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Scientists and perfumers recreate Cleopatra’s 2000-year-old perfume

Tom Knowles, August 14, 2019 6:45PM The Times

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Actor Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra in the 1963 film called Cleopatra media_cameraActor Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra in the 1963 film called Cleopatra


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Archaeologists and perfumers have recreated the perfume worn by Cleopatra, the last pharaoh of Ancient Egypt.

Legend says that when Cleopatra visited her future husband Marc Antony in Tarsus­ in 41BC she ordered that the purple sails of her royal golden ship be soaked in enough perfume that it could be smelled long before it reached the shore.

Her beautiful-smelling ship was filled with flowers and she reclined* on deck surrounded by her servants and her gold as she travelled up the river Cydnus to see Marc Antony. He was a powerful Roman general and politician.

As soon as he saw her (and perhaps smelled her and her ship) he fell in love with her.

A team of archaeologists* and perfume experts has concocted the perfume following a recipe that is the result of a decade-long dig at a site north of Cairo in Egypt called Tell-el Timai.

This area was known in ­Ancient Egypt as the city of Thmuis, founded in about 4500BC, and was home to the best-known perfumes, called Mendesian and Metopian.

“It was the most prized perfume of the ancient world,” Robert Littman, an archaeologist at the University of Hawaii in the US, told magazine Atlas Obscura.

media_cameraHarriet Walter as Cleopatra in a production of the play Antony and Cleopatra.

In 2012 the team discovered a factory used by a perfume merchant in about 300BC, which included a space for making some sort of liquid as well as several bottles and jugs with residue* still ­inside them.

The bottles didn’t have any scent left in them, so the scientists studied the chemical residue to work out the perfume ingredients.

Mr Littman and Jay Silver­stein, a colleague, presented their findings to Dora Goldsmith and Sean Coughlin, experts on Egypt­ian perfume, who then helped to recreate the scent following methods found in Ancient Greek texts.

The basis of the scent is myrrh, a resin taken from a thorny tree found in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian peninsula. The team added ingredients including cardamom, olive oil and cinnamon.

The resulting perfume is ­thicker and stickier than modern fragrances, almost like olive oil, and produces a strong, spicy scent that lingers longer than today’s perfumes.

“What a thrill it is to smell a perfume that no one has smelled for 2000 years and one which Cleopatra might have worn,” Mr Littman said.

However, US perfumer Mandy Aftel, who in 2005 helped to reproduce a fragrance used to scent a child mummy, said Cleopatra was likely to have had her own perfume factory and signature* scent: “I don’t think anybody knows for sure what she used.’’

This article originally appeared in The Times and was reproduced with permission.

Image of Cleopatra on the silver denarius  dated 32BC on display at Newcastle University in Newcastle, England 14/02/2007. The Roman coin depicts the celebrated queen of Egypt as a sharp-nosed, thin lipped woman with a protruding chin. In short, a fair match for the hook nosed, thick necked Mark Antony on the other side. media_cameraAn image of Cleopatra on a Roman silver coin dated 32BC. Marc Anthony is pictured on the other side of the coin.

Cleopatra was born in 69BC (2088 years ago) in Alexandria, Egypt.

She was the last active ruler of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt.

When her father died in 51BC she and her brother Ptolemy XIII jointly ruled. They later had a falling out, which led to a civil war and he was killed in battle.

As pharaoh, she had absolute power of Egpyt, including being in charge of all laws, religion and decisions.

Cleopatra has fascinated people all over the world throughout every period of history since her lifetime. She has featured in hundreds of paintings and books and dozens of movies and plays.

media_cameraElizabeth Taylor in the film Cleopatra, 1963. Picture: Getty Images

No one can know for sure what she looked like but most agree she was very beautiful and incredibly glamorous, wearing luxurious clothes and extravagant* jewellery and took a lot of care with her appearance.

She could speak many languages, including her birth language, Koine Greek, as well as Ethiopian, Hebrew, Arabic, Trogodyte, a Syrian language, Median, Parthian and Latin (the language of the Roman Empire). She was the first leader of her kingdom to speak Egyptian.

After her death in 30BC, Egypt became a province of the Roman Empire.

media_cameraTahlia as Cleopatra for Book Week at Scarborough State School, Qld. Picture: supplied


  • reclined: laid back on a lounge
  • archaeologists: experts in studying human-made artefacts
  • residue: traces left behind
  • signature: a thing they’re known for
  • extravagant: lavish, over the top


Two-thousand-year-old Pompeii skeleton found

Eight mummies found in Egyptian pyramid

Lost civilisation was ruled by women

Ancient Egyptian tomb discovered


  1. Who was Cleopatra?
  2. Describe Cleopatra’s ship when it arrived in Tarsus.
  3. Where did the perfume makers get the method for recreating this perfume?
  4. What is myrrh?
  5. Is Mandy Aftel confident the perfume is accurate? What expertise does she have in this area?
  6. Where was Cleopatra born?


1. Create a design

Design a special box and perfume bottle with label for Cleopatra’s Perfume.

Time: allow 20 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Visual Communication Design, Design and Technologies

2. Extension
“Archaeologists and scientists are wasting their time studying unimportant things like perfume.” Do you agree with this statement? Write a response explaining your opinion on this. Use examples to make your writing convincing.

Time: allow 25 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, History

Scent or Stench
I don’t know about you, but a thick sticky substance that produces a strong spicy scent sounds like it could be seasoning for her food, not her body. What do you think?

Do you think they found perfume or salad dressing?

Write a follow-up article that either continues the story of the perfume being found: Ancient fragrance line taking the world by storm”, or “Discovery debunked unless Cleopatra spritzed with salad dressing!”

Use your VCOP skills to ensure you really capture the reader’s attention and focus on your openers and closures to start and end strong.

HAVE YOUR SAY: Do you think this perfume would smell just like Cleopatra’s perfume?
No one-word answers. Use full sentences to explain your thinking. No comments will be published until approved by editors.

Extra Reading in history