Muslim Villa

Category 8 => MV inputs - => Topic started by: Heba E. Husseyn on December 25, 2019, 01:09:44 am

Title: Perfume makers of the medieval Islamic world
Post by: Heba E. Husseyn on December 25, 2019, 01:09:44 am

Rose perfume makers of Egypt 1870s.  Art Rudolf Ernst.

Image above, two young female perfume makers work in coordination. One brings in a basketful of roses, the other plucks the petals to crush and unsheathe the aromatic essence.   Additionally the colorful patterned tiles, the earthenware, the eastern copper, and the clear blue sky discernible through the arched doorway display a breathtaking pristine setting.

Fragrance was most commonly derived from locally grown flowers, fruits and aromatic woods like sandalwood etc.   Rose was the queen of natural perfumes.  


Natural scented water is a water with a sweet aromatic smell.  It is made of flowers or herbs and is the precursor of the modern day perfume. 

Many medieval perfumes were made by extracting natural oils from plants through pressing and steaming.  Petals or leaves were boiled with oil and water and the oil skimmed off and the scented water filtered.

Though roses can adapt and bloom in different climates, the best quality roses usually grow in tropical soil that's just a bit warm and damp. 

Lady and her maids, upper class home, Ottoman Turkey.  Art Kamil Aslinger.

No surprise, roses were the delight of Persia and Egypt where began the practice of distillation of rose petals.  Rose oil or rose attar was used for making rose perfumes.  Amazing as it may sound, no less than two thousand roses were required to prepare one gram of this exquisitely expensive rose oil.   In the Middle Ages, Persians appreciated the rose water and used it for fragrance, medicinal treatment and culinary purposes (flavoring certain foods). The rose water came to Europe much later through the scientist, Avicenna, when it became a profitable source of trade for the Persians.   The Persians often added aromatic rose petals to laundry water for washing clothes and linen.  Bits of dried and properly sifted rose petals were often sprinkled between clothes in the wardrobe;  the entire wardrobe would be reeking of the gorgeous scent of fresh and natural roses!  Bath water was often scented with rose petals.

The middle class of medieval Algeria.  Artist not confirmed.  Possibly F.A. Bridgeman.

Later, from the Egyptian and Persian societies, the Romans borrowed it too ... stretching it a bit too far.  They sprinkled the floors with rose petals.  Not just that, they also scented the wings of doves with strong rose fragrance and left them to fly to spread the scent in the air during feasts and formal gatherings.   That was somewhat crazy though! 

Sweet water as perfume for clothes was very common in 16th century Middle East.  They prepared rosewater with rose petals immersed in approximately four cups of boiling water.  Then the rosewater would be drained and cooled.  The petals were discarded which looked pale and whitish after boiling.   With the passage of time, other aromatic herbs were also used for scenting clothes as well as the surroundings that included lavender, jasmine, lime flowers, musk and ambergris.  Sometimes an amalgam of different aromatic herbs were blended together during distillation for a stronger and exotic fragrance.


From 1001 Inventions (

Let us briefly take a look how natural medieval perfumes differed from the modern perfumes at present.

Steam distillation for preparing natural perfumes in medieval times was based on the principle that plant materials placed in boiling water release their essential oils.   When the steam and oil condense, the oil separates from the water and can be collected.  As stated, thousands of kilos of flowers may be needed to obtain just one kilo of essential oil.   That explains why genuinely natural perfumes are a rarity in modern times. 

The first freakish perfume away from the all natural procedure started in 1370s in Hungary at the behest of the Hungarian monarch.  It was made by blending scented oils in alcohol.  It was known in Europe as "Hungary Water.'  From here, the deteriorated method of perfumery gradually took up and is presently the foundation of the modern method for preparing fragrances.

According to the modern technique involving the making of perfume, oils are diluted with alcohol and left to steep in stainless steel containers.   They are later filtered to expel any leftover waxy bits or particles.  This brings in the implementation of the first synthetic in perfumes - alcohol - which was not used in the medieval Middle-Eastern attar.    Modern perfume manufacturers claim alcohol helps the fragrance to last longer and delays evaporation, an opinion not entirely compatible with experience and observation.    In addition to the use of alcohol, "modern" perfumery involves still greater contamination with synthetics.  They use (particularly the cheaper ones) various chemicals to prepare aromatic compounds.  Thus the dark side of modern perfumes often produce the choking or asthmatic affect from the pungent fragrances.  They can also cause allergies or dermatitis on skin contact.  It's not the higher concentration of natural essential oils that are responsible for such reactions as nonsensically claimed by modern manufacturers.  It's the unnatural stuff they add to artificially enhance the natural fragrance (and thus to enhance the retail cost by duping customers) that's responsible for this muck-up.    In stark contrast to the medieval perfumes, the modern perfume industry has gotten shamefully commercialized.  Modern perfumes in dazzling fancy bottles, half-filled with synthetics and imprinted with exorbitant price labels are sold worth $7 billlion each year in North America alone;   it's a roaring multi-billion dollar industry and a ghastly distortion of a natural and healthy profession.

As Carl Heneghan ( said, Life was so simple when apples and blackberries were fruit, a tweet was the sound of nature, and facebooks were photo albums.    Though there were no mobiles until the turn of the third millennium, nor would you ever see a lone pedestrian engulfed in that insane passion for talking and grinning while sauntering the sidewalks, yet families and friends were a lot better connected.  Push back the timeline another couple of centuries into the past and civilization was rife with contentment;  life was exhilarating!  I'm alluding to those fabulous times when everything was straightforward, innate, non-worrisome, a time when quality mattered, the middle and working class were way happier.  They lived better, ate better, studied better, most importantly, there was no infighting among Muslims, no divisions into sects and groups, and no traitors ganging up with outlanders against their own ilks.

There was no reason why a poor man couldn't bring home for his kids the delicious Shami apples, quinces, oranges and peaches  ... the sultani quality!   Those dream pistachios, almonds and Yemeni raisins weren't off limits for anyone.   Banks of the Nile famously supplied refreshing cucumbers and citrons to villagers.  In stark contrast, our river banks are now stacked and polluted with industrial waste; the modern gift to humanity!  Unforgivable.  

Perfume lovers didn't have to pay an arm and a leg to buy Chanel or Estee Lauder replete with carcinogenic parabens.  They could only go for the awesome, pure and original natural oils of Aleppine jasmine, Damascene white and yellow water lily, chamomile, roses, violets, pomegranate blooms, musk, sandalwood and  much more.   Not to forget, pure, natural musk, rosewater and saffron were common and indispensable culinary necessities particularly used for flavoring Middle Eastern desserts.   In comparison, my head spins when I think of those rows of synthetized food flavors crammed with additives that don the shelves of our plush grocery stores.  The incongruity of quality is disturbing to say the least! 

And whoopee!!  The medieval, all natural Syrian hard cheese, Jibne Baida.   I doubt if it's still available.   Even if it is, it would be nowhere near as organic as in the long gone yesteryears.

deep breath ~

Indeed, The Almighty has everything much lovelier stored in Paradise - His final, stunning and unparalleled Gift to His slaves who acquire His acceptance on the Day of the Tryst.  Ameen ya Rab. 

Related posts:

-  Rose 'attar' (
-  Lemon juice and rosewater - two best natural skin toners (
-  Perfume - magical power and abstract glamour (
-  Saffron - queen of spices (

Title: Re: Perfume makers of the medieval Islamic world
Post by: N. Truth Seeker on December 25, 2019, 10:25:25 pm


 I  already felt I was carried to Jannah in my dream as I read this.  Ameen ya Allah.  An incredibly enjoyable read, very candidly articulated.  InshAllah, let us all work hard to get a lot better than this is Jannah.   One cannot only wish, one has to try and work for it.
Jabneh Baida (Shami white cheese) is still there, but you guessed it right.  My parents say it's nothing like used to be in their time.  I can understand.  The quality of milk has deteriorated.   Apart from the contamination, cattle and sheep that provide milk were much better fed back then.  

And think of the wild hadith, banning perfume!    Laaaugh   Once upon a time when I was much younger,  didn't know the importance of my own research and influenced by a few hadithist friends, I thought maybe there's something wrong with perfume otherwise why  would hadith ban it?  How little I knew the nature of hadith at that time  :D

Thanks much for this great post Sister Heba.

Title: Re: Perfume makers of the medieval Islamic world
Post by: Ruhi_Rose on December 25, 2019, 11:58:17 pm

Subhan'Allah ......  just so interesting, and love the images.  Unarguably modern world has screwed the quality of human life.  Every single benefit offered by technology comes with a much larger share of its downside.  Human race proves itself a loser yet again.

Big thankx Sis Heba. 

Also, talking of "Shami apples" as Sister Heba mentioned, "Shami" literally means Syrian, right?   So the reference is to the delicious Syrian apples. 

That reminds me, what about the origin of "Shami kebab" (شامی کباب‎) so popular in Pakistan.  Does it literally mean the Syrian kebab?    Maybe Sister Zeynab would know about it.


Title: Re: Perfume makers of the medieval Islamic world
Post by: N. Truth Seeker on December 26, 2019, 12:12:09 am

Etymologically "shami" refers to Bilad al-Sham, another title for Syria.  Literally "shami kebab" would be defined as Syrian kebab.  But there are different kinds of Syrian kebabs in Syria.  What type of "Shami kebab" is the one popular in Pakistan?


Title: Re: Perfume makers of the medieval Islamic world
Post by: Ruhi_Rose on December 26, 2019, 12:45:42 am

hummm, that's a good question.  Shami kebab is made with meat (can be beef, chicken or mutton/lamb) and split yellow peas (called channa dal in Urdu) with an array of spices, salt and chopped onions.  Everything is put in a cooking pot with enough water to submerge all ingredients and boiled until water is dry and meat and channa dal are tender.  Then the meat mixture is made into a paste on roller board or sometimes that isn't necessary if you're using meat pieces instead of minced meat.  A beaten egg or two and some yogurt are added to the meat paste, it is shaped into rounds and deep fried. 

Looks like this:


Title: Re: Perfume makers of the medieval Islamic world
Post by: N. Truth Seeker on December 26, 2019, 12:51:21 am

O I see.   I can't recall a Syrian kebab with ditto recipe.  Maybe my mom and sisters would know.  However, this is very similar to our falafel.

Title: Re: Perfume makers of the medieval Islamic world
Post by: Zeynab on December 26, 2019, 01:24:32 am

I absolutely adore this post.   We need to thank Allah Almighty again and again for bestowing such a great history to our Muslim world.  It's we who need to reprimand ourselves for completely failing to keep it up.  Allah bless you for this amazing hard work, Sister Heba.

Concerning Sister Ruhi's query, yes, brother TS is right.  It's similar to falafel.  He's also right, in that, 'Shami' does mean Syrian and therefore by definition "Shami kebab" means Syrian kebab.  History tells us that its origin is from northern Middle East viz Syria. 

Many Syrians and Lebanese who were connoisseurs of delectable food and had been in the food business as a family profession, migrated to the land of the Mughal Empire in South Asia during the Middle Ages.  During the Mughal era South Asia was quite a wealthy region.  The rich led a very high standard of life and paid attractive wages to their employees.  Shami kebab did not originate in South Asia, it was introduced there by the early Arab immigrants.   

But in modern times, a lot of South Asians, namely Indians, try to downplay the true origin of the term "shami kebab."  They have come up with various mythical stories.  Some claim it comes from the word "sham" which in Urdu means 'evening.'  So why would this particular kebab be alluded to as 'evening kebab' while it's been a popular item for dinner, lunch and snack?   Neither is the term 'sham' (evening) ever elongated nor abbreviated as 'shami.'  This tale makes no sense.  Another one claims "shami" takes its name from 'shamama' which is supposedly the name of some South Asian perfume.    But shami kebab has a very pungent foodish fragrance in which the meat is mixed with plenty of ginger and garlic paste, yogurt, channa dal and various savory spices.  No perfume carries this kind of aroma neither is it supposed to.  I mean, shami kebab is delicious to eat, but no one would want to use a perfume on their skin or clothes that smells of ginger, garlic, yellow split pea, chilly, cumin etc.  Right?  So, this second claim is another myth just as senseless as the first.  The third gossip is the most ludicrous of all (referring to the softer texture of shami kebab compared to other kebabs) that a cook in northern India invented it for a "toothless nawab" so it would be easier for him to chew and swallow.  "Nawab" means a rich man in Urdu.  Apart from the fact that there's absolutely no evidence to support this story, it doesn't trace the etymology of the term 'shami' either.   Shami kebab is clearly and certainly a variation of the Middle-Eastern falafel which is made of ground chickpeas, fava beans, herbs, spices and onions.  In shami kebab too all of these are used except fava beans which is substituted with minced meat .. and of course herbs and spices may vary to please differing taste buds.   But both are prepared in exactly the same way, finally deep fried, and they are look alikes too. 


Title: Re: Perfume makers of the medieval Islamic world
Post by: Ruhi_Rose on December 26, 2019, 01:32:35 am

Very interestingly summarized Sister Zeynab.  These are precisely the basic clarifications I was looking for.  Shukran dear Sis.

Title: Re: Perfume makers of the medieval Islamic world
Post by: N. Truth Seeker on December 26, 2019, 01:34:41 am

That was very informative for me as well.  Thank you Sister Zeynab.