By Hazel Lunn
Kohl has been a popular cosmetic in civilisations across the world since prehistoric times, but its association with ancient Egypt is most well-known. We are all familiar with the Egyptians legendary eye-makeup. With Cleopatra as its ‘poster girl’, most famously depicted by Elizabeth Taylor in 1963, the queens signature eye-paint still inspires costumes and makeup looks today. Though the Greeks and Romans also used kohl as an eye-liner, its use in Egypt was much more than simply cosmetic. Used by both men and women of all social classes, the Egyptians believed kohl also had important medicinal, magical and religious qualities.
In the eyes of the Greeks and Romans, excessive adornment belonged only to the prostitutes and favoured more naturalistic makeup, using kohl to finely line the eyes and extend the brow. The Egyptians however shared a different view and smeared kohl over their eyes daily. Wearing both green malachite and black galena in bold designs, kohl exaggerated their eyes to enhance their beauty (Tyldesley 1994, 159). Although she was not Egyptian herself, Cleopatra likely followed ancient traditions wearing beautifully elaborate eye looks, perhaps similar to our modern recreations.
To create these eye paints, kohl was ground in a pestle and mortar and mixed with oils or animal fats on palettes to; then the kohl paint was applied to the eyes using a small stick. Galena, replacing malachite, gradually became the predominant ingredient in kohl cosmetics and its use continued through until the Coptic period; the Fayum mummy portraits display less complicated, everyday use of kohl by both men and women during the Roman period, perhaps influenced more by the styles of Roman women which became popular after the first century AD. As well enhancing beauty, the cosmetic use of kohl could also indicate social rank and achievement, perhaps with more complicated designs worn regularly by the elite (Pak 2009, 108).
So important was its use in ancient Egypt that containers of kohl, along with various instruments for its preparation and application, were buried alongside the dead. This clearly shows just how essential kohl was in daily life but also in the afterlife, which indicated that it had important religious functions. Kohl was associated with the deities Horus, Ra and Hathor and was regularly used in ritual. Egyptians also exaggerated their eyes with bold liner in veneration of the gods, as they believed it possessed magical properties in providing protection from diseases and warded off the Evil Eye (Tapsoba et al. 2010, 457; Illes n.d., 2).
Though these magical benefits of kohl may seem irrational to us today, these protective qualities are fully supported by recent studies of the various ingredients found in kohl. Egyptians faced many health issues that effected the eyes; from dust from the desert, to insects and bacteria from the flooding of the Nile, diseases such as conjunctivitis, cataract, trachoma and trichiasis played the population. The proscription of kohl to treat and prevent these illnesses can be found extremely early on in the Ebers papyrus, but were ancient physicians correct to think kohl could heal them?
Kohl contained multiple ingredients that not only added to the beautiful shine of galena, but are also known for their medicinal benefits. Zinc oxide is a powerful natural sunblock, neem has astringent and antibacterial properties and also possesses anti-viral activity like silver-leaf, while fennel and saffron were often used to fight many eye diseases. Other ingredients, such as chaksu and precious gems, were also believed to improve sight (Pak 2009, 110). It has also been discovered that Egyptians synthesised lead compounds (laurionite and phosgenite) to add into their cosmetics, which Dioscorides explains “appear to be good medicine to be put in the eyes” (Dioscorides 5,102).
Although the addition of lead to cosmetics may seem absurd due to its known toxicity, with some pitying the “devastation” kohl must have cause in ancient Egypt, these compounds were not harmful and did actually provide beneficial medicinal roles (Hallmann 2009, 71-2). A biomedical study, which made the news in 2010, ended controversy over the harmful effects of kohl. By analysing various samples found in Egyptian tombs and recreating ancient recipes, reported by Greco-Roman authors, scientists were able to test the effects of these led compounds on skin cells. Amazingly instead of causing lead poisoning, these lead compounds instead triggered an overproduction of nitrogen monoxide (NOo), which stimulates nonspecific immunological defences. This data suggests that the daily wearing of kohl made Egyptian eyes almost immediately resistant to bacterial infections due to the spontaneous response of immune cells. Although concerns about the toxicity of lead, overshadowed its benefits, this study proves that the lead compounds found in kohl did in fact serve a significant medicinal function. Tapsoba therefore argues that these compounds were deliberately manufactured and used in cosmetics to prevent and treat eye diseases (Tapsoba et al. 2010, 457-60). Galena and these other lead sulphides also provide protection from Egypt’s harsh sun by providing a shield from its glare and harmful UV rays (Pak 2009, 109). The addition of these various ingredients to kohl supports the magical protective beliefs of Egyptians and shows an understanding of ancient physicians of the many benefits this cosmetic possessed.
Although kohl was used by the Egyptians to beautifully decorate their eyes, its daily use for religious and medicinal purposes were extremely important. Though the general population may have attributed kohl’s magical healing powers to the gods, physicians and perhaps even Cleopatra herself, understood that the ingredients they added to their cosmetics were effective medicines. Its use, in various forms, has been important to many cultures throughout history and it remains a popular cosmetic across the world today.
Hallmann. A. (2009), ‘Was Ancient Egyptian Kohl a Poison?’ in J. Popielska-Grzybowska, O. Białostocka & J. Iwaszczuk (eds.), Proceedings of the Third Central European Conference of Young Egyptologists. Egypt 2004: Perspectives of Research. Warsaw 12-14 May 2004. 69-72. Pułtusk: The Pułtusk Academy of Humanities.
Illes. J., n.d. Ancient Egyptian Eye Makeup.
Pak. J. (2009), ‘Review Kohl (Surma): Retrospect and Prospect’, Pharmaeutical Sciences 22, 107-122.
Tapsoba. I., Arbault. S., Walter. P., and Amatore. C. (2010). ‘Finding Out Egyptian Gods’ Secret Using Analytical Chemistry: Biomedical Properties of Egyptian Makeup Revealed by Amperometry and Single Cells,’ Letters to Analytical Chemistry 82, 457-460.
Tyldesley. J. (1994), Daughters of Isis: Women of Ancient Egypt. London: Penguin Books.
My name is Hazel Lunn, I am 21, and I have recently graduated from Cardiff University with a degree in Ancient History. I am a food lover interested in gender studies and environmental issues. My degree has sparked my interest in writing and my previous love of makeup inspired my blog on the significance of khol in ancient Egypt. I hope you enjoy reading my findings.
15 thoughts on “Cleopatra’s Eye: The Significance of Kohl in Ancient Egypt”
Well done! I reckon you could get a magazine like Grazia to give you an article there for its readers on this ! And be paid for it!
Dear Hypotheses blogger,
We found your article particularly interesting. To increase its visibility so the community can more easily appreciate it, we made it a headline article on the en.hypotheses.org slider.
The Hypotheses team
Great overview of the history of kohl Hazel,
I knew that the ancient Egyptians wore kohl, and that they believed it would protect their eyes from harm. However, I had no idea that the lead they used didn’t actually cause any harm. Given the rich history of dangerous cosmetic ingredients over the years, I just assumed that the lead harmed their eyes in spite of their belief that it helped!
Did you know that some modern lipsticks contain lead? Although this is obviously concerning, some scientists have assured us that a person would need to eat thousands of lipsticks to develop lead poisoning. In case your readers are concerned, we recently published a piece addressing this lead issue:
Thanks again for this kohl history info – really interesting!
Good article. I think that the purple and pink tones complement green eyes perfectly and with you’ll be turning heads wherever you go.
Kohl has an interesting history for sure! No matter what eye shape you have – kohl always adds a wow factor and sultry element to the look. If you ask me, I love wearing different colored kohls especially black and dark green. Thanks, Cleopatra! 😀
Loved the article and the way it has presented a refreshing alternative to the status quo. Also your style of writing is excellent . Definitely get this printed in a glossy as it’s interesting . X
I find it offensive to show pictures of Elizabeth Taylor when the subject is about Cleopatra and Egyptian culture. Not only was she not Egyptian, casting a Caucasian American in the role of an African queen is offensive. An article about Cleopatra and the Egyptian culture should never include a picture of her.
Thank you for your comment, Serena. We’ve changed the image on the post.