Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies

Historical Background of Perfume & Perfume Manufacturing in Iran

By: M. Hossein Abrishami

Abstract: Iranians are regarded as the first manufacturers of perfume and discoverers of decorative and cosmetic powders and fragrant oils or beauty crams.

Cultivation and growing of sweet smelling plants and flowers and obtaining perfumes and "golab" (rose water) from them, preparation of perfumed oils and creams and manufacture of various kinds of "ghalieh" (perfume composed of musk and ambergris) and perfumed materials and the preparation of sweet smelling incenses in ancient Iran, particularly in the Fars Province, were quite widespread and prevalent.

Iranians are regarded as the first manufacturers of perfume and discoverers of decorative and cosmetic powders and sweet smelling oils or beauty creams.

It would be a pity for Iran not to be among the main manufacturers of expensive perfumes in the world at the present time.

According to the stone inscriptions of Persepolis (1 & 2), making of chains and umbrellas were among the innovations of Iranian of the Achaemenian era.

Plants and flowers, perfumes and aromas always attracted the attention of Iranian since the most remote times. In ancient sources, including the stone inscriptions of Achaemenian periods, as well as the Greek and Roman sources and Pahlavi texts, clear indications can be found about the Iranian's attention to, and interest in, various kinds of perfumes, incenses and sweet aromas.

In stone images of Persepolis Darius is shown while sitting on a nice chair with two scent bottles or incense bones in front of him, and Xerxes is standing behind him while holding the same kind of flowers in the left hand. These flowers are probably Lily of the Valley or narcissus which were peculiar to the Fars province, and which were mentioned in Islamic sources.

In another image the Iranian monarch is shown holding a beautiful flower in his left hand (and a protruded umbrella is kept over his head).

In another image an Iranian lady is holding a sweet smelling blower or apple in front of her face or nose. Without any doubt, these flowers had beautiful colors and aroma which attracted the attention of Iranian men and women. In addition to that, there is a wealth of sources and documentary evidence in support of Iranians' deep attachment to various kinds of plants, sweet smelling flowers, preparation of perfumes, fragrant materials and a variety of incenses. According to Will Durant and some western sources, Iranians were the first manufacturers of various kinds of perfumes, discoverers of decorative and cosmetic powders. Invention of sweet smelling essences or cosmetic creams is also attributed to Iranians.

Growing and cultivation of many kinds of plants and fragrant flowers, obtaining perfumes and golab (rose water) from them, preparation of perfumed oil, manufacture of musk and ambergris and perfumed materials and preparation of sweet smelling incenses were widespread in ancient Iran, particularly in Fars province. Cultivation and growing of many of the perfumed flowers and plants, which was prevalent in ancient times, continued for several centuries after Islam, and a few of them have persisted till today.

The equipment and installations for obtaining rose water and perfume making workshops were abundant and quite active in many towns and villages of Fars province, particularly Bishapour, Firoozabad and Kazeroon and later on in Shiraz, and their sweet smelling products and perfumed materials were exported to remote corners of the world. Today we are witnessing some traditional methods for obtaining perfume and "arrack" of some perfumed and aromatic plants and flowers. These methods are based on the experiences of our ancestors in the ancient times.

In Fars cultivation of various kinds of sweet smelling flowers and plants led to the acquisition of excellent varieties. Iranian and Muslim geographers of the fourth century have mentioned, and alluded to, a very beautiful and sweet smelling flower, which is without any doubt, the product of Iranian gardeners of ancient times. The author of "Hodood-ul-Alam" (the boundaries of the world) mentions a flower in Shiraz called "esporghami" which is more popularly known as Lily of the Valley or narcissus.

Moghaddasi (the author) adds that Lily of the Valley narcissus flower has a petal or rose-leaf like that of Lily of the Valley and an interior like that of narcissus eye. Abu Reihan Birooni has described this beautiful and sweet-smelling Iranian flower in the same way. In the writer's opinion this flower is probably the same as that held in the left hand of Darius and Xerxes.

During the Achaemenian period in addition to perfume and sweet smelling cosmetic ointments, some materials and incenses were also prepared to give a pleasant odor to the atmosphere.

According to Herodotus when Xerxes wanted to pass through Dardanel strait, his troops "burned various kinds of sweet smelling materials or the bridge, and branches of myrtle were scattered on it. Then the sun rose and Xerxes sprayed wine in water from a golden bowl. Everybody was crowned by means of flowers."

According to Herodotus, Darius' infantry was 10,000 in number, all of whom were crowned by flowers. The crowns were made of sweet smelling flowers and myrtle leaves, which were called "tiar" by Iranians. While describing Xerxes' battles, Herodotus refers to the arrival of his courier in Susa and writes: "Arches made of myrtle leaves were built on the road, and perfumes and aloes wood were burnt to give a good aroma to the atmosphere."

According to the appendices of Towrat (the old Testament, Ester Book, P. 773), when a beautiful Jewish girl by the name of Ester (star) wanted to be included among the women of the court of Achaemenian king, she had to be cleaned and purified. "Their purification days (meaning the intended girls of the court) ended in the following manner: six months with myrrhs oil and six months with perfumes and means of purification of women, then she would enter the royal court."

Without any doubt, Jews began to penetrate into the court of the superpower of the time from the same date and began to use perfume and incense also from the same period. On this basis, the perfume and incenses which are burnt in churches and synagogues today, follow the traditions set by ancient Iranians.

Bolsara, following the researches he has made, has come to the conclusion: "Since 6th century B.C. the descendants of Israel established contact with the great king of Achaemenides. Many of the customs and rites of Iranians gradually became parts of their customs and rites. After the advent of Christianity many of those customs and rites persisted either in the previous form or with minor changes." As the late Abbas Eqbal Ashtiani writes: "Use of perfume and aromatic materials, burning of myrrh and ambergris were among the Manicheans' customs and rites."

During the Sassanides period preparation of various kinds of perfumes and flower water (like golab, as well as sweetbrier or eglantine water) was quite prevalent. According to Jahaz (160-255 lunar hijira year), the Sassanid kings were selective in their use of perfumes, aromas and incenses, in such a way that their companions and relatives were not allowed to use the same perfumes and aromatic materials that were used by kings. Jahaz adds that when Ardeshir Babakan put crowns on his head, Iranians were not entitled to decorate their caps and hats by means of flower bunches, because the cap would look like a crown.

Christianism reminds us that Khosrow Parviz had issued orders that his letters should be written on pieces of paper perfumed with golab and saffron. Khosrow's palaces were also scented by means of perfumes suitable for occasions and festivities.

The Iranian orators and writers of the post-Islamic period have described spraying of perfumes and the bestowal of gold and silver in royal receptions and festivities. Daghighi Tousi, when describing the triumphal return of Goshtasb to Balkh (the capital of Iran during Satiric period) quotes that Goshtasb: "Ordered that fires should be lighted and myrrh and ambergris be ignited." When describing Esfandiar's ascension to the throne, Daghighi says: "In front of him myrrh was burnt, It looked as if fire was lit".

The sage of Tous narrates many cases of bestowal of gold and silver and spraying of perfume. In those days saffron, just like myrrh and ambergris, was burnt to aromatize the space. For example, in accordance with Ferdowsi's epic poems, when Freidoon triumphed over Zahhak, he put Kiani crown on his head and: "Ordered that fire should be lighted ambergris and saffron be ignited".

According to the history of Qom, bestowal of coins and saffron was quite widespread in Qom during the first hijira century. Esfandiari Kateb writes that in the 6th century, the king of Mazandaran, following the ancient tradition, organized a magnificent reception, and that decorators "threw many tons of sweet basil, flowers, violets and venture ... and behind them a servant burnt myrrh, ambergris and saffron in a golden censer."

Beihaghi, describing the reception of Mahmoud Ghaznavi, refers to spraying of flowers by pretty girls, adding: "One day it happened that when Amir was in Firoozi garden (in Ghaznain) so many flowers were thrown about that they could not be counted."

There are many indications and pieces of documentary evidence in hand about the cultivation of flowers, preparation of various kinds of perfumes, scents and incenses, aromatizing spaces and presentation of flowers in ancient Iran and during post-Islamic period. References have even been made about Iranians' naming of flowers in accordance with the names of persons and places. For example Gardizi says in 433 hijira year that Ahmad ben Soheil, a genuine Iranian, a descendant of Yazdgerd and a farmer of Jiranj "which was a village of Marv, forefather of Ahmad, known as Kamkar. Gradually this name was given to a variety of flower which is quite red."

Presentation of bunches of flowers or sweet smelling fruits have been widespread since ancient times. Ferdinand Yusti, describing the stone inscriptions of Achaemenian period says: "As the image of Persepolis shows, the Shah is holding a bunch of flowers in his left hand, which is similar to a kind of lute or lotus tree. The Iranians who are in the presence of the Shah are holding pomegranate tree, but the flowers in the hand of Darius and Xerxes are probably narcissus and lily of the valley. Sometimes sweet smelling fruits were kept, as it is still the custom today."

Iranshah Abolkheir, one of the orators of the fifth century, speaks about the coronation of Homay and the bunch of flowers, presented to her. He says: "A bunch of flowers put in her hand, Regal Shawl round her waist tied".

This Ardabili draper narrates the story of flower picking by Sheikh Safi-ul-din Ardabili and its presentation of Sheikh Zahed Gilani in the seventh century. He says: "He set foot forward and gave a bunch of flowers to Sheikh Zahed."

According to the writings of the sage of Toos, recognition of flowers, sweet smelling plants and preparation of perfume are among the works of Jamshid, the Pishdadi king.

Says he: "He brought back aromas with speed As people were for it in need."

Tabari says that Jamshid was the original maker of perfumes and many phenomena. He gathered many useful things, including aromas, from seas, mountains & deserts. "After beholding these amazing things, people observed Norooz festivities."

Balami says that it was Jamshid who used sweet smelling plants and aromas.

In Norooz Nameh, Khayyam reminds us that Jamshid get hold of mask, ambergris, myrrh, camphor, saffron and other sweet smelling plants.

Thalebi Neishabouri, Ibne Balkhi, Ibn-e Mobarakshah, too, attribute the discovery of perfume and the art of perfumery to Jamshid. In the year 520, an Iranian historian attributed discovery of perfumes and aromatic materials to Manouchehr, another Pishdadi king, and has nicely quoted the derivation of the word Boostan (park, garden) in the following words: "Manouchehr brought many blossoms, flowers and basils from mountains and deserts to towns and cities. He ordered a well to be built, when it blossomed forth and exuded good smell, he called it Boostan."

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