Friday, December 14, 2012

Goddess Eyes: 5,000 Years in the Making

 With eyes painted black, you will lure your husband and warn all jinn. I watched my host mother laugh deeply while the women around her agreed in ululation and lolled their tongues while she smeared kohl under her niece’s eyes. I had never seen such a beautiful bride.

(National Geographic)

The Pyramids. The Nile. Egyptian eyes. In any dusty tourist-y shop around Egypt, you can find postcards and hokey antiquities memorabilia etched with images of Aankhs, Cleopatra, and hieroglyphs. The most seductive and exotic image of them all are dark painted eyes. When I was in a gift shop idly looking at gallabeyas I bumped into a British tourist, a true pyramidiot (she insisted she was Nefertiti incarnated), who was fascinated by my eyes and insisted I was Egyptian. “I want to paint my eyes like yours so I will look like a queen”. She bought a stick of eyeliner labeled Cleopatra Kohl for 100 Egyptian pounds (roughly 17 dollars. 12 dollars too much). I don’t blame her romantisization. Popular depictions of Ancient Egypt in the West portray sultry queens with intensely lined eyes captivating and seducing Pharaohs and audiences. Elizabeth Taylor’s look in Cleopatra inspired an entire era of fashion and lines of cosmetics around the world. Egyptian cosmetic aesthetics, however, aren’t simply ornamental. The darkening of eyes in Egypt has a fascinating history of purpose deeper than face value: spirituality, curing ailments, and warning spirits.

(Science NOW)

Pharaonic Eyes: Medicine and Beauty
The first uses of eye enhancement cosmetics can be traced to the earliest tombs. There were three main types of kohl and eye paints- malachite (green copper ore), galena (grey lead ore), and a soot made from burning vegetation and organic matter (Lucas 42). The method of application was not as efficient and simple as the eyeliner we have taken for granted in little L’Oreal tubes and Este Lauder twist-off pencils. The malachite and galena eye paints were made into cakes and were placed on elaborately carved palettes. Ancient Egyptians had to apply the paints by grinding pigments and dipping in water or oil to apply. Kohl made from soot was and continues to be used as a loose powder applied with the tip of the finger (Lucas 43).

I know what you are thinking. Why would the ancient Egyptians paint their eyes with lead? Eyeliner was used to cure of eye ailments. In an article published in Science Now, the combination of lead salts in the liner described in religious scrolls and found in tombs (Cottingham). Modern day kohl made of soot also has feeling properties. According to Dr. Sandra Diane Lane, a scholar who specializes in medical anthropology in Egypt, writes about communities in Upper Egypt that still apply kohl to combat eye disease and inflammation (Lane 162). Ingredients such as lemon juice, salt, nutmeg, and aloe vera are added to the cosmetics for medical purposes for both men and women (Lane 178).

Beautiful Beware: Eyeliner as Magic
Kohl had and continues to have spiritual values to protect against the evil eye (Hawass). When I was in Nubia during Eid break, I lived in a Nubian village called Garb El Sahel (across from Aswan) with a host family. My host mother’s niece and nephew were getting married and I was invited to experience the wedding from the men’s side and the women’s side. It was interesting to be engaged with both spaces  and parties because I could get a holistic understanding and experience of the wedding. Because of my unique position of knowing the groom’s (arris) party and the bride’s (arrusa) party, I was able to sit with the women inside the home and outside with men smoking shisha by the barbershop where the arris was preparing for the wedding. As Dr. Anne Jennings describes in her book The Nubians of West Aswan, being a woman studying a high- context society, in which gender roles are complementary and segregated in inner and outer spaces, enables her the ability to fluctuate between gender- specific spaces and gain access where a male scholar might not be able to (Jennings 3). During the wedding, I too felt that I had the opportunity to go between spaces because I was considered an outsider woman by the arris’s party so strict gender codes were loosened for me. The arrusa’s party, however, saw me as one of their own because I was a young woman travelling by myself and thus reached out to me as mothers or sisters.

During the henna party, I sat with the woman and tried to parse through the Arabic gossip. My host sister Fatima explained everything around me. There was a strong earthy smoky smell in the air and I asked Fatima about it. She told me that her mother was making kohl from dates. I was immediately interested. How could eyeliner be made from dates. I first wanted to know why the Nubian women used eyeliner in the first place other than for aesthetics purposes. Fatima told it was for women to stare down the evil eye and free her from bad omens that might shake her on her wedding night.

(ABC. Photo of half submerged date trees in Old Nubia during the building of High Dam)

 Dates were extremely important to the cultural economy on Old Nubia. Before Nasser’s High Dam was built and the Nubian community dispersed to Aswan and other shanty villages in the desert, Old Nubia laid out on the banks of the Nile and it was said that there were more than one million date palm trees that provided shade and raw material to the Nubian way of life. Every part of the tree was used- the bark for rope, the fronds for beds and mats, the body to construct fences and barriers to keep in livestock, seeds of dates were used to make kohl, and the dates as food and currency. When Old Nubia was submerged by dam construction, Nubians lost their currency and had to resort to paper money and coins. Even though the trees were lost, dates and palm trees are still a pride for the Nubian community and visible in every fabric of the village community: dates were served to guests at the wedding. Men and women lounged on couches made from sturdy date fronds. Date palm wine was secretly drunk by older men outside the wedding party. Date seed eyeliner lined the eyes of the blushing bride.

I watched her attend to the charring date pits and was impressed by the DIY (do it yourself) hack of natural surroundings. I was also amazed that this tradition of preparing kohl is more than 5,000 years old and was enfolding before my very eyes.

Preparing kohl the Nubian (and Pharonic) way is simple but takes some time. If you are interested in wearing the same style of eyeliner the Ancient Egyptian wore years ago, here are the steps in order to make it with the comfort in your kitchen and with materials you have in your cabinets. You do not need an open fire like the Nubian women did when I was attending the wedding. With a simple stove, spatula, mortar and pestle, pot, oil, and patience, you can make Pharonic kohl. You don’t have to be 17 dollar eye pencil at a touristy shop in Upper Egypt to have eyes painted like Cleopatra’s.
11. First, seed the dates by removing the soft outer layer. The dates make a tasty treat when roasting the seeds.

22. Place the seeds in the center of the pot or pan and set your stove on full blast.

3. The seeds will start to blacken after 15 minutes. Turn the seeds over so they blacken uniformly. You can turn them over with a spatula. 

4.  After 30- 45 minutes, the seeds will look a bit darker. Keep eating dates as you sit patiently.

5.     After an hour or so, the seeds will be completely black.

6.     At this time, the seeds will be a bit softer so with a spatula, you can break chips off the seeds.

7.     Turn down the stove and try to break the pieces down carefully so small pieces do not fly out of the pan. When the charred pits are cool, mash with a mortar and pestle until extremely fine.

8.     Your eyeliner should be ready! It should be extremely fine and powdered. In the picture I made, I roasted a handful of seeds and my kohl should last me a month. I estimate that half of a pit should be enough for one use. Mix 1 drop of olive oil to the fine soot. And you have Pharonic eyeliner!

I look and feel like a goddess. Priya-tari, your royal highness.

Works Cited

Cottingham, Katie. "Egyptian Eyeliner May Have Warded Off Disease –

ScienceNOW." Science/AAAS | News - Up to the minute news and

features from Science.. N.p., 8 Jan. 2010. Web. 7 Dec. 2012.

Hawass, Zaki. Personal interview. 1 Dec. 2012.

Jennings, Anne M. The Nubians of West Aswan: village women in the midst

of change. Boulder: L. Rienner Publishers, 1995. Print.

Lucas, A. "Perfumes and Incense in Ancient Egypt." The Journal of Egyptian

Archaeology 16.1/2 (1930): 41-53. Print.

Lane , Sandra Dianne. "A Biocultural Study of Trachoma in an Egyptian

Hamlet." UMI 1 (1988): 1-225. Print.

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