It is said to be one of the most exotic and fascinating ingredients on a perfumer’s palette; yet, what gives the prized oud its distinctive smoky, sensual scent is strangely caused when the core of the Southeast Asian agar (Aquilaria) tree becomes infected by a fungus or an insect. In self-defence, the tree reacts by producing a dense, fragrant resin to protect itself.
‘This fragrance is, actually, a byproduct of the Aquilaria tree’s natural mechanism to conceal damages,’ says Rashed Alyoha Al Muhairi, chief cultural guide, Al Shindagha Museum, as he leads us on an olfactory journey through the Perfume House located at the Al Shindagha historic district in Dubai.
‘The dark, scented oud produced has been considered a cultural touchstone, especially across the Middle East, and assumes great significance in traditional Emirati perfumes where this ancient scent has been used for thousands of years in the form of wooden incense chips, body oils and fragrance.’
Under a canopy of filtered light streaming through the museum’s mashrabiya-inspired ceiling in its main hall, Al Muhairi explains that oud, grown chiefly in parts of India and South East Asia, refers to both the resin-saturated wood chips as well as the oil distilled from it. What makes it one of the world’s rarest commodities, earning itself the sobriquet of ‘liquid gold’, he adds, ‘is the fact that in a natural forest, only seven out of 100 Aquilaria trees produce oud and it may take decades for a tree to harvest a good amount of oud. Also, one kilo of agarwood is required to produce just 1ml of oud oil!’
The waterfront Perfume House, overlooking the gently bobbing waters of the Dubai Creek, explores the narratives of traditional perfume-making in the region, while also tracing the cultural and historic relevance of perfumes in Emirati society. Housed in the former residence of Shaikha Shaikha Bint Saeed Al Maktoum – a perfume connoisseur and an avid collector of traditional perfumes – the museum features more than 60 archaeological and historical artefacts, including some items from the late royal’s personal collection.
These were donated to the museum before she passed away in 2017, and the Perfume House is a fitting tribute to her craft and her love for traditional, handmade Emirati perfume, says Al Muhairi.
Shaikha Shaikha would make perfume in her bedroom, bury it in her private courtyard for fermentation, and preserve it under her bed for months. ‘She experimented with different fragrance notes with beautiful natural ingredients in their heart,’ he says.
At the museum – a large, traditional style coral and stone house built around a central courtyard – old artefacts blend with state-of-the-art technology and other modern, interactive elements to tell us the story of the UAE’s passion for fragrance.
The ancient Egyptians were one of the first to use tree resins and aromatic plants to make incense, infused oils and pomades for medicinal uses and beautification rituals, says Al Muhairi. ‘They also imported cedar, myrrh and frankincense for embalming and religious rituals.
‘The tradition of using perfumes in the Arabian peninsula dates back thousands of years and is the result of its symbiotic trade relations with eastern and western regions across the world,’ he says. ‘Perfumes possibly came to the Middle East from the Indus Valley civilisation caravans in the late 1st millennium BCE and later by Islamic pilgrims. But it was the trade routes that played a crucial role in spreading perfume ingredients and tools across the Middle East.’
When Arabian chemists began to explore the applications of distillation to extract oil from a substance by boiling it in water, and collecting the steam thus formed, it marked the onset of the perfume-making traditions in the region, says Al Muhairi. ‘Prominent among these were Jabir ibn Hayyan (721 CE) and Al Kindi (801 CE), both from Iraq, who came up with several new techniques to produce perfume. In the 12th century, Avicenna (Ibn Sina) of Persia introduced the process of extracting rose oils from its petals via distillation in a method that is still in use today.’
The widespread growth of perfuming traditions in the region is also rooted in the values of Islam, which emphasises the positive effects of perfumes.
With a shared love of fragrances and scents, over time Arabs through their artistry began to enlarge the scope of perfume-making, evolving it gradually into an art form. ‘Soon, fragrances were no longer seen as just an accessory or consumer product. They were an artistic medium and complex, multi-faceted creations began to take shape, sometimes featuring bold and unusual fragrance associations or compositions characterised by simplicity. For decades hence, Emirati women have used their unique knowledge to recreate family recipes that have been handed down across generations and that are treasured as closely-guarded secrets.’
The layout of the Perfume House is designed to reflect the journey of a perfumer who starts the creation process with the sourcing or picking up of natural raw materials. Custom-designed ‘fragrance diffusion’ devices are placed at each ingredient station that allow us to ‘smell’ each raw material in its natural, substitute (mostly plant or seed-based) and synthetic forms.
Apart from the several-thousand-dirhams-a-kilo oud, Al Muhairi also introduces us to musk, characterised by an addictive aroma and known for its lasting power. ‘Musk has known to be in use as far back as the sixth century, and was originally extracted from the perineal glands of mature, male musk deer during mating season, or from African civet cats,’ he explains. ‘It was a prized Emirati ingredient before it became highly regulated. Its rarity stems from the fact that only 10g of musk powder could be supplied from a single animal, which was enough to produce just one tolah (11.67ml) of musk oil!’
Another commonly used animal product in perfumes is amber that originally comes from the sperm whale in the form of ambergris. ‘It is a wax-like mass produced by the animal’s digestive system which, after being expelled, slowly matures at sea incorporating the varied smells of the ocean in a natural process that lasts for years,’ he says. ‘It is a scarce commodity as only one per cent of sperm whales produce ambergris while only 20 per cent of ambergris found on the shores has a sweet scent.’
However, today, due to the endangerment of the whale species, ambergris has been replaced by synthetic and natural substitutes, he says.
Next up is saffron, known as ‘red gold’ and the most expensive spice in the world, by weight. ‘The usage of saffron is deeply rooted in Arab culture,’ says Al Muhairi. ‘Emiratis have used this versatile spice in cooking, as an ingredient in perfume making, as a dye and for various well-being practices.’
More than 90 per cent of the global production of saffron comes from Iran but what makes it incredibly precious, he adds, is that saffron or the flower stigma accounts for only 6 per cent of the blue Crocus sativus flower, and it takes around 40 hours to handpick 1kg of the spice. ‘A total of 1,600 flowers or 4,500 stigmas are required to produce just one tolah of saffron oil.’
Another prominent ingredient featured here is the rose, specifically the delicate flowers that come from the Sarawat Mountains in Taif in Saudi Arabia. ‘Perfumes made from Taif roses are among the most expensive in the world,’ he says, ‘as they are produced only in a small area, and a large amount of rose petals – approximately 40,000 roses – are required to produce a tiny vial of rose oil.’
It is interesting to learn that for more than 1,400 years, Taif rosewater and oil have been used for washing and perfuming the Holy Kaaba in Mecca and that during the Ottoman Empire in mid-14th century, roses grown in the Middle East were exported to Europe.
Although oud, rose, saffron, musk and amber are the five main imported ingredients used in Emirati perfumes, a number of easily available and reasonably priced local ingredients have also been in use for more than a century, he adds. These include the aromatic spice, Mahlab, made from the stones of a small, black cherry tree; Mashmoom, a sharp, spicy, basil variety; Khozaama, a lavender variety found in the deserts of the northern emirates after heavy rainfall; Yas (myrtle), an evergreen shrub with light, refreshing lemony and eucalyptus-like overtones; Al yshin (lichen), a composite organism consisting of a fungus and an alga; and fil (Arabian jasmine), originally grown in India and Pakistan.
Sea salt, found on the shores across the Gulf, is added to almost all traditional Emirati perfumes as a natural preservative, he says.
‘The art of making, wearing and using perfume in Emirati culture has been handed down verbally, through practice, and in poetry,’ says Al Muhairi, as he leads us to a video gallery where we listen to both the young and older generations of UAE nationals share their personal memories of the Emirati perfume heritage.
An interactive exhibit brings to life the multiple types of perfumes that were used based on gender, age or social occasion and its skilful application that reflects both individual personality and cultural identity. We are then introduced to dukhoon, a brittle-textured mixture of incense that is made by blending many ingredients. ‘Women traditionally perfume their hair, sheilah (headscarf) and abaya with the smoke of dukhoon that rises from a medkhan or incense burner,’ he says.
Za’afaraaniyyah, as the name suggests, is a saffron-based paste applied from the top of a girl’s head until her temples and also down her hair parting on the auspicious occasion of Tomeena, a celebration that marks the completion of the reading of the Holy Quran. ‘The fermented perfume, Mukhammariyyah,’ he adds, ‘is used on joyous occasions like weddings. Created from the finest ingredients, it is aged for 40 days and applied on the nape of the neck and behind the ears.’
A powdered variety is Al bida’ah that comprises of clamshells and lichen in its ingredients list, and is rubbed on the body in a massage-like manner.
‘The Emirati men have a tradition of rubbing noses as a unique way of greeting to show friendship and deep respect,’ says Al Muhairi. ‘Therefore, men generally apply perfume on the nose too, a practice initiated in childhood by father to son.’
Several items from the late Shaikha’s personal collection are presented here, prominent among which is a crystal bottle containing her personal recipe for a mixture of sandalwood and rose oil. Other notable items of interest include a perfume applicator with a rooster-shaped handle; tolah bottles in assorted sizes; a wooden, velvet-lined perfume box; and several types of merash or perfume sprinklers that are used when welcoming guests.
A gallery revealing the versatility of perfumes shows us how every aspect of life in an Emirati household can be viewed through the prism of scent. ‘Beautification was not the only objective; instead perfumes are an element of everyday life whether it is for well-being or spiritual purposes, and social events,’ says Al Muhairi. We learn how incense is used in every household as a sanitiser to remove bad odours and repel insects. For the same reason, small amounts of musk and saffron are stuffed into cotton mattresses, while basil leaves are placed in pillow cases for a gentle, calming scent.
Several fragrant ingredients including sidr (jujube leaves), dry camphor, and rose or sandalwood oil are used in rituals following a death. Emiratis also fumigate the interior of clay water jars with frankincense to remove the unpleasant odour of water stored in it. Arabian jasmine and lemon leaves are then added to water to give it a sweet and delicate scent.
The next gallery unveils a sensory soundscape animatic of metaphors and mentions of scent in Emirati poetry where poets describe the scents of saffron and amber on the cheek of a loved one, or the emotions that arise when the fragrance of a lover’s clothes wafts through the breeze.
In the room that Shaikha Shaikha lived in as a child, we come across some of the main attractions of the Perfume House that bear testimony to how traditional perfuming has moulded Emirati values and customs. A copper incense burner, dated 1st millennium BCE and discovered at the Saruq Al Hadid archaeological site in Dubai is clear evidence of how the roots of perfume culture in the UAE was established thousands of years ago.
A 1.2m high, 28-kilo piece of oud from the personal collection of the late Sheikha Shaikha who displayed it in her private majlis is undoubtedly the centrepiece of the Museum. Protected in a glass case, the dark resin formed by the fungus is still clearly visible on several portions of the wood.
Her personal handmade incense created using a secret recipe is also on display here, as are a variety of tools in use today to ignite incense and manipulate the coal in a medhkan (incense burner).
Visitors are also given the opportunity to create their own personalised fragrances. A video installation demonstrates the intricate craft of perfume-making that calls for the selection of ingredients with precision, passion and care.
Wearing multiple fragrances is an important part of the Emirati culture, and the Perfume House sheds light on the unique practices in the region through a fascinating combination of historical objects and interactive multimedia.
Know before you go
Al Shindagha Museum – Al Shindagha Historical District (a few yards from Al Ghubaiba Metro Station)
10am to 6pm, Saturday to Thursday and 2.30pm to 9pm on Friday. Closed on Tuesdays.
Adults (24 years and above): Dh15
Students (5 to 24 years): Dh5
Groups & families (5 persons and above): Dh10 per person
Free entry for children below 5, people of determination, and Thukher cardholders