On Cleopatra's scent

Eau de Cleo: Mendesian perfume recreated.

Queen Cleopatra VII of Egypt loved perfumes, or so are we told. But what were they like?


Egyptologist Dora Goldsmith of Freie Universitat in Berlin and Graeco-Roman specialist Sean Coughlin of the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague, and team, have tried to recreate the Mendesian perfume she may have used, named after its city of origin, Mendes in Lower Egypt. Excavations at Thoumis since 2009 have revealed a 2,300 year-old perfume factory. The finds include both kilns and clay perfume containers, which were passed on to Goldsmith and Coughlin so they could attempt to decipher the contents. Veteran Egyptologist Robert Littman calls the Mendesian perfume the ‘Chanel No. 5’ of late antiquity.


The researchers began by recreating the perfume using an 11th century medical manuscript from the medical records of Paul of Aegina, a 7th-century Byzantine Greek physician and cross referenced it to other sources. They used balanites and moringa oils at different temperatures, then combined them with myrrh, cinnamon, and resin ground to powder in a mortar.


The oils had different reactions to heat, which complicated the analysis. But eventually, the combination of ingredients produced an ‘extremely pleasant, elegant, and sweet scent’ that smelled of myrrh and cinnamon and remains fresh for almost two years. It could also be used to sooth the skin, and to treat a wound. Mixed with goose fat and wrapped in a bandage around the head, it could even alleviate hangovers.


As far as the researchers could tell, Mendesian perfume remained unchanged for eight centuries. Apparently, it was so valued that the pharaohs had a monopoly on its sale. A detailed residue analysis is awaited.


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Image: marble statue of Cleopatra as held by the Metropolitan Museum of art.