What did Cleopatra smell like? She must have smelled pretty good to attract the likes of Julius Caesar and Marc Antony. Or was it just her good looks and power as queen of Egypt that drew them to her? Well, now you can find out for yourself. Researchers using ingredient found at an ancient Egyptian perfume factory have managed to recreate the fragrance Cleopatra probably wore over 2,000 years ago. Should it be called Chanel Roman Numeral Number I? If that scent doesn’t lure your Antony-equivalent, perhaps you can get to his heart through is stomach with some Egyptian bread made from 4,500-year-old yeast found in ancient Egyptian pottery. Maybe you should try both, just in case.
“After the assassination of Julius Caesar, she left Rome to become the queen of Egypt. There she greeted Mark Antony, a Roman politician, on a ship with perfumed sails. Cleopatra’s arrival was announced by clouds of perfume before her barge came into view.”
Perfume Power tells this story of the power of Cleopatra’s scent, which she had made at her own perfume factory by the Dead Sea and was said to evoke “the fragrance of the blue lotus, which was sacred to the Pharaohs, frequently depicted on tomb walls, and had hallucinogenic properties.” NOW are you interested? Robert Littman, an archaeologist at the University of Hawaii was. In 2012, a decade-long search by a team he led discovered a factory north of Cairo used by a perfume merchant in about 300 BCE and found jugs and bottles with residue inside them – most likely from the best-known perfumes of the time called Mendesian and Metopian.
According to a University of Hawaii press release, Littman sent the residue to German researchers Dora Goldsmith and Sean Coughlin, experts on Egyptian perfume, who determined that the formula included myrrh, cardamom, olive oil and cinnamon, and made a batch using techniques from ancient Greek texts. The thick concoction is strong and spicy, but that didn’t bother Littman.
“What a thrill it is to smell a perfume that no one has smelt for 2000 years and one which Cleopatra might have worn.”
He doesn’t say if it was psychedelic, but that cinnamon and olive oil scent might go well with the ancient Egyptian bread baked by Seamus Blackley using actual 4,500-year-old yeast harvested from ancient Egyptian pottery and revived in a sourdough-like starter. If that name sounds familiar, you’re a true Xbox geek — Blackley is often called the “Father of the Xbox” because he was the co-creator and technical director of the Xbox platform at Microsoft, and has since become well-known in game development. In his spare time, Blackley told the New York Times that he’s a “bread nerd” who collects rare and ancient yeasts (must be nice to be that rich) and attempts to bake them into ancient and exotic breads.
“It’s deeply cool to me. I think it’s really important, and we owe so much to these ancient people. And often, or maybe always, we tend to think of people living in antiquity as being simple or stupid, and of course that’s insane. They were brilliant.”
Blackley teamed up with Richard Bowman, a biologist at the University of Iowa, and Serena Love, an archaeologist and Egyptologist at the University of Queensland in Australia, and convinced curators at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Peabody Museum at Harvard to let them attempt to revive yeast they believe was still intact on ancient Egyptian ceramics used to either bake bread or brew beer. The solution they used didn’t damage the pottery but it did wake up the yeast, which Blackley used as a starter to bake a loaf of ancient bread (see it here). Of course, he then bragged about it on Twitter, which got the attention of the media. In response to skeptics, Bowman pointed out that the yeast could have been contaminated by modern spores, so he’s in the process of sequencing the genomes for a comparison.
“The crumb is light and airy, especially for a 100% ancient grain loaf. The aroma and flavor are incredible. I’m emotional. It’s really different, and you can easily tell even if you’re not a bread nerd. This is incredibly exciting, and I’m so amazed that it worked.”
Needless to say, Seamus Blackley is as excited about his ancient Egyptian bread as Robert Littman was about his Cleopatra perfume. Is there any chance either will make it to modern markets? With the amount of attention they’ve generated, it’s a strong possibility.
Now all you need is a sailboat with some mixing bowls, an oven and a big sprayer.