From the sprawling deserts of Arabia to the bustling streets of the Medina, the intoxicating allure of perfumes has woven a fragrant tapestry across the East. From 26th September 2023 to 17th March 2024, the Institut du Monde Arabe promises to take its visitors on a sensory voyage like no other, beckoning with scents that have transcended time.
Tales of oud, amber, and incense have colored the narratives of the East, finding their roots in trade routes that once connected distant lands and still resonate in our rituals today. The “Perfumes of the East” exhibition stands as a testament to the enduring relationship between fragrance and the Arab world, a dance that spans from the High Atlas Mountains to the shimmering waters of the Euphrates.
Presented over a sprawling 1000m^2, this olfactory journey marries the traditional with the contemporary. Approximately 200 pieces of art, ranging from intricate manuscripts to innovative video installations, guide the visitors, unraveling the story of how fragrances infused every facet of Arab life.
Christopher Sheldrake, renowned perfumer, has crafted an olfactory experience for this event. Engaging every sense, these scents promise to be not just fragrances but memories bottled, transporting one to the age-old streets of a Medina or the refreshing tranquility of a hammam.
To comprehend the depths of the Arab world’s relationship with perfumes, one must journey back in time. Arabia, a land that shimmered with the richness of incense, gray amber, and myrrh, stood as the cornerstone of the ancient perfume trade. In its embrace, flowers bloomed and gave forth fragrances like rose, saffron, and jasmine, spreading their scents from the Mediterranean Basin to the far reaches of the Middle East. Arab traders, guardians of treasured secrets, held the key to the origins of precious essences, solidifying their place in the annals of perfumery.
But these scents were not just for trade; they played roles in every aspect of life. The city’s heart pulsated with fragrances, from the medina’s hustle and bustle to the serene call of the muezzin from a mosque’s minaret. Every facet of the Arab-Muslim society bore the signature of fragrances, whether it was in therapeutic applications or the sacred rituals of purification.
Step into the perfume souk and you’re met with an array of olfactory wonders, each with its story. The esteemed art of perfumery had roots in distillation, a craft dating back to antiquity and refined over the centuries, notably by Muslim savants of the ninth century.
This respect for the craft was evident in the very architecture of the cities. Perfume districts sat at the epicenter of souks, a stone’s throw away from the main mosque, illustrating the intertwined nature of fragrance and faith.
Delving deeper, one recognizes that the East’s relationship with perfume wasn’t limited to commerce or daily rituals. Ancient Egypt revered perfumes as mediums to communicate with the gods, while Judeo-Christian traditions used them as intercessors with the divine. The onset of Islam saw a cultural shift, as popular narratives endowed incense with magical virtues, integrating them into the very fabric of Arab-Muslim households.
Within the intimate confines of an Arab home, perfume was not just a scent but a tradition. A guest would be adorned with fragrances, a timeless ritual symbolizing hospitality. The alcove, a sanctuary of intimacy, whispered tales of desire and seduction, with solid perfumes releasing their tantalizing scents in hidden corners, teasing and evoking passions.
The exhibition, through its myriad artifacts, celebrates this enduring relationship between the Arab world and perfumes. The past resonates in the present as fragrances continue to irrigate traditions and seep into daily life. Parfums d’Orient stands not just as a mere display but as a living embodiment of an ancient culture’s heartbeats, echoing through time, one fragrance at a time.
Perfumes of the East
(From 26th September 2023 to 17th March 2024)
Institut du Monde Arabe
1, rue des Fossés-Saint-Bernard
Place Mohammed V
75005 Paris (France)
Click on this link to read this article in French version