in the myth of Osiris. However, the pharaohs ultimately identified themselves as Greeks. They spoke Greek, ruled as Greek kings and refused to learn the Egyptian language.
The Ptolemaic Kingdom reached its political apex under the leadership of Ptolemy III Euergetes. Breaking with the peace-loving policies of his cultured father, Euergetes waged war on the Seleucid Empire of Syria – and roundly defeated it. In fact, the pharaoh’s naval fleets managed to dominate territories as far as Thrace in northern Greece, while his armies subjugated lands as far east as Babylonia.
The decline of the Ptolemies then began under Ptolemy IV Philopator, the son of Euergetes. Philopator had a penchant for orgies and was a dabbler in the arts. He was reputedly a feeble and crooked ruler, easily swayed by courtiers. He did emerge victorious in the Battle of Raphia – one of the biggest battles of ancient times. However, his policies also induced uprisings in parts of Egypt, some of them lasting for 20 years.
As the Ptolemaic kingdom entered terminal decline – a process that unfolded over several generations – another civilization to the east was on the ascent. Indeed, the Roman Republic appeared to be a bulwark against Seleucid and Macedon expansionism. And so, in the interests of self-preservation, the Ptolemies entered into a 150-year-long political pact with the Romans. However, as time went on, their alliance became increasingly one-sided.
As power coalesced within the Republic – and as the Ptolemaic Dynasty grew weaker – Rome came to dominate the political and economic life of Egypt. Under Ptolemy XII Auletes, the Republic was proclaimed the guardian of the Ptolemaic kingdom, and it demanded vast tributes in exchange for military protection. Diplomatic relations between Rome and Egypt subsequently reached a head during the rule of Auletes’s daughter, Cleopatra VII.
Cleopatra was the eldest surviving offspring of Auletes and, after his death in 51 B.C., the rightful heir to the Egyptian throne. However, in his will, Auletes had requested that Cleopatra should marry her brother – as was customary at the time – and rule jointly with him. And so, at the age of 17, Cleopatra was married to her 10-year-old brother, Ptolemy XIII Theos Philopator. She became the co-ruler of Egypt, but was later ousted by Theos Philopator’s counselors.
Exiled from the palace, Cleopatra, who was now 22, began gathering an army. Of course, a civil war in Egypt was bad business for the Roman Republic, which relied heavily on Egyptian exports such as grain. In 48 B.C., the Roman ruler, Julius Ceasar traveled to Alexandria and conducted a clandestine meeting with Cleopatra, who was apparently smuggled to his quarters inside a rolled carpet.
With his support, Cleopatra went on to defeat her brother in the Battle of the Nile. The young pharaoh subsequently drowned in its waters, although the exact circumstances of his demise are disputed. Cleopatra then married her younger brother Ptolemy XIV, as custom demanded. And they were both pronounced co-rulers of Egypt by Caesar.
Cleopatra differed from her predecessors in that she was the first Ptolemaic ruler to master the Egyptian language. And aside from Latin and her native Koine Greek, the preferred language of her Roman peers, she spoke a range of idioms that suggested expansive political designs. In fact, the Egyptian queen could speak Ethiopian, Hebrew, Arabic, Syriac, Parthian, Trogodyte and Median.
However, Cleopatra is remembered more for her passionate love affairs than her talents as a polyglot. In 47 B.C., she and Caesar took a two-month-long excursion on the Nile, marking the start of a famous romantic liaison. The affair bore them a son, Caesarion. And in 46 B.C., the Roman ruler installed a gold statue of Cleopatra inside the Temple of Venus Genetrix.
However, their union was not to last. On the Ides of March in 44 B.C., a group of senators murdered Caesar in the Theatre of Pompey. His death then led to a fatal split in Roman society. One faction supported Mark Antony, a general with a formidable military record. The other fell behind Octavian, Caesar’s grandson and only heir, who inherited not only his grandfather’s wealth, but the symbolically important title of “Caesar”.
For her part, Cleopatra threw her support behind Mark Antony, who appeared to be the stronger of the two leaders. However, her support was not merely political. Indeed, Cleopatra commenced a love affair with Mark Antony that was even more passionate and controversial than her dalliance with Julius Caesar. The two were ultimately wed in Egypt and had three children together.
Naturally, Mark Antony’s affair with Cleopatra provided political dynamite to his opponents. In Rome, Cleopatra was disdained as a scheming seductress, particularly after she handed a clutch of client monarchies to Antony’s children. And when Antony made clear his wish to be buried in Alexandria rather than Rome, it supplied an easy propaganda victory to Octavian, who was then able to depict Antony as disloyal to the Republic.
With Antony out of public favor in Rome, Octavian then made a critical tactical decision: all-out war against Antony. With Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa leading his navy, he eventually defeated Antony and Cleopatra in a battle at Actium. One year later, Octavian himself arrived in Alexandria to claim Egypt for Rome. But Antony committed suicide before he could be captured and died in the arms of his beloved Cleopatra.
Likewise, Cleopatra refused to be taken prisoner by Octavian. Not only would she have been executed by the Roman ruler, she would have been publicly humiliated in triumphal parade. Legend holds that she committed suicide by being allowing herself to be bitten by a venomous asp. However, another account suggests she died by poison. And still another suggests Octavian had her killed after all.
The death of Antony and Cleopatra marked the close of two important eras in ancient history. In Egypt, the Ptolemaic dynasty was consigned to dust, ushering in a new age of servitude. Indeed, Egypt was a now a mere province of Rome. Meanwhile, Octavian was now free to exert exclusive authority over his domain. The Republic was finished. The dawn of the Roman Empire had begun.
That Cleopatra left her mark on the world is indisputable. And while she may have been vilified by the Romans, in more recent times she has become a symbol of romance and femininity. Indeed, her status a modern cultural icon dates to the Victorian age and so-called “Egyptomania” – a fixation with all things Egypt, thanks in part to the archaeological discoveries of the day.
Egyptomania provided the inspiration for a series of famous photos of Emilie Langtry, who posed as Cleopatra in 1895. Nicknamed “The Jersey Lily”, Langtry was a British-American socialite, producer and actress. She was a darling of bohemians and society hostesses on the London scene and the images of her reclined in full Egyptian garb just might be the kitschiest ever tribute to Cleopatra.
In more recent times, Elizabeth Taylor is remembered for one of the most enduring depictions of the Ptolemaic ruler in the 1963 Hollywood epic Cleopatra. However, the film nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox and was plagued by production issues. Most controversial of all, Taylor and her co-star Richard Burton had a scandalous affair. Echoing the dramas of Cleopatra’s love life, their relationship would later evolve into one of the most tumultuous in Hollywood history.
Meanwhile, it is thanks to the work of two researchers from the University of Hawai’I at Manoa, Robert Littman and Jay Silverstein, that we have a sense of how Cleopatra smelt. According to the researchers, we now know what perfume she may have worn. Speaking to the website Atlas Obscura, Littman described her fragrance as “the Chanel No. 5 of ancient Egypt.”
Of course, Cleopatra’s perfume is itself the stuff of legends. It is said that when she visited Antony in Tarsus – the capital of the Roman province of Cilicia in present-day Turkey – she soaked the sails of her ship in perfume. The smell was apparently so powerful that the Roman general could detect it long before she came on shore.
To locate a sample of her perfume, Littman and Silverstein staged digs at the archaeological site of Tell-El Timai, north of Cairo, which lasted for a period of 10 years. In fact, Tell-El Timai was the site of the city of Thmuis, founded 6,500 years ago. And Thmuis was a center of production for two ancient perfumes: Mendesian and Metopian.
Also known as “The Egyptian”, Mendesian was bought and sold across the ancient world for thousands of years. It is believed to have been invented on the Nile delta in the city of Mendes, an important cultural hub during the Late Period of Ancient Egyptian civilization. Meanwhile, Metopian was prized not only as a perfume, but as a stomach medicine.
Speaking to Atlas Obscura, Littman described the perfumes as “the most prized” in the ancient world. Indeed, perfumes such as Mendesian and Metopian had a high cultural value in ancient societies, but especially so in their land of origin. In Egypt, the god Nefertem, which was frequently portrayed bearing water lilies, a staple ingredient in many Egyptian perfumes, was considered the god of perfume.
Littman and Silverstein struck olfactory gold when they uncovered the remnants of an ancient Egyptian perfumery in Tell-El Timai. The site, which is 2,300 years old, contained kilns used for firing imported clay. The perfumery apparently crafted their own bottles and receptacles, including copious amphora – that is, narrow-necked Greek or Roman jars with handles. Furthermore, the presence of gold and silver near the kilns indicated that the perfumery was a site of trade or monetary exchange.
Within the bottles and amphoras the archaeologists found some sludge-like remains. They conducted a lab analysis of the chemicals and submitted the results to Dora Goldsmith and Sean Coughlin, two authorities on Egyptian perfume. Using these and formulas described in ancient Greek documents, they then recreated Mendesian and Metopian.
Littman was apparently elated to have re-discovered the ancient scents. In a university press release, he said, “What a thrill it is to smell a perfume that no one has smelled for 2,000 years and one which Cleopatra might have worn.” Indeed, it is not every day one gets to experience the scent of ancient Egypt.
Naturally, the recipes for the perfumes utilized a wide range of local plants. In fact, the base for both perfumes was myrrh, a pungent resin produced by a thorny tree which grows in the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa. To myrrh was added olive oil and a range of aromatic ingredients including cinnamon and cardamom.
Thanks to their oily constituents, the perfumes were considerably thicker and gooier than contemporary scents. Moreover, they were considerably smellier. In fact, Mendesian and Metopian exuded strong, pungent aromas reminiscent of spice and musk. Far from subtle, they also remained on the body for much longer than any modern perfumes.
Naturally, they had a shelf life of several years, too, and may even have improved with aging. And, of course, strong, long-lasting aromas were preferable to the consumers of the ancient world. As the Greek philosopher Theophrastus once remarked, “A lasting perfume is what women require.” However, if a perfume proved too overpowering, it was not uncommon to dilute it with wine.
Meanwhile, from March to September 2019, a sample of the recreated perfumes was made available to the public in a temporary exhibition at the National Geographic Museum in Washington D.C. Titled “Queens of Egypt”, the exhibition included artefacts from a range of museums in Europe and Canada, as well as jars of Mendesian.
However, Mandy Aftel, a perfumer from California is not convinced that Cleopatra would have worn either Mendesian and Metopian. Aftel – who assisted in the re-creation of a perfume extracted from the death mask of a child mummy in 2005 – believes that Cleopatra would have instead worn signature scents, perhaps created in her own exclusive perfume factory. She told the Times in 2019, “I don’t think anybody knows for sure what she used.”
Nonetheless, it is impossible to imbibe Mendesian and Metopian without catching a ghostly trace of ancient Egypt. From bustling marketplaces to opulent palaces to mysterious temples on the banks of the Nile, the air would have been scented not only with the visceral strife of everyday life, but with perfume. Indeed, the mark of a crafted fragrance is the mark of a civilization.