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On Sunday 9 July 2011, South Sudan seceded from Sudan and became the world’s youngest country. The conflict in Sudan has been well documented, but little attention has been paid to the crafts and arts of Sudan. Few people realize what a rich reservoir to the aromatic past Sudan is, and that Sudan once played a vital role in history of Perfumery and the trade of aromatics. Even today Sudan has a thriving aromatic culture with a unique way of making perfumes.

To get a perspective of Sudan’s rich aromatic culture one has to look back into the History of Sudan and its important geographical position that served as a route of passage for people, trade, and ideas since ancient times. The culture of Sudan is a melting pot of fusion between different cultures. The immigrant Arab culture and the neighboring cultures (mainly Egyptian and West African cultures) have strongly influenced Sudanese culture. Their influences are especially evident in the North, West and East of the Sudan. Their influence was less felt South Sudan.

Sudan emerged from some of the world’s oldest civilizations and served as a crossroad for others, namely ancient Egypt, Christian and Islamic civilizations. Its history extends further back than 7000 B.C. The fabled kingdoms of Kerma and Kush (also referred to as Nubia), and many now also believe Punt (South-East Sudan – Beja lands) once rose and fell within the borders of Sudan. At one point, the kings of Kush ruled the entire Nile Valley from the Mediterranean Sea to the Highlands of Ethiopia.

Looking back at Sudan’s origins one may well wonder whether the ancient civilizations of Sudan may have given birth to Egyptian civilization since archaeologists have discovered one of the oldest cemeteries ever found in Africa – dating back to 7500 B.C. – and the oldest evidence of cattle domestication ever found in the Nile Valley in Northern Sudan. It appears that the Egyptians themselves may have identified the region of Somalia, Eritrea and Southern Sudan as “Ta Khent” (‘Land of the Beginning’ or ‘Ancestral land&rsquo. (Ref)

The kingdom of Kerma, one of the world’s oldest civilizations, rose about 5,000 years ago out of a pastoral culture with the first settlements established by at least 7000 B.C. Kerma was known as Ta-Sety (“the Land of the Archers’ Bow&rdquo to the ancient Egyptians. The civilization reached its peak between 2500 B.C to 1500 B.C, when it was conquered by the Pharaohs of Egypt and finally annexed as an Egyptian colony – “The Land governed by the Pharaoh’s Son” – Tuthmosis I. (Ref)

Due to its geographical position, for the15 centuries that the Kerma civilization flourished it was an extraordinarily prosperous empire ruled by a series of powerful kings. During this time Kerma established itself very successfully as a middle-man between sub-Saharan Africa and Egypt that controlled the flow of trade in luxury goods to Egyptian Pharaohs, which included gold, ivory, precious woods, wild animals, slaves and of especial interest to us aromatics. Sudan and South Sudan, shares borders with nine different states; Egypt, Libya, Chad, Central African Republic, Zaire, Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Eritrea, and is separated by the Red Sea from Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

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Location of Kush


Sudan’s geographical position thus provided access to trade routes north, south and east to the Red Sea. If indeed the location of almost mythical Punt was in the region of the Gash Delta, extending from the port of Suakin or Aqiq on the Red Sea coast, west to the Atbara River and south into northern Ethiopia most of the international trade in aromatics in antiquity occurred within the borders of Sudan. Punt was also mentioned in the Bible, and ancient Romans called it Cape Aromatica.

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Possible Location of Punt

Greek geography, the Meroitic kingdom was known as Ethiopia. The Nubian kingdom at Meroe persisted until the 4th century AD, when it fell to the expanding kingdom of Axum. Meroe was the seat of the great caravan route from North Africa and westward across the Soudan (Ethiopia).  From Meroe eastward extended the route by which the wares of southern Arabia and Africa were interchanged. The great wealth of the Kushites arose from this net work of commerce which covered the world of the historical times. The trade routes can still be pointed out by a chain of ruins, extending from the shores of the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean. The cities Adule, Axum, Napatan, Meroe, Thebes and Carthage were the links in the chain.

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Perfume bottle from Meroe

From Meroe to Memphis the most common object carved or painted in the temples was the incense censor. From our present vantage point it is hard to imagine how important and how big the trade in aromatics was in the antiquity. Every nation of the historical times used frankincense and myrrh in religious ceremonies, cultural rituals and for medicinal purposes. Early writers expounded on how much wealth the Kushites attained from this trade by describing “fountains with the odor of violets,” and “prisoners fettered with gold chains.” (Ref) The great value placed on aromatics early in Sudan’s history can be seen in that already in the Middle Kerma period, grave goods of the kings included perfumed oils and unguents. (Ref)

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Perfume vase from Sesebi Sudan


“all goodly fragrant woods, heaps of myrrh-resin, with fresh myrrh trees, with ebony and pure ivory, green gold of Amu, cinnamon-wood, khesyt-wood, ahmut-incense, senter-incense, eye makeup, apes, monkeys, dogs, skins of the southern panther, and with natives and their children” An inscription from Hathsepsut´s expedition to Punt

This area was also instrumental in the trading of cinnamon in ancient times. There is now a lot archeological evidence that the “Cinnamon Route” began somewhere in the Malay Archipelago, romantically known as the “East Indies,” and crossed the Indian Ocean to the southeastern coast of Africa. The spices may have landed initially at Madagascar from where they were transported to the East African trading ports. Merchants then moved the commodities northward along the coast. When exactly the trade between Southeast Asia and the southeastern coast of Africa began is still open to much debate, however the oldest archaeological remains of the domestic chicken (Galllus gallus) found in Tanzania may give us an indication; the remains dates back to 2,800 BCE. Both the domestic chicken and cinnamon originated in Southeast Asia. The earliest similar evidence in Egypt is not earlier than the New Kingdom period about 1,000 years later. (Ref)

As such an important trade center for aromatics since ancient times, it is therefore not surprising to find that the present day culture of Sudan still includes the use of aromatics in all its important cultural and spiritual ceremonies. Looking at the aromatic culture of Sudan gives us a very good indication of the role that aromatics once played in the spiritual and cultural history of humanity, both inside and outside the continent. Perfume production is one of the ancient arts. Although the use of perfume is well recorded in texts from the Egyptian Old Kingdom and the early second millennium in Mesopotamia and Palestine, the sources gives us little precise data about early perfume technology. Thus while the history of the use of perfumes is widely known, the processes and equipment used by perfumers remain obscure. (Ref)

So often in written recipes, techniques that are considered self-evident and common knowledge in the time period, is not recorded and thus becomes lost in time. As the culture of Sudan is almost a microcosm of synthesis of the most influential cultures in the cultural evolution of humanity, I believe that the processes used by the Sudanese in their perfume making contain many of those lost secrets of the ancient art.

The burning of incense to invoke spirits and to dispel negative influences appears throughout cultures and history of the world, whereas the use of perfume oils is traditionally used to make “holy,” or to anoint. Sudan is a wonderful time capsule for the traditional use of incense and perfumes. For a long time I wondered how to capture the burning incense note, and the wonderful scent of fragrant wood smoke, naturally; the techniques used by the Sudanese gave me the answer. More about that later in this article.

Bakhur – Incense

There are two popular methods of incensing in the Muslim Sudan; the bakhra and the takhriga. Bakhra is a sheet of white paper on which the fakir writes astrological formulas, magical seals, or numerical squares, with holy verses from the Quran. A bakhra is burnt in a mubkhar (incense burner), alone or with frankincense and ambergris. The patient bends over the incense burner, covered in a cloth and inhales the fumes. The process is usually accompanied by incantations, a spitting cure, or other forms of treatment.

The takhriga is a blend of herbs, spices, resins and other aromatic ingredients of which bakhur al-taiman (the twin’s incense) is the most widely used. Traditionally the ingredients includes various minerals (even ground coloured stones) and aromatic herbs such as qarad (Acacia nilotica – sunt pods), ‘ain al-‘arus (Abrus precatorius), kasbara (coriander), cumin, Frankincense, Commiphora pedunculata, ghasoul (Salicornia sp.), harmal (wild rue – Peganum harmala), shebb (alum), harjal (Solenostema argel), um gheleghla (Astrochlaena lachnosperma), ganzabil (ginger), mahareb (Cymbopogon nercitus), and sugar. Dufr (operculum) and ambergris is also used in some blends. The takhriga is burnt mainly to expel the evil eye and subsequently protect against its influence and to undo magical spells. Incantations are recited while dusting the ingredients over the fire. The inflicted person has to wash his or her feet in rigla (purslane) water before undergoing the incense therapy. (Ref)

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Photo - Mark McMahan

The Zar culture

Several times, I escaped my parents’ notice, and sometimes-even school, to sneak into one of the zar houses. I found the ceremonies fascinating, and still remember them vividly, and with pleasure. The rhythm of the zar music and the heavy fragrances that escape from the ceremony houses are unforgettable. – Dr Ahmad Al Safi, author of Traditional Sudanese Medicine

Although the Zar rituals have been officially banned in the Sudan since1992, and Zar ceremonies were driven underground in Egypt during the 1940s and 1950s with practioners fearing persecution from a society that did not understand the complexities of Sudanese mysticism, the ‘drums’ still beat the rhythms of the mystical, soul-cleansing ceremonies and the incense still perfume the air of the Zar houses. (Ref)

Zar Video


The Zar culture is a widespread healing cult found throughout much of northern and north-eastern Africa, predominantly in Islamic areas, as well as in parts of the Middle East. The people of Sudan were converted to Islam at the beginning of the fourteenth century, after the collapse of the Christian kingdom of Donqola in northern Sudan. Muslims represent seventy percent of the population, Christians four percent, and the remaining are animists. The Zar cult incorporates a complex belief system that had evolved over many centuries combining elements of shamanic-type practices along with recognition of Muslim prophets and Christian spirits. (Ref)

The origins of the Zar cult is still a heated debate among scholars, with some even debating that it stems from an earlier belief system derived from Persia. The data collected from fieldwork however, suggest that the Zar cult is pre-Islamic, as the rituals themselves accommodate traditions and customs contrary to Islam and that it seems rather to have originated in Africa. The Zar cult is a cultural phenomenon that link Sudan, Ethiopia, and Nigeria. Although called by different names, it is widespread in Africa even among non-Muslims. Both the music and rituals involved are reminiscent of other African spiritual ceremonies. One can easily imagine the ceremonies as part of the earlier Kingdoms of Sudan. (Ref)

Zar takes various forms in the Sudan; the Zar–Bori cults being particularly associated with women, while Zar–Tumbura is associated more particularly with men. Tumbura is connected with the underwater world, and resembles the Edo spirit possession cult in Benin City, Nigeria. Zar Bori spirits who are connected to the underwater world are related to the Tumbura realm. The Zar Bori spirits belong mainly to dry lands, jungles, and mountains.(Ref)

The Zar spirits are classified into different groups which reflect ethno-cultural groups. These groups appear to be related to ancestral spirits as they reflect the cultures with which the ancient Sudanese had contact with. Among these groups are the Darawish (dervish or Sufi), who are sometimes called AhlAllah, which literally means God’s people; Habash (Ethiopian); and Arabs. (The Sudanese identify nomads as Arabs. In the Sudanese conception, sometimes the term “race” is not necessarily connected with blood relationship, but perceived in social and geographical terms.) Next in the Zar groups are Pashawat (Turko-Egyptian), Khawajat (white, non-Muslim), and Zurg (black or Sudanese). Other Zar characters operate as groups, such as al-banat (the girls). Yet others exist as individuals, such as the “Chinese.” The Zar order of spirits also operates under a hierarchy according to the Zar characters’ political, religious, and social positions. (Ref)

Each of these spirits is recognized by particular characteristics and each spirit has its associated drumbeat, songs, costume and incense. The symbolism of the rite is reminiscent of marriage, for the patient or devotee is called a ‘bride of the Zar’, and she is dressed and perfumed as a bride with a red henna dye applied to her hands and feet. Being the bride, symbolize the potentiality of marriage between the bride and the spirit, also called the “Opening.” The openings give the devotee knowledge of particular skills and therefore power; for example through the knowledge of Wad’i (sea shells) the devotee can read the future and tell secrets. (Ref)

The Sudanese bride is traditionally dressed in red. The Zar spirits themselves are said to be ‘red winds’, and the colour red is associated with heat, fertility, and earthly rebirth. Red mediates between black and white and reflects that the possession rite is essentially a transitional ritual. It is interesting to note that most of the Zar participants are women between the ages of 35 to 55, which are a major time of transition for women and a time when women needs to find self expression through creative means. The Zar is also an important ritual drama, which encapsulates historical events and personages. The zar parties, in addition to being therapeutic in nature, are believed to serve social functions as well. The zar parties provide women with music, dancing, food and a relaxed atmosphere in which they can let off steam. Most commonly, scholars note that in Zar possession, women find an escape from the world dominated by men. The women are able, through Zar, to do things she cannot do in ordinary life.

The zar bori parties, also known as midans or dastur (plural dasatir), involve lengthy preparations setting the scene for the musical extravaganza and dancing sÉances.  The zar house is characteristically crowded, and filled with strongly scented fumes and perfumes. The novice, the participants, and the audience are all dressed in their best clothes. The zar novice and devotees join in the dancing.

The majority of Zar cult leaders are women, and they are addressed as Sheikha. The Sheikha is an essential figure in Zar rituals. She is the one who controls the entire situation and mediates between the spirit world and the possessed person. When in a trance, the patient will speak in a spirit voice and through gestures indicate which spirit is possessing her. Through the Sheika, the gestures will be interpreted and the requirements of the spirit ascertained. Often the demands of the spirit will include the mounting of a ritual, with spirit costumes and a sacrifce in its honour. In addition to the Sheikha, there is the Sheikha’s chorus who helps her by singing and drumming. (Ref)

The Zar session begins with the burning of incense to invoke the spirits. The first procedure in Zar healing is called Fath-al-ilba. This refers to the opening (fath) of a tin. The ‘ellba’ (tin box) symbolizes the Sheikha’s power, and represents the communication between her and the spirit world. The ‘ellba’ is given as a gift to Sheikha when she is initiated as a cult leader. The ‘ellba’ contains all the different incenses that call and provoke the spirits. As each zar spirit has its appropriate incense, whenever the Sheikha burns incense, she is invoking the appearance of the specific spirit that has possessed the person. The elba calls to mind the tortoise shell boxes of the San which carriers the ingredients for the “medicine smoke.” The second step is to identify the spirit which possesses the victim, and hence activate the process by which the spirits can be controlled by the Haflat al-zar (Zar party).(Ref)

The Sheikha herself makes a ceremony, once every year during the month of Rajab, the month before Sha’aban, called Al-Rajaligya. The Shaikha’s party marks the closing ceremony of the year that has passed, and no Zar is practiced during the months of Shaaban and Ramadan. During this time all the Zar boxes must be closed, and only later opened after Zul-Hajja. The ceremony practiced to close the boxes is called Rajabiyya, a reference to the month Rajab. Every devotee is equipped with incense, which allows her to release herself during the months when the boxes are closed. (Ref)

A typical Zar incense or Bakhur Al-Zar generally contains ‘udiya (Aquilaria agallocha Roxb. – Agarwood), luban jawi (“Frankincense of Java “– Benzoin), Frankincense, Commiphora pedunculata, sandalwood, mastika (mastic gum), ghasoul (Salicornia sp.), murr higazi (Commiphora abyssinica), blended with traditional Sudanese perfumes.

Presenting beauty on a daily basis is the means by which the devotee appeases the spirits, and consequently maintains power given to her by the zar spirits.

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Sudanese henna

According to Baqie Badawi Muhammad in her fascinating paper “The Sudanese Concept of Beauty, Spirit Possession, and Power,” beauty is an essential element in the Zar cult.

“Beauty, while attracting the negative powers, has the potential to be harnessed through spirit possession into a powerful force which can be turned in favor of the devotee. The interaction between the devotee and the spirit galvanizes beauty with protection from evil elements. The guarding of beauty is the beginning and end of this ongoing process. The power of the devotee grows through this maintenance of beauty in rituals that have been endowed through traditional thought with religious significance. Although spirits protect the devotee, any negligence of her own beauty will result in punishment, thereby negatively affecting the devotee’s power.”

Taking care of one’s beauty is essential in sustaining the devotee’s power. In Ethiopia it is often claimed that a woman’s glowing charms leave her when her protective Zar leaves her. Women associate some spirit characters with cleanliness and sweet smells. Thus bad smells are said to provoke jinn, and therefore endanger body well-being. One spirit called Tahashaw often resembles a northern Sudanese woman with strong provoking perfume accompanied by the rattling sound of her jewelry. (Ref)

The burning of incense and the use of perfumes therefore also play an important role in creating an aesthetic environment that pleases the Zar spirits.

Perfumes and Cosmetics

Sudanese women have unique local perfumes and cosmetic rituals, such as; Khumra, dilka, Karkar, Dukhan, and henna decoration. These cosmetics can only be used by women who are married or about to get married.

The traditional Sudanese perfume is called Khumra and the word is said to be derived from the word khamara “to cover” and could also be derived from the verb “khaamara”, which means mix up (whether confused or literally mix up). The origins of the word is a lovely description of Sudanese “potpourri” which forms the basis of the Sudanese perfumes

I find the techniques and ingredients used fascinating as it represents for me a slice in the history of perfumes. It could well represent how perfumes were first made in ancient Egypt and the Nubian civilization. Before I delve into the traditional perfumes and cosmetics, I will cover some of the ingredients that add a historical perspective.

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Mahleb cherry kernels


Mahlab – Prunus mahaleb

“Mahlab” or “Mahleb” is an essential ingredient in both Khumra and Dilka (I will cover Dilka separately.) Mahleb was once widely used by Arabian and Persian perfumers who also used it as an ingredient for incenses, and although no mention is made of its use in ancient Egypt I see no reason why they would not also have used it, as the spice is widely used in Egypt. I have to wonder whether the “red berries” in the famous Egyptian Reliefs that depict some of the aspects of perfume making on the walls of the tomb of Petosiris from the early Ptolemaic period could not have been Mahlab cherries?

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Today, however, Mahlab seems to be used almost exclusively as perfume ingredient in Sudan. Mahleb appears to be one of those “forgotten perfume ingredients,” as it is now used principally in the Middle East, Egypt, Greece and Turkey as a ground spice for dips, bread, pastries, and sweetmeats. In Italy it is also used to make Liquore di amarenelle.(Ref)

Mahlab is the kernel of a species of wild cherry, Prunus mahaleb, also known as the Perfumed cherry, or St. Lucie cherry. Mahaleb cherrry is native to Morocco, Iran, Iraq, Armenia, Pakistan, Caucasus, Soviet Middle Asia, Central and Southern Europe. The major producer of Mahlab today is Iran, followed by Turkey and Syria. Mahlep cherry is seen as the mother of cultivated cherries, since the mahlep cherry is often used as the grafting stock for table cherries.

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Ripe Mahleb Cherries


The aroma of Mahleb is described as rose-scented with a subtle flavour of tonka beans or bitter almond with a hint of cherry; much like marzipan with a floral quality to it.  The scent and taste description is not surprising since coumarines appears to be the main flavour compounds of the kernels, one of the most common ingredients in many perfumes. Coumarin has also been isolated from the dried bark, wood, and leaves. It has also been found to contain glycosidically bound 4-methoxyethyl-cinnamate. In Sudan the oil extracted from Mahlab is called Baida. Mahlabiya oil said to be derived from Mahlab is commonly used to darken Henna decorations. (Ref)

Dufr ‘fingernails of the sea’

Another interesting ingredient used in the perfumes is called dufr, “fingernails of the sea” and can also be considered a historical ingredient, rarely used today. Dufr is also used in Sudan for treating fever, wasting disease, and as a fertility symbol, and for amulets. It curious indeed that it is called “Fingernails of the sea” which leads directly to Onycha,” the ancient Greek word for “Finger Nail,” which comes from an early translation of the Old Testament into Greek, from the original Hebrew word; “shecheleth” meaning nail, claw or hoof, of the much debated ingredient used as an incense material in the Book of Exodus. Onycha from the bible is very likely the same as dufr; the horny operculum found in certain species of marine gastropod mollusks. The most likely candidates for the biblical onycha are; Strombus lentiginosus, Murex anguliferus, Onyx marinus, and Unguis odoratus. (Ref)


Onycha – Dufr
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Hiroshi Nawata has done extensive historical and ethnographical studies on trade in operculum of gastropods in Sudan and has concluded that operculum as incense and perfumery ingredient was exported since historical times from the ancient port of Badi, which was situated in South Eastern Sudan on the Red Sea coast. Badi was an important port-town for historical Red Sea trade. Commodities from the African interior, as well as coastal products such as tortoise shell, pearl and mother-of-pearl, sponges and corals, shark fin, shell, crab, and fish were traded from Badi. Opercula are still harvested from around al-Rih island where Badi was situated, and still helps the cash income of the Beja people. Three kinds of opercula from the Red Sea are used and traded, but the opercula of Strombus tricornis are considered the best in Africa and the Middle East. Opercula (dufr) are still widely used in incenses and karkar, dukhan, dilka, khumra and bahr muassal among the contemporary Sudanese people. Cuttle-fish bone called Zabab Malih, is also used in Sudan, powdered and mixed with kohl. Used in treating eye inflammation (Ref)

Although I could find no reference of how dufr is prepared for use in Sudan, descriptions of how it was prepared in other parts of the world will be a useful indication. Writers during the Middle Ages recorded that onycha was rubbed with an alkali solution prepared from the bitter vetch (Lathyrus linifolius) to remove impurities. It was then soaked in the fermented berry juice of the Caper shrub, or a strong white wine. This treatment of an alkali solution and then with wine is also reported in other cultures that uses the operculum. In Japan and China they are treated with alcohol, vinegar and water, and in the Hebrew tradition, wine and lye (caustic soda) is used. After this treatment some suggest to then slowly heat the ground operculum in a pan with just enough oil or ghee to cover them, taking care not to overheat and burn the opercula. The active is ingredient is apparently drawn into the oil which is used as the incense ingredient, and the residue as a fixative. In Oman and other Middle Eastern countries they are ground to a rough powder, and a small amount of this is added to the incense mixture.  (Ref)

In Tamil the powdered operculum is soaked in water, and used as an adhesive matrix to bind together the powdered sandalwood and other incense material used in coating the incense sticks. The operculem is called naganam or navanam by the Tamil. (Ref)

Musk (Misk) and Ambergris (Anber) are traditionally also used in Sudanese perfumes. Although there are not many references of Civet being used, one research paper on the Trade of Sudanese Natural Medicinals do mention Civet being as perfume ingredient. (Ref: Trade of Sudanese Natural Medicinals and their role in Human and Wildlife Health Care)

This will not surprise me, as it is available from neighbouring Ethiopia. Civet cat farming is an ancient practice in Ethiopia and in its early history. Civet musk was used as currency and traded with Egypt, Zanzibar and India. (Ref) Civet musk was valued above ivory, gold or myrrh. The Queen of Sheba (1013-982 BC) allegedly presented civet musk as a gift to King Solomon Traditionally it was used as a medicine for various ailments and taken in tea and coffee. As Northern Ethiopia was once part of the Kush kingdom and Sudan was a major trade route for aromatics in ancient times Civet would have been part of the valuable trading commodities to pass through its borders and ports. (Ref)

Sandalwood (Santalum album) and Sandalwood oil (Sandaliyya) is widely used as an aromatic ingredient. A crude Sandalwood oil is also sold. Women also make an infusion by scraping sandalwood chips with a knife into coconut or palm oil and macerate it until the oil takes on a red tint. The oil is used to keep the skin soft, moist and protected. It also is used to stop the skin looking ‘grey’.

Frankincense, Myrrh and Mastic gum

Frankincense, Myrrh and Mastic gum has also been a widely used commodity from this area. Mastic gum is thought to be “sntr” incense mentioned in the ancient Egyptian texts of the Punt expeditions by some scholars. The species of Pistachio found in Africa is Pistacia aethiopica, distributed in Somalia, Eritrea and Southern parts of Ethiopia, and Pistacio chinensis var, falcate also occurs in Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan. The odour emitted by Commiphora samharensis is similar to some of the Pistacia species and it is speculated that it is possible that it could have been used as an alternative source of “sntr” or interchangeably by the Egyptians. The myrrh species found in the region are; Commiphora myrrha, C. erythraea, and C. samharensis. Commiphora gileadensis or opobalsamum is widespread in Western and Eastern Sudan and both the twigs and resin is used.

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Piles of nytw brought back from Punt


Also mentioned in the Punt texts is “ntyw” which refers to either frankincense or myrrh. The Frankincense species found in Africa are; Boswelia carteri (inland Somalia), Boswelia frereana (coastal regions Somalia), Boswelia papyrifera (Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Central African Republic and Uganda), and Boswelia bhau-dajiana. Boswelia rivae is found in southern Ethiopia and Somalia. The Boswelia species are most likely the source of antyw (ntyw). (Ref; Profiling Punt: Using Trade Relations to Locate” God’s Land” Catherine Lucy)

Dilka – Scented massage




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Photo by Debbie DeVoe Khumra, Sandalwood and Dilka



Dilka is used by women as an exfoliating scrub that leaves the skin soft and perfumed. Like Khumra and dukha, dilka is only allowed to be used by married or about to get married women. Unmarried girls are only allowed to use dilkat-burtuqal (orange paste).

It has been noted that women who use dilka frequently, have a supple, clean, fragrant, and healthy skin. John Petherick, a traveler who visited the Sudan in the eighteenth century, submitted unwillingly to this procedure. He described its effects, saying:

“The following morning I woke quite revived; the feverishness had entirely subsided and with a calm and refreshing sensation through my limbs and body.”

The dilka dough is prepared in much the same way as the basis of Khumra and takes about 3-5 days. The principal ingredients are however, sorghum or durra (durum) flour. Alternatively, millet flour or even orange peel is used. It is called dilka murra (bitter) if unscented and hulwa (sweet) if scented. Powdered ‘Mahleb’ (Prunus mahaleb) seeds and cloves are soaked in water and let to steep for several hours. It is then strained through a fine strainer, the seeds discarded and the watery extract gradually added to the flour and kneaded by hand into soft dough.

To the dough, different amounts of finely ground fragrant woods are added such as tahlih wood (Acacia seyal – shittah tree), shaff (Terminalia brownie), and sandalwood, as well as powdered mahlab, qurunful (Cloves), and dufr (operculum) and sometimes zabad (Cuttle-fish bone.) This basic mixture is called al-marbou’ and if luban (Frankincense) and simbil (Spikenard) are added then it is called al-makhmous.

This paste is spread on the inside of a bowl (traditionally wooden). The bowl is then inverted over a container or a dug hole with smoking aromatic woods such as shaff, sandal, and talh. The durra paste is enriched with the fragrant smoke of the woods. At regular intervals, a handful of the powdered fragrant blend mentioned above is added and kneaded in, until the material is cooked and the right fragrance achieved.

Once the paste has cooled to this will be added kabarait, a blend of traditional scents such as musk, surratiyya (Crude oil of cloves), zait sandaliyya (Crude sandal oil), or majmou (clove and sandal oil), and baida (mahleb oil) may be added, as well. To make a special dilka, sugar, favourite liquid perfumes, and zait al-ni’am (Ostrich fat) are also added. Popular perfumes often added are Bint el Sudan and Reve d’ Or (1889) but more about that later.

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This is then scraped from the bowl and sometimes further scented by spreading it on top of a mesh and smoking it with bakhur (incense). Otherwise, it is formed into small balls and preserved in huqs (airtight wooden pots) until needed. The smoking also cures the dilka as it stays preserved longer than other types of similar paste.

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Khumra – Sudanese Traditional Perfumes

The technique generally used to prepare the traditional perfumes is unique. The smoking of ingredients is unusual and I have not come across it in any other perfumery techniques. First a paste is made from the powdered dried ingredients such as mahleb seeds, cloves, nutmeg, dufr, sandalwood and musk, and sometimes even dried apples studded with cloves and orange peels are added. This paste is then smoked in a charcoal fire with pieces of sandalwood and local aromatic woods. After smoking the paste Frankincense, myrrh and various liquid aromatic oils is added and the smoked paste is then infused in oil to produce the perfume.

The making of perfumes is an important part of Sudanese wedding rituals. The preparations for the wedding perfumes start about a month before the wedding by the women of the bride’s relatives and friends and it is a skill that is passed on by through family members.

The following video shows how Khumra is made.

Khumra demonstration


Dukhan – Body incensing

Dukhan, or smoke bath, is a beautification ritual practiced by women in northern Sudanese provinces. This ritual is also forms a part of the traditional Sudanese wedding preparations. Although women insist on the benefits of dukhan for health reasons such as curing bodily aches, cleanliness, health, and for restoration after childbirth, it has strong associated with sensuality and eroticism. It is believed to boost sexual gratification. The Himba women also use a smoke bath on a daily basis but for cleansing purposes.

 Sudans Aromatic Culture

Selling Shaff and Tahlih wood


A blend of scented shaff, talih, and sandalwood is placed inside a hole. Enough charcoal is lit to produce scented smoke. A birish rug, woven from palm tree branches, with a central opening, is then placed over the hole. To bathe, a woman strips naked. Her body is thoroughly rubbed with karkar, scented oil generally made from animal fat, orange peel, and clove essences. The woman sits over the hole, allowing the rising smoke to fumigate her body. Women rarely perform dukhan alone. Usually, they rely on the help of female kin, neighbors, and friends to add wood as needed or to provide water to compensate for the massive amount of perspiration during the bath, which can last for an hour or more. The dilka body scrub is then used to clean the body and to reveal a glistening skin. A warm shower concludes the process. (Ref)

Men try dukhan occasionally to alleviate rheumatic pain. The wood used in restorative fumigation is usually shaff and talh. When dukhan is performed for therapy, heavy scenting is omitted and various medicinal plants and other items are used instead. (Ref)

The Sudanese have evidently observed that the aromatic oils that exuded from certain plants when they are burnt have beneficial properties other than being restorative and emollient to the skin and body. They have preservative and therapeutic values when burnt. For example, it has been discovered that dukhan (smoking with aromatics) preserves food, straw mats, and woolen covers. Milk pots are sometimes fumigated with kadad (Dichrostachys cinerea) until they become black, and when milk is stored in them it lasts longer before it gets sour and the milk acquires a lovely odour after it has been kept there.(Ref)

Anti-microbial creams are also prepared in this way by the condensation of the aromatic oils by a variety of burnt plants. The volatile oils of lalobe (Balanites aegyptiaca), for example, are absorbed on the inside of a wooden pot smeared with oil. The condensed cream is then scraped and used topically for the treatment of some skin ailments. Luban dhakar (frankincense) is also burnt underneath a small inverted pot. The black fumes condense on the inside, and are scraped into a muk-hala (eye cosmetic pot) and used in beautifying eyes like kohl, and to protect them against various illnesses. Such eye treatment is particularly popular among brides and elderly women. Fenugreek is similarly used; its ointment is used to treat various scalp ailments. (Ref)

Chips of sandalwood coated in sugar are also burned in a small clay dish, which is covered by a dome “cage” of light flexible wood (mabkharah). Clothes are spread on top of the cage so they absorb the fragrant smoke—another tradition done only by married women.

almabkharah Sudans Aromatic Culture



Bint El Sudan

Out of this rich aromatic culture of Sudan was born what is perhaps world’s all time best selling perfume; Bint El Sudan. First introduced in 1920, by the 1960s and 1970s, it was the biggest selling non-alcoholic based perfume in the world and a separate alcoholic-based version was also released. An average of 5.7 million bottles of Bint El Sudan is now produced every year for Africa, according to Nicholas Evans, the IFF fragrance sales manager for Africa.

Alison Bates tells the wonderful story of how her grandfather was instrumental in the birth of Bint El Sudan on her blog.

According to the story Sudanese nomads approached him with vials of precious essences with which to produce an oil based perfume for the Muslim market. The rest of the story is legendary and Bint el Sudan became one of the most recognized fragrances of Africa: The original distribution network was still via camels caravans carried by merchants traveling all over north and West Africa and into the Middle East. It was even used as a currency in the area, and as a result of the value placed on Bint El Sudan counterfeits became rife. The packaging today has been designed to counter act counterfeits but the original label design remains as recognizable as ever.

The original Bush firm has changed hands several times since her grandfather’s day. It was bought by Albright & Wilson in 1961; became part of Bush, Boake and Allen (BBA) in 1966; and in 2000, the U.S. conglomerate International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF) bought out BBA and took over the rights to the Bint formula.

The original Bint formula was several pages long and no doubt contained a large percentage of naturals. Since then it has been reworked and synthesized. Non-alcoholic and alcoholic based versions are sold in different shaped bottles, and plastic plugs used instead of corks. It is packaged and distributed in Nigeria, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Kenya, South Africa, Sudan, Zimbabwe as well as in Saudi Arabia for the Middle Eastern market. (Ref)

The enduring success of Bint El Sudan must be seen against the background of Sudan’s aromatic culture. It is a popular addition to Khumra, Dilka and is especially associated with weddings and as an aphrodisiac. Just like the other traditional fragrances only married women can use it. It was even marketed in the U.S as “Africa’s Famous Love Fragrance”. It is also reputed to be used to anoint the dead as well for daily use, sprayed on talih wood to scent the home, bed covers and even clothes. I even came across a site advertising it as “Good for purification and meditation.”

BintElSudan Sudans Aromatic Culture

Nicholas Evans kindly sent me some samples of Bint El Sudan to smell and filled me in with more back ground stories. So what does Bint El Sudan smell like? The marketing description is; “A blend of floral odours with the emphasis of jasmine, lilac and lily of the valley, with undertones of woody notes supported by musk, amber and moss.” The cute12ml bottles sells for about 1 dollar in Africa. They also sell little triangular bags of Bint el Sudan.

The scent is instantly recognizable as one I have often smelled in public places, also a scent associated with shower-fresh. The fresh Lily of the valley top notes quickly dissipate into notes of rose that I associate with Turkish delight, or sweet rose water with a sparkle of Jasmine Grandiflora note which drifts into notes of sandalwood soap, and finally settles in a base of musky amber. I do not smell much oak moss though.

Sudan’s Aromatic Future

Many women, in both rural and urban areas, serve as the head of the family as a result of the massive migration of men from rural areas to cities or out of the country and the trade in aromatics still help to provide many women with an income. In the cities, women work as small retailers for spices, some medicinal and culinary plants and perfumery woods which remain to be in high demand. Women who make traditional “Khumra” are usually well paid for this job. Oxfam has also made available small loans for helping women making Khumra to set up small businesses. One such success story is featured by Oxfam of Um Hageen Al Agib’s home-made perfume shops in western Omdurman. Such market stalls sell other local beauty products, such as soap, face creams, hair oils and henna, as well as medicinal herbs too. If you click on the picture it will take you to her story.(Ref)
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This year the First Festival for Sudanese Perfumes was held with the theme of ” Sudanese Perfumes: Towards Internationalism,” in Khartoum. The Chairperson of the Sudanese Centre for Development of the Businesswomen, Mrs. Samia Shabo said the Perfumes’ Festival is an attempt to shed light on the various kinds and good quality of Sudanese perfumes as well as their ability to compete other perfumes in the international markets.

The Souk al-Sabit market in Khartoum presents products of the businesswomen in the Khartoum State. The Souk al-Sabit displays various products of perfumes, taobs, bed sheets, cosmetics and whatever relates to women and the family. The markets and festivals help to develop and upgrade the skills of the businesswomen and provide facilities and small funding from the banks. The market has achieved a great success as it availed the opportunity for the businesswomen to know one another and exchange their experiences and expanded their activities from the narrow framework of the housing areas to external markets, and above all else contributed to supporting the poor in the communities

During the Perfumer’s Festival Madame Amal Issa was chosen as the Queen of Perfumes in Sudan. Madame Issa participated in the festival with dozens of Sudanese traditional perfumes. She uses Sudanese materials in her perfume production. Her winning perfumes are born out of her deep passion and love for the Sudanese traditional perfumes. She said that she has inherited her profession from her old ones, the grandmothers, and concluded

“Perfume is like a glimpse of light to me.” (Ref)

Abkab tikati ba fadiga
Don’t let go of what you have – From a Hadendowa Legend

Perfume Festival


Traditional Sudanese Perfumes and Products are available from Lubna Ali

Bitmakaly Enterprises


Scented Smoke Enfleurage

Smoke Enfleurage 1 Sudans Aromatic Culture

Have you not ever wanted to capture the lovely scent of burning frankincense, and other resins and woods to give another dimension to an incense accord? The action of imparting scents onto the fats is called enfleurage; although it is traditionally used with flowers, the Sudanese techniques of perfume and cosmetic making gave me the idea of how to make Scented Smoke Enfleurage.

You will need a dish in which to burn the resins and woods. I use a flat ceramic bowl that often is the base for ceramic flower pots. Or you can just burn it in a hole in the ground.

A heat resistant bowl that will fit just over, or within the burning bowl.

Charcoal used for burning Incense

Palm fat, or any fat that you will use for enfleurage.

Any resins, aromatic woods, spice or dried herbs that you love the burning scent of.

1. Melt the fat inside the bowl and roll the melt fat against the sides so that it is a thin layer rather than just a layer on the bottom of the bowl. Allow it to cool and become hard.

2. Place the charcoal inside the burning dish and light it. Make sure that it is hot before adding the aromatics. When it is giving a good smoke place the bowl with the layer of palm fat over it.

3. Keep checking to see that the fat is not melting or that there is still enough smoke.

4. Keep adding aromatics for more scented smoke until the fat has been thoroughly impregnated with the scent.

5. Then you scrape the scented fat from the bowl and put it inside a jar with enough alcohol to cover. Shake it daily until you feel it is strong enough. You can also recharge by straining the alcohol and placing more scented fat in the alcohol. That way you can make the extract as strong as you want to or even blend different smoky scents.

It is really fun to experiment with different kinds of aromatics. My favourites so far are of course Frankincense, Omumbiri and Camel thorn wood.



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"I'm just trying to make a way out of no way, for my people" -Modejeska Monteith Simpkins









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