Cyprus is an ancient island nation in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Civilization there dates back to the 10th millennium before Christ. Long ago, Cyprus grew famous for its perfumes—scents that queens of Egypt coveted.
What so distinguished Cypriot fragrances? The island’s ancient perfumers used a rich olive oil as the perfume base. Then they infused it with the musky scent of indigenous oak moss, citrusy bergamot (a smallish green fruit in the orange family), and labdanum—the sticky resin from the rockrose flower. A distillation process used fire with clay vessels of precise dimensions and hollow reeds for capturing scented steam to produce the coveted aromatic oil. (The word “perfume” actually means “from the fumes.” Extracting scent from herbs and flowers has always used a heat and steam process.)
Maria Rosaria Belgiorno is a retired archaeologist who spent 15 years working on Cyprus. She unearthed the oldest perfumery of the Bronze Age. She says, “Perfume is the symbol of life.” Death brings with it the smell of decay, but perfume’s strong and lovely scents hide that stench of death.
The spiritual connection wasn’t lost on the Apostle Paul. He wrote to the church in Corinth (not far west of Cyprus in the Mediterranean) that believers spread the gospel like a perfume spreads its fragrance. “For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life.” (2 Corinthians 2:15-16)
The Cypriot fragrance heritage is being celebrated in a new perfume theme park. It is nestled in Cyprus’ lush Solea valley. Visitors can recreate ancient perfumes in the traditional way, using replicas of the clay distillers and extracting scents from local herbs over an open fire.
The origins of perfume-making date back to 5,000 B.C. in ancient Mesopotamia. Archaeological digs near the city of Mosul in modern-day Iraq turned up the first evidence of a perfumery. Belgiorno says evidence of the popularity of Cyprus’ fragrances was found in a reference to a perfume merchant. It was inscribed on 4,000-year-old tablets from the ancient Greek city of Thebes.
For thousands of years, Cypriots of all social classes—from commoners to the highest nobility—produced and used perfumes. The fascination with scent carried through the ancient Egyptians to the Templars to medieval Venetian merchants and into the present day.
Though the scents and sources vary, perfume making has changed very little from then to now. Distillers identical to those found in Cyprus are in use today, producing rose water in Iran, says Belgiorno.