Trends in the use of perfumes and incense in the near east after the muslim conquests

Amar Zohar, Efraim Lev

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Perfumes have been known as utilizable but exclusive products since antiquity. Use of aromatic substances was first mentioned in archaic sources of the ancient world. The origin of such fragrant substances was mainly vegetable and animal. Throughout history, the use of subtle perfumes increased and some of the exotic materials became expensive and valuable commodities. They were the source of wealth for cultures and rulers. The contribution of the Arabs to the distribution of new crops, knowledge, industrial techniques and substances is a well-known phenomenon. In our article we intend to focus on the new perfumes that were distributed throughout the world thanks to the Arab conquests and the knowledge of their other uses, mainly medicinal, that was handed down along with the products themselves. About 20 common perfumes are known to have been used in the medieval world, though half of them were not mentioned in earlier sources. These phenomena will be dealt with and presented in a profile we built up for four perfumes: agarwood, camphor, musk and ambergris. The theoretical and practical uses of these perfumes that are presented in detail (based on various sources including traders' documents, medical literature and practical Genizah fragments, dealing mainly with medicine) will serve as case studies for the understanding of new trends in the uses of perfumes after the Muslim conquest. Arab perfumes can be divided into three groups, according to their level of importance: A. New perfumes, mainly from the vast region named India; most of which (such as camphor, ambergris and sandalwood and a compound made out of them known as nadd and ghāliya) were not known in the Middle East and the Mediterranean region until the Muslim conquests. B. Perfumes that kept their popularity including: a variety of cinnamon, costus, spikenard, frankincense, saffron and rose. C. Perfumes that lost their worth like balsam and myrrh. It seems that camphor was the best and most cherished perfume that substituted balsam. Like balsam, the importance of myrrh that was imported from Arabia and East Africa also declined and it seems that its substitute was musk. Transformations in perfume fashion were in fact only part of a wider revolution of the Arabic material culture which the Middle East, the Mediterranean region and even many European countries experienced due to the Arab conquests.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)11-30
Number of pages20
JournalJournal of the Royal Asiatic Society
Issue number1
StatePublished - Apr 2013

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cultural Studies
  • General Arts and Humanities


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