Cleopatra’s Eye: The Significance of Kohl in Ancient Egypt

By Hazel Lunn

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra in 1963 production of Cleopatra, portraying malachite and galena kohls used in Egyptian makeup. Courtesy of http://flavorwire.com/535384/the-fashions-of-cleopatra-in-cinema

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.

Cosmetic Use

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).

Religious Importance

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).

Medicinal Benefits

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.

Apicius’ Pumpkins with Turkey

By Sean Coughlin

This post follows on yesterday’s post on whether the Romans had pumpkins.

Translation:

[Cooked] gourds with fowl: [add] hard-fleshed peaches, truffles, pepper, caraway, cumin, silphium, green herbs – mint, celery, coriander, pennyroyal, mentuccia –,  honey, wine, liquamen, oil and vinegar. (The Latin text is here).

Stewing turkey, pumpkin and apples in the wine and stock. Photo by the author.

My interpretation:

Ingredients

  • 2 tbsps. olive oil
  • 2 large turkey drumsticks (about 750 g)
  • Salt and pepper
  • Half a sugar pumpkin or butternut squash, cubed
  • One apple, peeled, cored and diced
  • 1/4 tsp. asafoetida
  • 1/2 tsp. caraway
  • 1/2 tsp. cumin
  • Silphium (1/2 tsp. fennel seeds will do)

For the sauce

  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 1/2 cup chicken or vegetable stock
  • 1 tbsp. honey
  • dash of fish-sauce or MSG
  • Fresh herbs to taste (mint, celery, coriander, pennyroyal, oregano)
  • Truffles, shaved (to taste)

1. Season the turkey legs with salt and pepper. Heat the oil in deep pan over high heat. Add turkey legs and cook, skin-side down, until crispy and golden brown (8 minutes or so). Flip legs and cook until the other side is browned, another 5 minutes. Transfer to a plate.

2. Return pan to heat with a bit more oil, and when it’s hot, add the pumpkin or squash and asafoetida. Cook until the pumpkin just begins brown, about 5 minutes. Add the apple, caraway, cumin and fennel seeds and cook for another few minutes until browned.

3. Add wine to the pan and reduce by half. Add stock, honey, fish-sauce and herbs. Return the drumsticks to the pan, cover and let simmer for an hour until drumsticks are fall-apart tender. Add water or more stock if it begins to look too dry. Alternatively, place in an oven preheated to 375 F / 190 C. Serve drumsticks with roasted sweet potatoes, drizzle on some of the sauce with some shaved truffle.

Deglazing with white wine. Photo by the author.

I’ve recently become obsesessed with cucurbits thanks to a question from Peter Singer. This resulted in a discussion with Laurence Totelin that took place this summer during a workshop at the Humboldt-Universität as part of SFB 980, project A03, “The Transfer of Medical Episteme in the ‘Encyclopaedic’ Compilations of Late Antiquity”, with Philip van der Eijk. The subject was our forthcoming translations of Books I and II of Aetius of Amida’s Medical Collections. “We” are Sean Coughlin, Eric Gowling, Christine Salazar, and Piero Tassinari. Many thanks to our guests Alessia Guardasole, Matteo Martelli, and of course Laurence for attending. The translation of Book I was completed by Eric Gowling as a doctoral dissertation and was in the process of being revised by Piero Tassinari and myself when he passed away last year. I hope Piero would appreciate this little essay. He is dearly missed.

Thanksgiving with Galen and Apicius

By Sean Coughlin

For Thanksgiving, I thought I’d come up with a new English translation of a seasonal recipe from the Roman cook-book of Apicius. It comes from the third book of De re coquinaria. The Latin is cucurbitas cum gallina. In Joseph Vehling’s English translation: “Pumpkin and Chicken”.

If only the Romans had turkeys. And pumpkins.

I first learned that the Greeks and Romans were pumpkinless from Laurence Totelin earlier this year and it left me utterly confounded.

I had been revising a translation and commentary of the first book of the sixth-century CE physician Aetius of Amida’s Medical Collections, and a question came up about how to identify different kinds of cucurbits, that immense botanical family of vines which produce comically-large-berries, like cucumbers, melons, watermelons, pumpkins, squashes, gourds, and luffa sponges.

Naively, I thought it would help to look at how authors like Aetius or Galen say cucurbits are prepared. And, since Galen (On the Properties of Foodstuffs, 2.3) tells us that people always ate their cucurbits cooked, I figured that Greco-Roman cucurbits must be something like zucchini.  After all, who on earth would cook a melon?

“But,” Laurence told me, “zucchinis are new world.”

Now, before going into why I found this so shocking, I want to bring everyone up to speed.

“Old world” cucurbits include a lot of different genera: Cucumis, the cucumbers and melons; Citrullus, the watermelons and colocynths; Lageneria, the bottle gourd or calabash; and a few others like Luffa and Bryonia. No one is quite sure where in the old world they first evolved, but the recent consensus is somewhere in Africa. In other words, they could have existed in the Greco-Roman world.

Various old world cucurbits: cucumbers and melons. Photo from the author.

“New world” cucurbits, however, are the vines descended from plants native to the Americas. They almost certainly could not have been known in antiquity, and the group includes all species of the genus Cucurbita. This includes zucchini, courgettes, pumpkins, squashes, decorative gourds, and even those 1000 kg monsters at fall fairs. None of them were known in Europe before Columbus.

I would like to imagine that there is at least one other kindred reader of classics in English who feels a bit anxious at this news. It’s not just a problem for Apicius’ Thanksgiving casserole or my rehearsal of Epicrates’ lampoon of Plato’s Academy.

What about the “Pumpkin Pirates” of Lucian’s True History (2.37)? Or Psyche’s sister’s husband who Apuleius says is “bald as a pumpkin” (Apuleius, Metamorphoses 5.9)? And what will become of Seneca’s Apocolocyntosis divi Claudii – the Pumpkinification of the Divine Claudius?

English translations are unusually problematic in the case of cucurbits. Pumpkins show up all over the place. And this isn’t merely because of translators’ license, or a confusion of names.

As far as I’ve been able to sort out, it’s mainly the result of an unfortunate coincidence between the rise of an influential but erroneous botanical hypothesis, and the publication of two influential Greek and Latin English dictionaries.

Here is the story:

Before the mid-19th century, the evidence about the origins of Cucurbita was mixed. The names of the plants suggested they came from the “old world”, but depictions of Cucurbita species don’t show up before the mid-1500s.

For instance, in Leonhart Fuchs’ 1542 herbal, De Historia Stirpium, we get one of the first European depictions of the pumpkin plant, the species Cucurbita pepo L. Fuchs, however, calls it cucumis turcicus, the Turkish cucumber, a name which might lead one to think the plant was native to the “old world”.

Not long after Fuchs, in an herbal of Matthiolus from 1586, the same plant appears again, but with a different name: cucurbita indica – the Indian gourd. And “Indian,” Matthiolus tells us, means American: “they say these [new gourds] came into Italy from the West Indies, whence they are called by many ‘Indian’” (Matthiolus of Padua, Commentary on Dioscorides 1559, p. 292, my emphasis).

“He has a pumpkin” (ipse cucurbita habet). Using pumpkins as camouflage. Woodcut, late 16th century, Netherlands. CCBY

Both Fuchs and Matthiolus agree that these cucurbits are foreign (and probably even recent) imports to European markets. They disagree about where they came from: were they indigenous to the old or the new world?

This continued until the 1850s, when the hypothesis that Cucurbita species were indigenous to the old world reached its most articulated form. It happened as part of a public debate between two great 19th century botanists: Alphonse de Candolle and Asa Gray.

De Candolle argued that because people had used the same names for cucurbits since ancient times, the plants with those names must have come from the old world.

In response, Gray argued that new and ‘foreign’ cucurbits only start showing up in 16th century herbals like those of Fuchs and Matthiolus. That, along with documentary evidence from the first European explorers, suggests a new world origin.

The debate continued for over thirty years, only coming to an end in 1883 after a devastating two-part review of De Candolle’s last book, The Origin of Cultivated Plants. In this review, Gray, along his colleague J. Hammond Turnball, presented almost documentary evidence from European explorers that cucurbits were cultivated in the Americas before European explorers ever reached it in 1492.

These explorers recorded indigenous names for the plants they encountered, but they also used European ones, and these are the names that stuck: in Latin, cucurbitae and cucumeres; in Spanish, calabaças, melones, pepinos and cogombros; in French, melons, concombres, citrouilles, and courges; in Italian, zucca; and in English, musk-melons, cowcumbers, and, — most importantly — the pompion, the source of our word, ‘pumpkin’. Only the name “squash” from the Algonquin vernacular made its way into English.

Gray and Turnball’s review, however, appeared only after the work on the great Greek and Latin lexica had finished up – A Greek-English Lexicon by Liddel and Scott, and A Latin Dictionary by Lewis and Short. Both dictionaries identify some Greco-Roman cucurbits with American pumpkins (Cucurbita pepo L. or Cucurbita maxima L.), and pumpkins have shown up in English translations ever since.

So for this recipe, I figure, why fight it?

Tune in tomorrow for Apicius’ recipe!

The author with pumpkins, sometime in the late 2000s. Photo from the author.

Sean Coughlin is Research Fellow in the history of philosophy, science and medicine at Excellence Cluster Topoi and the Institute for Classical Philology, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. He is completing a revised translation and commentary on Aetius of Amida, Medical Collections, Book I, an edition and translation fragments of the 1st century Pneumatist physician, Athenaeus of Attalia, and co-editing a volume on the concept of pneuma after Aristotle.

Recreating Ancient Beauty

By Eboni John, published as part of the Undergraduate Series

The society of ancient Rome was just as obsessed with cosmetics and beauty as we are today. Indulging in the use of items such as white lead foundation, ash-based eye-shadow and poppy petalled blush, it is clear that the Romans’ idea of perfection centred around pale skin, large dark eyes and blushed cheeks (see e.g. Pliny the Elder, Natural History 21.73.123, 35.56.194). However, what these cosmetics may have achieved for beauty, achieved very little when it came to health. This is because the Romans used all sorts of deleterious ingredients in their cosmetics such as crocodile dung, nightshade, urine and the infamous lead – to name a few (Olson, 2008, 61-72). What exactly then, are the possibilities of recreating some of these ancient Roman cosmetics today?

To answer this question, I will be covering the recreation of two Roman cosmetics:
1) A 2000-year-old Roman face cream used for coverage
2) A Roman beauty mask used to soften and in some cases, whiten the skin.

Roman Face Cream

The Roman face cream dates from the 2nd century AD and was discovered in London in 2003. Due to the container’s expensive nature (tin was a relatively precious metal at the time) it is thought that the cream was used by a Roman aristocrat, with a function similar to that of modern foundation.

The ingredients for the cream were revealed by Katherine Mansell: it contained 40% animal fat (likely derived from a goat then boiled); 40% starch (likely obtained from boiling wheat or roots); 20% synthetic tin oxide (cassiterite). The starch would have been added to the fat ‘to reduce the greasy feeling of fat on the skin’. The tin would have then made the cream white (Mansel, 2004). 

It is surprising that this cream does not contain the ingredient lead, which was frequently used in cosmetics at the time. This suggests that the Romans were possibly becoming more aware of the lead poisoning that plagued their cosmetic products, as this particular chemist appears to have identified tin as being a non-toxic ingredient.

When visually comparing the two products is it clear that the colour is one of the largest differences, with the recreation displaying a brilliant white in comparison to the originals faded grey. The texture also looks a lot less crusted and granular than the original. While the cream did not smell entirely pleasant, it did provide a very adequate form of coverage.

Roman Face Mask

A Roman face mask to soften the skin was a must-have when it came to skincare. The ingredients for this mask are provided by Susan Stewart:


Almond oil; rosewater; water parsnip (boiled); lily root (ground into a fine powder using mortar and pestle); eggs (Stewart 2007, 32-60).

I found that the smell of the face mask was rather pleasant, but those who sampled my mask said otherwise. The final products colour of light beige was exactly how I visually imagined it, but the texture turned out to be runnier than I expected. Upon sampling the mask, my volunteer reported that it did make her skin feel slightly softer but left an oily residue on her face that failed to wash off immediately with water.

Sourcing Ingredients and Substitutions

In preparation for recreating these cosmetics, I had to acquire the right ingredients. Unfortunately, particular ingredients proved rather hard to come by and so have been substituted.

1. Animal fat: Originally the fat would have probably been derived from a cow or goat but the only animal fat I could come across was goose fat.
2. Synthetic tin oxide: This ingredient was not a cost-efficient one to come by as it was often sold in bulk. I have, therefore, substituted it with zinc oxide which I was able to find in small quantities for a reasonable price. I also felt safe in my knowledge that it was a safe ingredient as it is used in many modern cold creams.
3. Lily root: I found it was not easy to come across lily root as it is not something typically sold in supermarkets or online. So, I substituted it with powdered orris which is typically found in perfumes.

Because I have chosen to use substitutes, these replicas cannot be considered exact recreation of the originals. However, I do believe that the cosmetics I have prepared hold some resemblance to the originals I have attempted to recreate. After all the ancients were no strangers to substituting ingredients as preserved substitution lists have shown.

From this experience of recreating ancient Roman cosmetics, I have found that it is no simple or easy task. The difficulty is mostly derived from acquiring the right ingredients. I often found myself stopping to consider the authenticity of the ingredients I thought to use. For example, I had to stay clear of starches found in pasta, as it would not have been an available form of starch at the time.

We must also keep in mind that these two recipes were not particularly hard or dangerous to follow, yet I still found myself substituting the original ingredients for those that were more available. Therefore, if you were to attempt recreating some of the more complex cosmetic remedies, the difficulty of acquiring the authentic ingredients and the risk of encountering hazardous ingredients is sure to increase along with the complexity.


My name is Eboni Alis John. I am 22, and a recent graduate of Cardiff University where I studied English Literature & Ancient History. I am a book fanatic that has always been keen to travel and write about my experiences. After writing my ancient cosmetics blog post for my third-year Greek and Roman medicine module, I was totally inspired by the level of creativity it allowed for. Since this assignment, I have begun planning to create my own blog that will focus on travel advice and my experiences exploring the countries of eastern Asia (Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia). I am now looking to start a career in teaching abroad as this is what I believe truly fuels my passion.