Arabic fragrances are a fascinating journey. The eye zigzags through expanses of rose petals and souks with their colourful spices, chases the details of miniatures, and fixates on the trees growing in the desert. The sense of smell runs free, reconstructing, in front of these images, a magical world of smells and fragrances. These are the sensations you experience when visiting the exhibition titled “Parfum d’Orient,” which was opened in September and will run until March 17 at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris. It is a path that leads to the heart of millenary civilisations that appeals to the senses, especially the sense of smell, as scents guide visitors through their tour.
The Arab world’s irresistible attraction to fragrances
Perfumes have played a significant role in the Arab world since ancient times. The Arab countries have been the birthplace of fragrances, and this love for perfumes still runs deep in Eastern societies today. The story of Arabian perfumes is told through the use of various ingredients like resins (myrrh and frankincense), flowers (especially roses), and spices. As you walk through Arab cities, you can easily realise that fragrances are everywhere; they are not only in cosmetics but also as a medicinal remedy and religious offering, as well as a tool for well-being and elevation.
The origins of the Arab world’s attraction to perfumes can be traced back to their ancient knowledge of fragrant substances, which were exported to the West via the spice route, also a bridge of cultural exchange. Incense, myrrh, but also ambergris and musk, whose origins remained obscure for a long time, allowed the Arabs to monopolise their trade. Together with oud wood, they have always been, and still are, among the most prized essences in perfumery.
“As Strabo, a geographer, philosopher and historian of ancient Greece, wrote, the cradle of oriental perfumery lies around Arabia Felix, between Turkey and India, passing through Ethiopia, Somalia, Yemen, Oman and Iran; this is where most of the noble aromas are found”, points out Christopher Sheldrake, perfumer (he has worked alongside Serge Lutens for 30 years) and consultant for this exhibition.“Perfumes were held in high esteem, an esteem that the Muslim tradition reinforced. For the Prophet Muhammad, who was accustomed to living in the ever-scented environments of his homeland, scents were seen as a gift from Allah to humanity. Imbued with the culture of perfume, he made it a rule of conduct, an aesthetic expression of a good lifestyle”, the two curators of the exhibition, Hanna Boghanim and Agnès Carayon, explained.
A journey into the smell of Arabian homes
As the visitors walk by the documents on display, they will find themselves in Arab-Muslim homes, where fragrances play a significant role in social interactions (with guests’ clothes and hair being perfumed with light floral waters and fine essences being burnt to welcome them) and in personal beauty and hygiene rituals. Even love encounters are preceded by the purchase of scented products, used to perfume the body or discreetly diffused in the bedroom to add a sensual touch.
The profession of perfumer is highly regarded in Arab societies. “Symbolic of the respect he enjoys, the district dedicated to them is located near the main mosque in the heart of the city. It is one of the most important places in the city. Perfumers sell various substances, such as spices, herbs, resins, floral waters, or perfume compositions, the most famous of which are nadd, ramikk and ghâliyya. Perfumers are also knowledgeable in determining the cosmetic or medicinal properties of essences”, the two experts explained.
But what exactly is an Oriental perfume?
The Western notion of “oriental perfume”, which defines fragrances with amber or spicy effluvia, does not align with the Middle Eastern definition, as Christopher Sheldrake points out. “In general, Westerners define an ‘oriental’ fragrance when it is vanilla, spicy and ambery, while the scent of the Orient is influenced by bakhoor, the ancient traditional perfumes of the Levant countries, or the attars of India. In the Middle East, a taste for damask rose, oud, and saffron prevails. Today, the West gives these fragrances notes that are less figurative, more inspired by organic chemistry, fresh, floral and woody.”
A series of works by young artists (photos, sculptures, objects) show that the Arab perfume tradition continues to inspire and can serve as a starting point for new olfactory and aesthetic explorations.
For those interested in exploring further, there are hands-on workshops, courses and lectures available through February. You can find more information about these programmes at www.imarabe.org.