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  • Writer's pictureShila Desai

Inside the invisible world of Arab scent

Updated: Mar 25, 2021

Although scent has always played a major role in personal adornment in the Arab world, its evanescent quality leaves few or no traces over time. Jewellery historian Sigrid van Roode is our speaker for this week's lecture Silver and Frankincense. We invited Sigrid to share her insight.

Bride's anointing

The world of fragrance stretches far beyond vanity: scent has deeply meaningful spiritual and social capacities.In the Arab world, fragrance permeates everyday life and accompanies major events in life such as marriage, birth and even death.

But this most evocative of adornments is also the least known and researched. Through the ages, a painting or a photo is capable of imparting much information. Imagine an Arab princess in her finery, gazing at the camera. But the photo does not tell us about the aura of scent that must have enveloped her.

Historically, scent has been used in Arab personal appearance in jewellery, hairstyles, and make-up. But it also takes its place in religious, ritual, and social context through beautiful silver perfume containers, sumptuously scented paste beads, and fragrant clove necklaces.

Tunisian pendant
Tunisian pendant, beads of scented paste

Fragrance permeates everyday Arab life and accompanies major events in the life cycle such as marriage, birth and even death. Scent is a powerful connector to the spiritual world and is often used in informal ritual. On a social level, scent is an active agent in most life events and hospitality. On a practical level, scent drives away odours and cleanses the air.

The main agents of scent in the Arab world come from frankincense resin; bakhoor; resins such as myrrh, benzoin, and copal; woods such as sandalwood; flowers such as jasmine, rose, and orange blossom; spices such as clove, cardamom, and eucalyptus; and animal products such as musk and ambergris.

Each ritual and rite marking a life passage calls for a different fragrance.

Algerian woman's necklace of scented paste beads and silver amulets

At marriage, for instance, a bride might be anointed with a paste made from a particular aromatic. This scent in that culture would signify transition, protection, and festivities. In another Arab culture, a clove necklace is presented by the bride's father to each of his daughters' childhood friends to honour and nurture their lifelong connection. The scent will remind the bride of their love and comfort her as she leaves for her new home.

Scented paste in Moroccan hairstyles, remnants in hair jewels

Scent can be transferred onto a person through jewellery, hair and body aesthetic, and dress. Jewellery items may be fashioned in a particular way to hold scent or invoke the power of fragrance. Scented components are incorporated in hairstyles and body anointing. Clothing may be perfumed by walking, clothed, several times through the wafts of an aroma to allow the dress to absorb scent.

Gold Roman perfume flask

Scent in the Arab world therefore purifies, protects, transforms, blesses, honours, marks, and connects.

Join us on Tuesday January 19th, 2021 at 1pm EDT for an olfactory journey into fragrance and personal adornment, starting from the perfumes of the Egyptian pharaohs to present day . Treat yourself to an hour filled with jewellery and perfume and discover the many meanings behind the use of fragrance in the Arab world. Register here.

We look forward to your company!

Tunisian gilt silver pomander for the most luxurious of aromatics: ambergris


Sigrid van Roode is a jewellery historian specializing in traditional jewellery from North Africa and southwest Asia. Her research addresses jewellery as material culture of society and focuses in particular on the relation between jewellery and ritual, magic, and religion. She currently works on her PhD-research into jewellery and ritual at Leiden University. Her book Desert Silver has been widely acclaimed as one of the most accessible introductions to jewellery from the Arab world, and her new book Silver & Frankincense explores the quintessential but often forgotten role of smell in relation to personal adornment.


Thanks for taking a look! I am Shila Desai, owner of E.Y.H.O. Tours. I personally handcraft itineraries, infusing them with curated activities, accommodations, and sightseeing. Together with my in-country teams, we deliver exceptional holidays every time. E.Y.H.O. specialises in Indian sub-continent, Africa, Turkey, and Mexico among other locations. I invite you to leave me a comment or write

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