A lady was the first confirmed perfumiest. It all happened circa 1200 BC.
Living in Mesopotamia during the 12th century BC was perhaps a little complicated by our current social standards. The kingdom and imperial city of Babylon were ruled by the Isim dynasty which succeeded the long period of dynastic rule of the soft and decadent Kassites. However, times of calm were usually few and short. It was almost six centuries since the empire had known peace and progress under King Hammurabi. To the north, the Assyrians were coming out of Ashur and Nineveh and galloping up their southern borders seeking plunder or extending geopolitical dominance. To the south, the Elamites had suffered a heavy defeat a few years earlier and, begrudgingly, their princes dared not leave the city of Susa.
The opulent city of Babylon was too desirable to be left in peace and quiet, but its strength and power, and that of the god Marduk, were not now disputed. Its palaces, its riches, the fertility of its lands, and the gentrified way of life of its inhabitants, were a temptation hard to restrain for the restless and bellicose Assyrians and the expansionist Elamites. In apparent social prosperity and political tranquillity, Nebuchadnezzar I had ruled almost in peace for more than a decade. The Elamites now only dared to propose the opening of new trade routes. A few Assyrian princes dared to disturb Babylonian daily life when Marduk's peace was interrupted by nothing more than fleeting upsets due to increasingly occasional and inconsequential distant warmongering incursions.
As was the case since time immemorial, Marduk was revered as the supreme God, and also respected as the eternal emperor on earth. The nobility, clergy, bourgeoisie and common people could only glimpse his viceroy, the authoritarian but just Nebuchadnezzar the first. In everyone's eyes, he had restored peace and security, encouraged the opening of new canals, upheld justice and civil rights, was fair with taxes, punished the corrupt as vulgar evildoers and enforced respect for religious traditions. He had ordered the construction of several new temples and was lavish with offerings, as well as maintaining the order of worship. The two main ethnic groups, the more learned Sumerians and the more political Acadians, were satisfied. The social harmony that everyone desired was felt. For all, Nebuchadnezzar was the undisputed representative of Marduk on earth.
Yet Nebuchadnezzar would not rest. He had already reigned ten years and wanted to reign twenty or even thirty years. The best way to ensure a long reign would always be to keep Marduk happy. His witnesses would be the generals with numerous and well-equipped armies, the magicians and priests running thriving temples, the nobles growing rich with the fruits of their flocks and farmlands, the merchants cherished with welcome for their caravans and the allowance of markets with free trade. All the myriad artisans, farmers and serfs, lived happily in the beautiful and safe city in which all prospered. However, the king had conceived a new concern. In times of peace, Babylonian women acquired a new importance. They were queens of the kitchens, just as Marduk advocated and through mouth and stomach, the whole state was satisfied. Women embellished the city streets and palaces with their henna tattoos and colourful robes. It was hard to look away from them. In the temples, they enchanted with their fine, melodious voices, praising Marduk and singing an umpteenth time of the king's victory over the Elamites. However, in the corridors of the palace and in the streets of the markets, the subject that interested everyone was the work of a magician, Tapputi by name and Akadian by origin, who had the gift of trapping the scent of the gods, flowers and fruits in the potions and elixirs she created.
Wonderful Babylon smelt bad... worse, it always smelt bad. The city took care to satisfy the senses of its inhabitants but had neglected the sense of smell. Although it was the envy of neighbouring peoples, the gigantic capital had poor sanity. There were many open sewers and everyone discharged waste into the canals, transport and pack animals defecated in the streets and most of its inhabitants were not enthusiastic about frequent bathing. The canals had long ago ceased to be fishing grounds because of the uninviting taste of their fish used to swimming in permanently dirty and sometimes nauseating water. This magician, well versed in unknown aromatic potions and sorceries, created elixirs that delighted whoever smelt them. Stories abounded, surely imagined, that she was a spirit who governed flowers, or that she had the gift of spreading on earth the air of the celestial homes of the gods. And those wonderful smells cured illnesses and cheered the sorrowful and awakened feelings. Nebuchadnezzar had to bring her to his palace. He wanted to find out more about these magical ethers and how to use them for the glory of Marduk.
Nebuchadnezzar soon discovered Tapputi and ordered her to report to his palace. She was a normal-looking woman, dressed with sobriety, with a confident and self-assured countenance. She hardly fit the figure of the powerful and sapient magician he had imagined. She was accompanied by Ninu, a younger woman. The king soon became enchanted by the enthusiasm with which Tapputi described what she did, the methods she used and the results she obtained. The possibilities of use he guessed for those elixirs were immense. They would be used by physicians to recover their sick, by priests to dignify the temples and the gods that dwelt in them, to anoint women who would become even more beautiful in the eyes of their husbands... in short, to further aggrandise mighty Babylon.
So pleased was the king with the services that Tapputi began to render him that, after a short time, she was appointed "Belatekallim" of the royal palace, which made her responsible for the entire daily life of the complex and surrounding properties, and made her head of the kitchen, decoration, cleaning and all maintenance.
In ancient Babylon, the highest place to which working women aspired was in the kitchen. And that could even be a recognition. Female cooks were in charge of the daily diet and also the experts in developing new recipes, based on trial and error, including fermented and distilled drinks. In addition to the use of fire, it was also with cooking utensils that medicines and perfumes were conceived and produced. For all this, it was necessary to understand how the elements interacted, what dosages were needed, which ones would be soluble, in what kind of liquid, and at what temperature. That is why the real founders of the field of chemistry were women. Tapputi was the first woman on record. Today, the world would call them scientists or chemists, but back then they were known by other names and were essentially women. In Babylon in 1200 BC, they were Tapputi, the mastermind, and Ninu, the junior researcher, and their art was to create and combine scented oils into perfumes to serve the royals of Mesopotamia.
A clay tablet filled with cuneiform writing and dated to around 1200 BC reports that she adapted cooking equipment and used different plants to create a range of aromatic essences. One of the most important functions of perfumes was to preserve the bodies of deceased kings and nobles for several weeks so that the odour would remain bearable until the end of the long and elaborate funeral rituals. But there is evidence that men and women of the nobility perfumed themselves a great deal. Generally, this was right after bathing, but also to attend social or political events. Some of the products created by Tapputi also worked as oils and creams for the skin. To achieve these results, she boiled and distilled liquids several times, diluting different combinations of flowers, leaves, calamus, birch, resins such as myrrh and labdanum, beeswax, oils and even petroleum.
My imagination allows me to smile at the chance that Tapputi may have created scents like those found in a perfume that I appreciate very much like Sahara Noir which uses several of these ingredients.
Tapputi was a woman held in the highest esteem. The historical records reveal her authority as the royal palace official overseer and her position as the "perfumery royal mage". In present-day Iraq, archaeological excavations have revealed several of these cuneiform records dating from the 12th millennium BC. In these historical records was found her name, Tapputii, her titles, her responsibilities, as well as the description of some of her practices, also used by men blacksmiths and alchemists at that time. Some of these cuneiform writings, go into detail about her use of utensils such as stills, furnaces, tongs, mixers and burners. One of her surviving recipes proves her skill, detailing the making of a scented salve for a Babylonian king. What fascinates the historian is that Tapputi mentions refining the ingredients in a 'pot still' - a chemical apparatus still used today for distilling water, and for essential oil extraction. Tapputi perfume master's recipe is the oldest mention of such a tool in history, marking her as one of the earliest chemical engineers.
Note: Nebuchadnezzar I and Tapputi are real historical characters. However, there is no historical evidence of a direct relationship between them. That direct relationship shown in this text, is fictional.
Tapputi-Belatekallim has been in the service of a Babylonian king or kings, but not necessarily Nebuchadnezzar I.
Music: "Rivers of Babylon" by Boney M.
Last updated 04.08.2022 - 01:31 AM