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).
Mummy-portrait, Rubaiyat, 300-325 CE. Source: Wikipedia.
Mummy-portrait of a young woman, third century CE. Le Louvre Paris. Source: Wikipedia.
Mummy-portrait of a man, 130-150 CE. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum.
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.