Perfume in Medieval Middle East
Perfume serves as an excellent example of a technology that did not maintain any great necessary for daily business, since it did not contribute to a growth in agriculture or anything that would have had a utilitarian purpose. However, it held great cultural significance in the societies it existed in, whether it be in a religious manner or a cosmetic one. Perfume retained heavy importance in the Arab world, especially during the time of the Prophet Muhammad in the sixth century CE to the ninth century CE, especially in an economic and religious context.
Historians believe perfume had its beginnings in Ancient Babylon, by a female perfume-maker by the name of Tapputi of Mesopotamia (Levey, Babylonian Chemistry). However, historians claim that the Mesopotamians did not have knowledge of the chemistry behind perfumery, and the Arabs were the ones who began to really understand the chemistry. Avicenna of Persia implemented distillation techniques before any others to extract perfumes from the oils of roses and other such materials (Rimmel 121). Even before Avicenna’s discovery of distillation, perfume had a profound effect on the predominantly Muslim societies of the Arab world, as perfume came to be associated with cleanliness due to its good smell.
The aforementioned attitude went so far as to the Prophet Muhammad declaring that perfume be worn by every male, alongside taking a bath and cleaning his teeth (To Perfume before Going for the Friday (Prayer)). Perfume carried great religious significance and as such came to be associated with righteousness. This association most likely had a great deal to do with the fact that the Prophet Muhammad enjoyed good smells and used perfumes quite frequently. As a result of this, rose-water became an important part of Middle Eastern society (Rimmel 122).
The Islamic Golden Age was an important period in Middle Eastern perfumery and was driven largely by a motive that influenced mostly other technological developments in the area since Islam became popular: the belief that the pursuit of knowledge would bring one closer to God among an increased focus on translation and academics (Chaney). One prominent academic during this time, Ishaq al-Kindi, an Arab polymath who developed evaporation and filtration techniques relating to perfumery, conducted most of his work near the beginning of the Islamic Golden Age (Levey, Early Muslim Chemistry). The perfume technology developed further as a result of the work of al-Kindi along with other factors such as the association of perfumes with. These factors gave the technological developments in the area of perfumes greater value.
The economic value as a luxury item was another major reason for perfume’s importance besides the cultural association with cleanliness. Just among Muslim religious scholars, about seven to nine per cent worked in the perfume trade between the years of 800 CE and 1100 CE (Cohen).
Although on its surface level, perfume seemed to be a luxury item during the aforementioned time period, it had great significance pertaining to the religious, cultural, and economic aspects of medieval Islamic society.
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