Kohl - The Cosmetic Of Seductiveness
By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer
“Sultry are her eyes with kohl beautified, razor-sharp swords, they pierce my throbbing heart.” So wrote an Arab bard reminiscing about the kohl-painted eyes of his beloved. The words of this poet well describe, not only the eyes of his lady-love but the kohl-lined eyes of millions of women who inhabit the countries stretching from the Far East to the Atlantic coast of Morocco. In all these lands the warm almond-shaped eyes of women are enhanced and made alluring by the application of kohl.
This method of making the eyes attractive has been practiced by eastern women since the days of antiquity. For thousands of years, the ladies of Asia and North Africa have used kohl to darken and enlarge their eyes, thus giving them an air of mystery. The striking sloe-eyed beauties one sees in these lands are a testimony to the magic effect of this ancient cosmetic.
The first recorded use of kohl (sometimes spelled kohol) was in western Asia and ancient Egypt. In the land of the Pharaohs, this eye beautifying cosmetic was much in demand. Glass kohl filled vases with ivory sticks for its application have been found in 4,000-year-old Pharaonic tombs. Unlike many other products of antiquity which evolved or disappeared, these ancient Egyptian cosmetic apparatus have stood the test of centuries. Similar vases and sticks are still made and sold in modern Egypt.
For centuries, the Pharaonic damsels were renowned for their all-round knowledge of applying cosmetics. However, once they faded from history, it took hundreds of years before the art of beautification was to reach the level once achieved by the women of the Nile. The deep blackness and size of Cleopatra’s ‘midnight’ eyes which bewitched both Caesar and Mark Antony are even widely copied in our times.
Kohl has been used as a cosmetic for over 5,000 years, first used (as far as we know), around 3,000 BC by the ancient Egyptians.
From Egypt kohl was carried by Phoenicians traders to the lands bordering the Mediterranean and beyond. Nevertheless, for many centuries Egypt remained the main source of this natural cosmetic. Chroniclers who have commented in their writings about beautiful women have pointed out that the daughters of Rome copied the kohl-ringed eyes of their Egyptian sisters when they wanted to give themselves sex appeal.
As had the women of the East for thousands of years before them, Roman ladies considered kohl one of their most important beautifying agents. In the same fashion as the maidens of the Nile, they applied kohl, not only for their eyes, but also to darken their eyebrows and hair. However, after the fall of the Roman Empire, kohl disappeared for many centuries from Europe.
In the Arabian Peninsula and the Fertile Crescent area, Kohl has been used as a cosmetic from the dawn of civilization. When the Arabs in the 7th century migrated out of their desert homeland, they carried kohl with them and in the ensuing years, it became known as a product of the Arabs. This is attested to by its name, Kohl, from the Arabic Kuhl – the origin of its name in most languages of the world.
To the Arabs, women with dark luminous eyes are ideal beauties. Hence, Kohl has always been very important in their female world. Sura LII (20) of the Holy Qur’an says:
“And we join them to Companions, with beautiful big and lustrous eyes”,
and Sura LVI (22):
“And theirs shall be the beautiful maidens, with large dark eyes, like pearls hidden in their shells.”
Eastern women, especially in the Arab world, led in the past a secluded life thus giving them much time to titivate their looks. They considered their toilet the most urgent of their occupations. Nowhere in the world did women pay greater attention to their cleanliness and beautification. Without a doubt, the long dark languish of eyes stained with kohl was one of their top priorities. To have languorous eyes was the ambition of every woman.
When the European Crusaders invaded the Middle East, they became familiar with this eye cosmetic and took it back with them to their homelands. However, for hundreds of years, it did not become common in the West. It was to be only in our era that its use would spread, to some extent, in the countries of western Europe and North America.
In the countries of the Fertile Crescent, the earliest known Kohl was made from soot mixed with a little olive oil. But in Egypt, the first Kohl known was made from malachite, a green ore of copper which was ground into a fine powder then made into a paste by adding a little water. In later centuries, all through the Middle East, antimony trisulphide, a natural black crystalline stibnite, ground into a fine powder, became the main ingredient in the production of this cosmetic. Even today, antimony still forms the base of much of the kohl produced and in the modern cosmetic industry, it is also, at times, used as an ingredient in the manufacturing of mascara.
In North Africa, Kohl is made, as it has been for untold centuries, from a mixture of burnt copper, plumbago, burnt sandalwood, and ambergris pounded into powder. Other ingredients are sometimes interchanged but basically, the same formula is followed. This type, and the antimony-based kohls, can cause eye irritation and should be avoided by anyone prone to eye infections. Still, as eye cosmetics, they are excellent in dramatizing the eyes.
Today, the safest and finest natural kohl in the world is produced in India and the countries of the Arabian Peninsula. Almonds, benzoin, and incense are burned together, then the soot is collected to form the kohl powder. Other materials such as burnt shells of various nuts, frankincense, musk, and amber are often added by the manufacturers of this cosmetic. The kohl produced from these natural materials, which is usually sold in a powder form, generates no ill effects. Rather, they give the eyes depth and make them alluring. For enhancing brown or black eyelashes, this natural cosmetic of India and the countries of the Arabian Peninsula is excellent.
In the Western world, at the present time, many of the kohl products sold are only kohl in the name. In liquid, cream, cake or stick form, there are numerous cosmetics packaged in 21th-century fashion, carrying the name of this ancient beautifying agent. However, they are not natural historical kohl. In North America, the natural kohl which has been known since Biblical times is found only in the Indian stores or markets. It is usually made in India and sold in powder form under various trade names.
Besides using kohl as a cosmetic, the people of the ancient world also used it as a medicinal treatment for infected eyes. Ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian doctors prescribed it as a remedy for all types of eye diseases. Its use as an eye medicine has continued in many parts of the world until our times. In Africa and Asia, kohl is often painted on the baby’s eyelids for protection against eye afflictions.
In the countries of the Arabian Peninsula, both men and women decorate their eyes with kohl as protection against the glare of the sun, and to ward off eye inflammations which were once prevalent in that area of the world. Despite the fact that modern doctors scoff at its use as a remedy for eye diseases, the millions of people who use it for this purpose swear to its effectiveness.
The application of powdered kohl to the eyes is a simple matter. Both the inside edges of the upper and lower eyelids are darkened by the use of kohl sticks made from ivory, wood, metal or other hard materials. The kohl itself is stored in small bottles or kohl vases usually made from glass or metal but at times, as a luxury item, from precious metals.
In Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the other Arab countries which touch on the Arabian Gulf, many women paint their eyelids with kohl before going to bed. In the morning the eyes appear to be larger and more luminous than the night before. It is believed that the nightly decorating helps to strengthen and clear the eyes from any foreign matter. Only the natural Arabian or Indian kohl can be used in this fashion. Many of the antimony and copper-based kohls or the modern cosmetics sold under the name Kohl will irritate the eyes if applied the previous evening.
There is little doubt that when Western women become familiar with this ancient cosmetic, employed to glamorize the eyes for centuries, its use will spread like wildfire. The increase in the size, brilliance and youthful appearance of the eyes produced by Kohl, needs little advertisement. Within reach of the modern woman is the magnetic feminine appeal of kohl-lined eyes which have inspired poets for thousands of years. All who employ this beauty agent in their toilet assert there is a bright future for kohl – a true cosmetic of seductiveness.