Historical Journey of Natural Aromatics and Perfume Materials

Journey of Natural Aromatics and Perfume Materials

Natural aromatics and perfume materials constituted one of the earliest trade items of the ancient world, rare and highly prized. When the Jewish people began their exodus from Egypt to Israel around 1240 BC, they took with them many precious gums and oils together with knowledge of their use. 

On their journey, according to the Book of Exodus, the Lord transmitted to Moses the formula for a special anointing oil, which included myrrh, cinnamon, calamus, cassia and olive oil among its ingredients. This holy oil was used to consecrate Aaron and his sons into priesthood, which continued from generation to generation. Frankincense and myrrh, as treasures from the East, were offered to Jesus at his birth.

The Phoenician merchants also exported their scented oils and gums to the Arabian peninsula and gradually throughout the Mediterranean particularly Greece and Rome. They introduced the West to the riches of the Orient: they brought camphor from China, cinnamon from India, gums from Arabia and rose from Syria, always ensuring that they kept their trading routes a closely guarded secret.

The Greeks especially learned a great deal from the Egyptians; Herodotus and Democrates, who visited Egypt during the fifth century BC, were later to transmit what they had learned about perfumery and natural therapeutics. Herodotus was the first to record the method of distillation of turpentine, in about 425 BC, as well as furnishing the first information about perfumes and numerous other details regarding odorous materials. Dioscorides made a detailed study of the sources and uses of plants and aromatics employed by the Greeks and Romans, which he compiled the Herbarius.

Hippocrates – Father of Medicine

Hippocrates, who was born in Greece about 460 BC and universally revered as the father of medicine’, also prescribed perfumed fumigations and fomentations; indeed from Greek. medical practice there is derived the term “iatralypte”, from the physician who cured by the use of aromatic functions. 

One of the most famous of these Greek preparations, made from myrrh, cinnamon and cassis, was called ‘megaleion’ after its creator Megallus. Like the Egyptian kyphi’, it could be used both as a perfume and as a remedy for skin inflammation and battle wounds.

The Romans were even more lavish in their matic oils than the Greeks. They used three mata’, solid unguents; ‘stymmata’, scented oils; and ‘diapasmata’, powdered perfumes. They were used to fragrance their hair, their bodies, their clothes and beds; large amounts of scented oil were used for massage after bathing. 

With the fall of the Roman Empire and the advent of Christianity, many of the Roman physicians fled to Constantinople taking the books of Galen, Hippocrates and Discords with them. These great Graeco-Roman works were translated into Persian, Arabic and other languages, and at the end of the Byzantine Empire, their knowledge passed on to the Arab world. Europe, meanwhile, entered the so-called Dark Ages.

The Romans, like the Greeks and Egyptians, used fragrant oils in ceremonies and rituals, but they were particularly extravagant in their use of oils in baths, massage and as a scent for the hair and body.

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