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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Latest trend in scents: 3,400-year-old Pharaoh's perfume

The latest thing in scents next year could be the oldest perfume in the world, made especially for an Ancient Egyptian female pharaoh, according to German scientists who are analyzing residue found in a 3,400-year-old perfume flacon.

The German researchers at the Bonn University Egyptian Museum say they will use the analysis to recreate the original perfume which was buried in an exquisite alabaster vessel bearing the royal insignia of Hatshepsut, the most powerful woman ever to rule Egypt before the Ptolemies and the Romans conquered it.

The intact perfume jar has remained sealed since it was interred in the Valley of the Kings 1,400 years before Cleopatra. On a hunch, the Bonn Egyptologists recently ran a CAT scan which revealed 3-D images of a residue at the bottom.

"No one had ever done that before," says museum curator Michael Hoeveler-Mueller. "We were frankly overjoyed at the findings. And now we are conducting a chemical analysis of the residue in hopes of being able to recreate the exact original perfume."

The analysis and possible recreation of the scent is expected to be finalized later this year, he told the Bonn newspaper General-Anzeiger.

"We think it probable that one constituent was frankincense - the scent of the gods," he added.

That theory is based on the fact that Hatshepsut sent an expedition to the Land of Punt, modern-day Eritrea, which returned with gold, ivory, ebony and living specimens of frankincense trees.

The frankincense trees were planted in a vast, irrigated garden which spread out in front of her cliff-side mortuary temple directly across the Nile from the Karnak Temple of Amon, the god she said had been her heavenly father.

She was the granddaughter of powerful warrior pharaohs who had wrested Egypt from foreign rule by the hated Hyksos, founding the 18th Dynasty and ending a century of chaos which was forever etched on the memories of Egyptians as something to be avoided at all costs in future.

Against that backdrop, Egypt was left in the lurch when her kingly husband, Thutmose II, died at an early age He left only Hatshepsut and a small son by a secondary wife. Thus, Hatshepsut became co-regent with her small step-son Thutmose III. She later proclaimed herself "king" and portrayed herself as a male and ruled for 22 years until her step-son Thutmose III grew to manhood and succeeded her.

Under her two-decade rule, Egypt enjoyed a peaceful and prosperous time. Yet after her death, the "female pharaoh" was scorned, her images and inscriptions mutilated and her monuments demolished.

When she was rediscovered in the 19th century, Hatshepsut was regarded as a kind of ancient Queen Victoria who presided wisely over a vast empire. But in the early 20th century, her image changed dramatically, primarily due to lurid and highly fanciful novels and headline-making TV specials.

It has been claimed she was a wicked stepmother, who usurped innocent little Thutmose, had a liaison with the architect who built the mortuary temple and who, according to some versions, was in fact the power behind the throne.

But those claims are almost entirely ratings-spawned conjecture owing to the simple fact that there is virtually no historical record.

In recent years, British Egyptologist Joyce Tyldesley has gone far in giving Hatshepsut's battered image a "re-launch". In books, articles and media interviews, Tyldesley dispels many of the "wicked stepmother" tales surrounding Hatshepsut and presents a lucid portrait of a very level-headed ruler who loved her country more than she loved any man - a bit like Elizabeth I of England.

Tyldesley points out that Hatshepsut's father and grandfather had fought strenuously to unite Egypt after 100 years of chaos and foreign rule under the heel of the despised Hyksos.

The royal bloodline descended via the mother, so it was imperative that Hatshepsut bear a male child - which she did not. When her husband died at a young age, the only male heir was a small boy born of a secondary wife who was not of royal blood.

Tyldesley says Hatshepsut feared Egypt would descend into chaos and civil war unless she took action - drastic action worthy of the daughter of warrior kings. So she proclaimed herself "king" and rightful heir to the throne of her warrior forefathers who had brought peace and prosperity to Egypt after generations of turmoil.

In doing so, she bought time for her little step-son to grow to manhood. She taught him to become a warrior king himself, worthy of being entrusted with power. And it worked: Thutmosis III became the greatest warrior king in all of Egyptian history. He expanded the empire to its greatest extent. The 18th Dynasty, started by her grandfather, became a period of unparalleled political stability known as the New Kingdom.

The historical facts show that she allowed her stepson to grow to manhood, gave him full control of the armies at a very early age and schooled him in statecraft before relinquishing power when he was an adult. As for why she called herself "king", Tyldseley notes that there was no word in the Egyptian language for "female sovereign" so she had little other choice.

It is also historical fact that her name was chiselled off of all monuments a number of years after her death. It is not known who is responsible for trying to erase her name from the records. Perhaps it was her stepson. But he left highly visible monuments showing him together with her in harmony as co-regents.

We can only assume that someone at some later date considered it to be a dangerous precedent for a woman to call herself "king".

Of her monumental construction work, only two great obelisks at Karnak and the mortuary temple at Deir al-Bahari remain.

And a flacon of perfume with her name on it - as "king" of Egypt.

By DPA ; Haaretz Newspaper


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