In ancient times southern Arabia was very different than the desert that it is in modern times; lush and full of aromatic plants, it was an area known as the land of perfumes. In fact, in the sacred book of Islam, the Koran, paradise is describes as a place full of gardens and trees, large rivers and with a strong aroma of musk perfume.
It was Avicenna, a famous Arab philosopher and doctor, who by the tenth century had introduced rose water to the Muslim world, which was used to perfume people or the rooms of their houses. It was the key element in the creation of aromas, so much so that it was considered a symbol of the purity and wisdom of Allah.
The secrets of alchemy
It was the Arabs who applied alchemy to the perfume industry. This new science had as its object the goal of finding “the fifth essence” of plants, extracting the essence of the properties through successive distillation, beginning with a plant and eventually ending up with its essential oils.
The Arabs took advantage of the development of alchemy in the face of the decline of the perfume industry in the west. It was they who perfected stills to distil alcohol, which they used as a base for perfumes. This meant a rapid expansion in the sale and popularity of perfumes in the Middle Ages and a revolution in the way of making perfumes.
The Crusades (1096-1291) were a key epoch in the introduction of perfumes to the west, because the soldiers who returned to Europe from their military campaigns were the ones who brought unknown perfumes and essences to their countries.
With the arrival of the Arabs in Spain, perfumes began to travel a new route: they arrived in France, a country that knew how to industrialize them. Granada and Seville also became very important centres of perfume making, comparable to Baghdad and Damascus.
Even after the expulsion of the Arabs from the peninsula, perfume makers were the only ones who were spared and were allowed to remain in Spain. If they had left, they would have taken with them the treasure of their secrets: the unequalled formulas for making their fragrances.