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Volume 31, Number 4July/August 1980

In This Issue

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A Harvest of Scents

Written and photographed by John Feeney

Egypt, perfumes have been important for millennia. As early as 2700 B.C. the Egyptians had discovered not only the joy of fragrance but the art of the perfumer. They developed enfleurage—extraction of scents by placing flowers between layers of purified animal fat - and later devised a technique to squeeze the basic oils from flowers with pressure (See Aramco World, September-October 1974).

Perfumes were used, of course, by women - often in cones or balls of scented ointment worn in the hair - but also by priests. The priests of Heliopolis, for example, offered scented resin to the sun-god at dawn, incense at noon and, at dusk, as the sun was setting, a melange of six perfumes called kuphi. Indeed, one of the ancient words for perfume was "fragrance of the gods," and when the famous King Tufs tomb was opened in 1922 - after more than 3,000 years - the archeologists are said to have caught one elusive whiff of kuphi.

Since then there have been innumerable changes in Egypt. But to a large extent Egypt, more than any other country, still perfumes the world. Whether you dab a delicate ear lobe or spray a bathroom, more often than not the source of the fragrance is the Nile Delta. Fully 80 percent of the world's natural jasmine products, for example, come from Egypt, where specialists in this ancient art extract the aromatic oils from a profusion of flowers, leaves, roots and herbs and export them to perfumers in Paris, London, New York and even Moscow - an enthusiastic customer.

One specialist is Ahmad Fakhry, whose jasmine plantation north of Cairo typifies the glorious gardens that are the source of this "fragrance of the gods." Some gardens - like those in Upper Egypt’s Maghagha region - mundane: they grow onions and garlic. But other gardens grow coriander and cumin - aromatic plants cultivated in Egypt for 4,000 years - and even the onions and garlic are important. And the garde at Haraneya, where jasmine, roses, cassia, lemon-grass, geraniums, basil and mint grow within sight of the ancient Pyramids of Giza, and those north of Cairo by the Muhammad Ali Nile Barrage, with their carnations, violets and bitter orange trees - are breathtaking in their beauty. In September, for example, Ahmad Fakhry's jasmine plantation is a scented delight. At dawn, invisible clouds of perfume envelop visitors, and as the sun rises it discloses an undulating sea of green studded with millions of minute white stars, each bathed in a soft Nile dew.

Like many big Egyptian landowners, Ahmad Fakhry, under Egypt's agrarian-reform laws of the 1950's, lost most of his family land, but was allowed to keep just over 50 acres - and to choose which 50. "I chose mine in the Delta, at Shubra-Balula, 150 kilometers [93 miles] north of Cairo," Ahmad said; "because I could grow aromatic crops which don't take up too much space and can usually command a high price."

"Even so," he continued, "50 feddans was too small to support the operation of an extraction plant. But this was my dream, so we encouraged farmers nearby to also start growing scented flowers. Today, there must be 1,000 families growing jasmine in my area alone."

Growing-and harvesting-jasmine is not like growing and harvesting wheat. For one thing, children - not much taller than the jasmine bushes - do the harvesting; adults find the work back-breaking. For another, the work is extremely delicate. Each flower must be picked so as not to bruise its petals; bruising starts a chemical reaction which lessens the value of the flower's scent. Delta children, therefore, are particularly suited to the work; because they have always helped to pick cotton, using thumb and two fingers, they easily develop the deft touch essential to picking jasmine.

On the other hand, cotton pickers also have a habit of collecting handfuls of cotton before placing it in their baskets - and this too may bruise the jasmine. Each youngster, therefore, must be taught to place each blossom individually in his, or her, basket.

Another problem is moisture. Lovely as it is to behold, the sparkling Nile dew does not help the harvest, Fakhry says, because the perfume is affected by an excess of water. "Flowers free of natural humidity are the ideal, but of course we must take them as they come. Sometimes the locals spray their flowers before picking to make them weigh heavier, for we pay according to weight. But a simple chemical test quickly determines whether the jasmine water content is due to natural humidity or is induced 'canal' water. In any case, as we have such high humidity in our Delta regions, we do a daily centrifuge test to determine the humidity of the day. Upon this test we base the day's payment for the blossoms."

Statistics can be withering, but jasmine figures, to say the least, are mind-boggling: it takes 880 pounds of jasmine, or some two and a half million flowers, to produce just over two pounds of pure jasmine wax. Which means that one 11-pound can of jasmine, ready for export to Paris, is the scent of 12.5 million blossoms.

During the season, farmers start bringing in their baskets of flowers to the extraction plant from dawn onwards. They come by bicycle, by donkey and on foot, and by 10.30 in the morning the day's harvest is over. It can't be any later because the quality of the scent changes depending on the hour the flowers are picked and the length of time they are kept before processing.

After weighing- and within minutes of arrival - the flowers are rushed to extraction units, since for perfumers this is an actual instance where "time is of the essence." There they are poured into steel vats. When the lids are closed and sealed, the perfumers add hexane, a highly refined solvent usually made from petroleum, and entirely free of aromatics and sulfur. Fifteen minutes later the process is complete: the hexane has drained the blossoms of their fragrant oils and what were once shimmering and scented petals have been callously dumped, a mountain of black pulp outside the plant.

The process, obviously, differs substantially from those of ancient Egypt, yet the concept is the same. In pharaonic times the flowers were placed between layers of fat and left there for several days while the fat slowly absorbed the perfume. For some flowers, like jasmine and tuberose - which go on exuding their scent long after they have been picked - this was very effective. But for others it wasted time. Orange blossoms, for example, contain no more scent than at the moment of picking. Furthermore, the ancient system, while good, was also very slow.

In today's processing, the next step is to distill the hexane until nothing is left but a soft, yellow substance containing all the essential oils and waxes of the flowers. Known as "concrete," this substance is then exposed to further, delicate distillation over low heat - a process kept secret by many firms - until the wax has been separated, leaving a clear liquid called "absolute". The wax is then used to make creams, the liquid to make expensive natural perfumes.

According to Fakhry and other perfumers, harvesting jasmine, and other scents, is a bit like wine-making. There are good and bad years - even vintage jasmine years-and some of the terms used are akin to French wine-making. Extracts from plants and seeds are known in the trade as produit ordinaire, while extracts from blossoms are produit noble.

"It took us many years of hard work," Fakhry says, "to establish our gardens, to build our factory, at a time when nothing could be imported. All our equipment had to be made here. The venture, I have always felt, lacks 'adventure'; working long hours with earth and plants, we rarely have time to think that someone's imagination in Paris or London may eventually create a ravishing perfume out of our labors. Our work is to harvest the raw materials and then, like mining raw gold, we leave it to others with an artistic sense to create the alluring magic formulas all the world desires."

Not all the plants used for perfume are as exotic as the jasmine. The orange tree, for example, is hardly exotic and the bitter orange is just that-bitter. But to the perfumer bitter orange is a vital ingredient. In early April its flowers are distilled into an essential oil called "neroli," used for eau de toilette, and in September its new green leaves are harvested to make petitgrain (which means, literally? "small or young leaves"), used to establish the fresh green smell found in scented waters like eau de cologne and in toilet soaps. By December the fruit is picked, sliced and steamed to provide "bigarade oil," used as a flavoring agent, and even marmalade, the best of which is always made with bitter rather than sweet oranges.

Yet the orange tree, and the bitter orange in particular, provides the most fragrance of any plant, tree or shrub in Egypt - particularly at night. Indeed, to drive through the Nile Delta at night in springtime, when the orange trees are in bloom, is one of life's loveliest experiences: mile after mile of dark night air scented with the perfume of orange blossom.

But then night time is the best time for the joy of fragrance. At night, the flowers of Egypt are heavenly, whether bitter orange, jasmine or tuberose; at night in summer, for instance, a tuberose can give off new waves of fragrance every five minutes.

Jasmine, the tuberose and bitter orange, of course, are but three of the plants that provide Egypt with its magnificent harvest of scents. In addition there are various mints, used to flavor chewing gum and toothpastes; sweet basil, for house-sprays and scented waters; and what in France is called sweet-scented geranium. Its soft green leaves need just a gentle pressing between the fingers to produce a kind of fern odor widely used in men's sprays and, in some Muslim countries to flavor and scent a special cake eaten on the birthday of the Prophet - all supporting the saying that "the discovery of a new scent does more for the happiness of mankind than the discovery of a new star."

John Feeney, who is based in Cairo, does free-lance writing and photography between assignments as producer-director of Pyramid Films.

This article appeared on pages 4-11 of the July/August 1980 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1980 images.