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The Eastern Perfume Route: Scents from Yemen

A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)

Perfume books always allude to the history of perfume as an art originating in the West, and it is true to the extent that the West established an international market for perfumery that had not previously existed. As is often the case, history is written by the victor, or in this case the side dominating markets. It is easy to believe, with the romanticized French perfume names and the slim blonde fragrance models, that perfume has always been a purely western concept. Nevertheless, much like every other branch of art, perfumery and aroma has its roots in more than one culture.

Ancient Egyptians were so obsessed with their perfumes that they were ‘buried’ with them; Persian nobility had signature perfumes specifically made for them, to the extent of having a unique perfume for the king in which anyone using the same scent would face execution. Romans were known not only to have dabbled in the art of perfume but also they were estimated to use about 2,800 tons of imported frankincense and 550 tons of myrrh a year.[1] The perfumes were used both for personal hygiene and as an aphrodisiac, but also to scent their temples and, most importantly, the temple of Aphrodite, the goddess of love and fertility. However, with all the beauty, sophistication, and magic that is associated with the art of perfume making, it is difficult to envision how a small, poor, war-torn country located at the Arabian Peninsula would have played a role in the world of perfumes. Yemen, however, well-known for its port and its coffee has also lent a hand in what we experience today in the modern perfume industry. From its historical routes that helped in the import of exotic elements, to the different notes that were both used and exported, Yemen has both intentionally and unintentionally contributed to the art of perfume, and had an undeniable impact on oriental aromatic tastes.

Artwork by Elza Shaher

  Yemeni frankincense and myrrh

One of the first uses of scents and aromas recorded was for its use in temples and religious shrines, where the burning of aromatic woods and resinous stones was used for special occasions and vigils. Frankincense (or olibanum if in oil form), one of the main aromatic resins burned in temples, was imported from two main countries, Somalia and Yemen. In Yemen, the best frankincense came from none other than the famous Island of Socotra, where you find some of the most expensive and powerfully aromatic frankincense. Frankincense from Socotra not only gives its scent slowly as it burns but it also has a very distinct sharpness, making it ideal for mixing with other scents when in oil form. This is the rarest and purest of all frankincense, and it is conserved as the highest grade of frankincense, which is reserved just for the kings and queens.

This species has a higher content of the constituent alpha pinene. Another note, often used by both monotheistic and polytheistic temples, is myrrh, or what is called Arabic myrrh. Myrrh has always been an integral companion to frankincense, and just like its companion, it has been associated both with religious, aromatherapeutic, and aphroditic purposes. The word mör or mur, from which myrrh is derived, means ‘bitter’. The etymology of the word gives one of the main indications of its origins, the Middle East. Just like frankincense, myrrh is a woody, warm aromatic, and slightly medicinal element that is extracted from the species commiphora myrrha. A lot like Frankincense, myrrh is found in countries in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. In Yemen, myrrh can be found in the southern regions, such as Shabwa, Abyan, Hadhramout, and the Tahama valley. Yemeni myrrh, unlike that found in other areas, is known for its pungent bitterness, which makes a solid base for modern perfumery. In Yemen to the present day, it is still a tradition for Yemeni households to burn frankincense and myrrh at the beginning of the Hijiri year and to fend off the evil eye (often while reciting sections of the Quran).

Artwork by Elza Shaher

Animalic and woods aromas

In contrast to the use of woody and balsamic scents for religious purposes, animalic scents had a purely primal purpose: procreation and the stimulation of desire. Animalic notes bring a raw primitive note to perfumery that is very similar to the scent of the act of coupling. One of the most famous sources of animalic notes has been the civet cat. In Yemen, a rare breed of the civet cat is found in only one region, Socotra Island. The civet cat produces a very odorous secretion to mark its territory. Diluted after some time, the odor of civet secretion, which normally is strong and repulsive, becomes pleasant with the animalistic-musk nuance. Naturally, due to the limited number of civet cats and the difficultly in catching and extracting the musk, it is very rare and expensive. Sources are not very clear on when exactly the trade in civet started in Yemen, but it most likely started some time during the past two centuries as more trade was happening between the East and West, with ships passing through Mokha port. Especially as Yemenis had already started using civet in what is called zubad (or z’bad), which is a potent traditional Yemeni paste, still used to this day in its raw form as an aphrodisiac, and also as a hair grooming product to smooth and scent eyebrows, moustaches, and beards, as well as a treatment for hair loss and various other folkloric uses. It is worth noting that in modern perfumery, civet is now synthetically made so as not to endanger animals.

Agar wood, or oud, has become one of the most sought after notes in modern perfumery. Much like the civet, agar wood was unlikely to have been exported from Yemen at earlier times, though it had been used by Yemenis for centuries. The purest and most expensive form of oud remains Cambodian; before the conflict, Yemen had been one of the sources of good quality oud, especially in eastern perfumes. Needless to say, in Yemen (much like many other countries in the region), oud has been an integral part of every occasion, from Friday gatherings to weddings and religious festivities. In fact, out of all the notes listed above, it is only oud that has made its way to the current Yemeni generations, with some forms of oud reaching over $500 for one kilo.

Artwork by Elza Shaher

‘Oud is the new vanilla!’

It is unknown when exactly the use of those notes had expanded from their religious and medicinal uses and entered our modern perfumery tastes. However, it must have come with the overall revolution of tastes that happened in Europe after the Second World War, when the fashion industry cast its eyes on the East for inspiration and exoticism.[2] Perfume would lend an adventure for those who couldn’t travel, and wafts of sun and warmth to the often-dreary cold European weather. Modern perfumery imported notes from Yemen and other eastern countries as well as many of the aromatic rituals and tastes that began seeping into the modern fashion world. Eastern, or what is more commonly called ‘oriental’ perfumes, carry notes that resemble the perfumes often found in the East, with notes of oud, musk, myrrh, and frankincense now some of the most expensive and bestselling perfumes in the industry. In fact, there is a common phrase that ‘oud is the new vanilla’, signifying the way eastern scents have penetrated the perfume market and common tastes. Some of the most expensive, and popular, perfumes today use the notes mentioned above. Dior Sauvage (both the modern and the original) Parfum, Tom Ford Tuscan Leather, as well as Chanel Coco Noir, Yves Saint Laurent Opium (one of the first perfumes to famously use myrrh as one of the main notes) and Amouge Jubilation use frankincense as one of their main notes, blended with other elements. As for oud and civet, I am sure your cabinets are full of perfumes with one note or another, but to mention some of the most famous: Guerlain Shalimar (a queen of perfume classics), Chanel Coco and N5 (the original) and Cartier Must de Cartier (the civet is so strong and animalic in this, only for the strong of heart).

 


[1] Ben-Yehoshua, Shimshon, Borowitz, Carole, Hanus, Lumir. (2012). ‘Frankincense, Myrrh, and Balm of Gilead: Ancient Spices of Southern Arabia and Judea.’ Horticultural Reviews. 39. 1-76. 10.1002/9781118100592.ch1.

[2] Turin, Luca. 2007. The Secret of Scent: Adventures in Perfume and the Science of Smell. (Harper).

 

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Maysaa Al-Aqil

A Yemeni currently based in Khartoum working for a non-profit. She is a perfume enthusiast, with her first ever recollection being four-years-old and trying to make perfume by stuffing Arabian Jasmin (ful) in a Shamlan water bottle with water and waiting for it to merge. Most of her knowledge has been through extensive reading, and she has completed two short online courses on perfume from ISIPCA.

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