PARFUMS OF ORIENT EXHIBITION - INSTITUT DU MONDE ARABE PARIS
An invitation, a visit are always an opportunity to perfume oneself and to perfume or fumigate one's host, before being transported by the aromas of cinnamon, honey, almond, mint... that work wonders in Arab cuisine. We also taste with our noses! Yesterday as today, in the Arab world, the enjoyment of perfumes is meant to be shared!
The mythical incense route crosses Arabia and offers the world the fragrance of the gods, incense. It is also through its ports that the mysterious Indonesian oud, the mythical Himalayan musk, and so many other wonders arrive. This space is at the center of this civilization of scents which will then unfold from the Atlantic coasts to the banks of the Euphrates. Discovering this history of perfumes means talking about humanity and its incessant quest for harmony. It also means understanding a millennial aesthetic of life. From rare essence fields to the perfumer's workshop, from the streets of the medina to the hammam, from sacred space to the heart of the home, perfumes are, as Abdelwahab Bouhdiba rightly writes, "a permanent reconciliation of man with himself, with others, and with nature".
The history of perfumes begins with the discovery of the raw materials that compose them. Flowers, herbs, spices, and fragrant resins come from various regions. From the Mediterranean and Near Eastern countryside to the arid desert of Arabia to the far reaches of Asian rainforests and the Himalayan mountains, the collected essences have fueled the markets for fragrant products and the compositions of perfumers.
Since ancient times, Arabia, the land of frankincense, ambergris, and myrrh, has played a major role in perfume preparation. More broadly, the entire Arab world offers numerous flowers and spices that enrich these recipes.
Asia, the other land of perfumes
Since antiquity, the eastern shores of the Indian Ocean have been great providers of fragrant materials and spices. With the development of maritime and land routes, long-distance trade intensifies. Spices and new essences from Asia are fully integrated into Arab perfumery, cuisine, and pharmacopoeia. They are disseminated to the rest of the world from the great cities of the Muslim Empire.
The imported raw materials were initially of plant origin, such as oud wood, camphor, benzoin, spikenard, or copal. Oud wood, rare and highly regarded in Arab countries, grows in the forests of Southeast Asia. The use of animal-derived substances such as musk, civet, ambergris, or Byzantine beetles spread a little later, although some
Thanks to the development of navigation techniques and trade routes, products from Asia have been added to the available ingredients. From these distant regions, exceptional raw materials are brought back. For ethical reasons, some animal-derived essences are now replaced by synthetic aromas.
Myrrh and frankincense from Arabia
A land of rare rain and intense sun, Arabia is considered the land of perfume. Myrrh and frankincense, which thrive in arid lands, grow on its southern coasts and in the horn of Africa. These resins are derived from the exudations of the Commiphora myrrha and Boswellia sacra trees. Their cultivation is ancient and was long considered difficult. Ambergris, another emblematic essence of Arab perfumes, is collected mainly from the coasts of Yemen and Oman.
Highly prized and prestigious in the rest of the world, these products that are characteristic of the olfactory culture of Arabia have been pillars of its commercial civilization since ancient times. Located for centuries at the heart of the exchanges between East and West, the caravan routes that made its wealth were associated with their diffusion. They remain among the most representative essences of Eastern perfumes.
Musk, the most renowned olfactory material of Arab-Muslim civilization, is collected from male chevrotains in the Himalayan heights.
Flowers and aromatic plants are easily accessible materials, both for their harvesting and their cost. They grow on the outskirts of cities, and there is no need to pick them at the other end of the world. Used since ancient times, they are used in the production of perfumes, cosmetics, therapeutic and culinary recipes. While still cherished by the elites, they are more affordable for the lower classes. The rose enjoys a special status. Singled out by poets, symbol of beauty and spirituality, it is the ultimate flower. Cultivated from the Moroccan valleys to Isfahan via Damascus or the mountains of Oman, it can be found in many aspects of Arab culture. The narcissus, saffron, and jasmine are other emblematic flowers.
Perfumes and the Arab world have had a happy marriage for a long time.
Indeed, since ancient times, the Arab world has been the cradle of a civilization of scents. They benefit from a notable, very ancient, and rich consideration. The origin of this prosperous union dates back to the commercial culture of ancient Arabia, the land of incense and myrrh, which made exchanges of olfactory materials the source of its wealth and reputation. As a bearer of a perfume culture, he elevated it to the rank of a code of conduct and even an aesthetic of life.
Since then, perfumes are imbued with a strong symbolism, and their role in everyday life remains very much alive today. They permeate cultural, social, and intimate practices. Fragrances, ointments, oils, balms, waters, and fumigations can be found in many aspects of life: well-being and cosmetics, hospitality and coexistence, cuisine and medicine, seduction and religion... Sometimes, the same raw materials possess therapeutic, prophylactic, and culinary qualities that prevail over their aesthetic role and scents.
The exhibition tells the intimate relationship between perfumes and the Arab world. It highlights their long shared history, the smells that characterize their union, and the numerous customs that bind them, of which their social role is essential.
- 26 septembre 2023 - 17 mars 2024
- Institut du Monde Arabe - Paris