If you Google Tappūtī-Bēlet-ekallim, you will find dozens of articles praising her as the first perfumer. Online, Tappūtī-Bēlet-ekallim is presented as a feminist, a scientist, and an entrepreneur. Yet, those concepts would have been utterly foreign to her lived experience. Images accompanying these stories feature Babylonian goddesses, Sumerian queens, and Urukian tablets. They’re a strange choice for stories about an Assyrian perfumer.
Tappūtī-Bēlet-ekallim is cast online as a proto-girl-boss, a kind of corporate feminist before the conception of capitalism. She’s the patron saint for the female-led indie perfume scene. More than one perfume brand has been named after her. However, how she is presented online and in popular print says far more about us and what we want/need from her than anything about her.
I am not saying that Tappūtī-Bēlet-ekallim’s story isn’t amazing, it is, but when we turn historical figures into totems, we lose the context that made them extraordinary in the first place. So, in this article, we will explore what we know about Tappūtī Bēlet-ekallim, how we got that information, and what her text tells us about Mesopotamian perfumery.
The Tablet of Tappūtī-Bēlet-ekallim
What we know of the first perfumer in the historical record comes from one tablet. It is written in Middle Assyrian and currently resides in the Vorderasiatisches Museum in Berlin. The tablet, KAR 220, is a scholarly concordance on perfumery and was housed alongside other chemical texts like tablets on glass-making. These formulas were collected and catalogued in the ancient library of Aššur.
There were likely multiple copies of the Tappūtī-Bēlet-ekallim’s text in other locations within the imperial library system created by Aššur-bāni-apli (Ashurbanipal), but those copies, if they existed, have not survived. The scribe of KAR 220, however, conveniently dated his work. The tablet was made in the 5th year of the reign of King Tukultī-Ninurta I on the 20th of the month of Muhur-ilani. So, it was made in early May of the year 1239 BCE.
The text includes the line,
“from the mouth of the muraqqītu Tappūtī-Bēlet-ekallim.”
This line is the totality of the written record about her, one sentence, an attribution for a formula, but that one line says so much. This is the oldest named perfumer in the historical record thus far. She was a woman. We know this because her name and her title, muraqqītu, are both in feminine form.
The formula, translated in its entirety below, describes an early form of distillation, making it the first text to describe distillation and one of the earliest surviving writings about a chemical process outside of food preparation. Tappūtī-Bēlet-ekallim didn’t see herself as a chemist, though. She was a perfume-maker. A role in ancient Assyria that encompassed elements of art, cooking, medicine, and religion.
Tappūtī-Bēlet-ekallim didn’t have a little shop where she sold her wares to average people. Her work was reserved for the elites of society within a tightly controlled palace economy. The tablet describes her perfume as, fit for the king.
This language is important. From the guild-like perfumery system recorded in the ancient city of Mari, we know that only men made fragrances for the king. In Assyria, or at least under Tukultī-Ninurta I, women too participated in this work at the highest levels. Yet, she didn’t have the title of šangitû bit hilṣi (f. overseer of the perfumer’s workshop), so while her work was worthy of recording, she probably had a boss. It is unlikely she was at the top of the pecking order of the bit hilṣi or the perfumer’s guild because her title would reflect that.
The fact that Tappūtī-Bēlet-ekallim is named at all is significant. We have documentation of the perfumery trade for hundreds of years before her lifetime. However, palace workers, even skilled workers like perfumers, were often not named in written records. This was especially true of perfumers that came to Aššur through conquest. Often they are referred to by their city or nationality of origin (example: the Phoenician perfumer).
We know that particularly Western Asian and Egyptian women were targeted for enslavement or exile to Mesopotamia based on their skills in perfume-making, cosmetic-making, hairdressing, cooking, and textile manufacturing. One of the justifications for imperial expansion, after all, is access to goods and raw materials unavailable in the Land Between the Rivers. That also required the uprooting of the skilled labourers familiar with those materials.
We see illusions of this even in the Bible. During Judges, the Elders considered being ruled by a monarchy, even possibly a foreign one. The prophet Samuel warns them of what that would mean.
“This will be the name of who will reign over you! He will take your sons and appoint them for himself, for his chariots, and to be his horsemen: they will run in front. He will also appoint them as overseers of thousand and overseers of fifty, to plough his plough and harvest his harvest, to make his weapons and prepare his vehicles. And your daughters, he will take them as perfume-makers, cooks, and bakers.” (1 Sm 8: 11–13)
This text clarifies that being shipped off to Aššur or Babylon to serve the monarch was not a desirable future the Israelites wanted for their children. Perfume-making was explicitly identified as a trade that women engaged in to fulfil their obligations as subjects, just as their male counterparts would fill out the ranks of the king’s army or administer his lands. Perfumery was servant labour on an even footing with cooks and bakers.
We will never know if Tappūtī-Bēlet-ekallim was one of these taken daughters, a native of Assyria, or a willing immigrant to the capital city. Perhaps she learned and worked alongside people in exile. It is highly likely given the metropolitan nature of the perfume trade. However, we will never know for sure. Her name is Assyrian, but it translates to ‘the assistant of the Lady of the Palaces’. The Lady referenced here is the goddess Belet-ekalli, protector of palaces and royal grounds. This name probably wasn’t her given name at birth but, instead, a name adopted in imperial service, which was a common practice.
While the number of translated Mesopotamian fragrance texts is limited, they overall give the impression that perfume-making was associated with foreign workers. Tappūtī-Bēlet-ekallim could have been such a worker that, in rising to the top of her profession, chose to shed her original name and adopt a new one. A name that reinforced her role within the palace and reaffirmed her adopted Assyrian identity. Without additional sources, however, we can only speculate from the limited context we know about Assyrian perfumery and its workers.
The fragrance depicted on the tablet is an aromatic salve created through steeping botanicals through a series of oil and water treatments. This infused the oil with scent and thickened the product. While these techniques are quite rudimentary to today’s sophisticated production methods, we do see the early forbears of both enfleurage and steam distillation in this work.
It’s important to remember this formula is not being recorded because it was an innovation or novelty. It is not the first-ever perfume formula. While it is the oldest written record of a distillery in use. However, archaeological evidence shows that proto-distillation goes back to early Sumer, almost 3,000 years before Tappūtī-Bēlet-ekallim. This formula instead was saved for posterity so future generations of perfumers could make it. Tappūtī-Bēlet-ekallim is working within an established tradition that was already centuries old during her lifetime. The text is written assuming the reader is already familiar with these techniques. Like a French cookbook, it expects you to have the basic skill set.
Sadly, not all of the botanicals have been ascribed to known plants. The text is also damaged, and sections are missing. I’ve included descriptions of untranslated aromatics and Assyrian measurements in parentheses. An ellipsis indicates where the tablet is damaged.
“If you prepare flowers, oil, and calamus as a salve, and you have tested the flowers of the calamus and its green parts, you set up a … and distillatory vessel. You put good potable water … into a vat. You heat tabilu (an aromatic) and put it in. You put 1 qa (1 qa = approximately half a litre) hamimu (an aromatic), 1 qa iaruttu (an aromatic), 1 qa of good, filtered myrrh oil into the vat. Your standard in this is the water taken and divided. You operate at the end of the day and in the evening. It remains overnight.
It becomes steeped. You filter this solution … with a filtering cloth into a vat at dawn, on the rising of the sun. You clarify from this vat into another vat. You remove the minduḫru (type of particulate, sediment). You wash 6 qa of crushed cyperus root grass with the liquid mixture of these aromatics. You remove the paḫḫu (a type of particulate, course).
You put on top of this liquid mixture of aromatics, within a settling bowl: 6 qa of myrtle, 6 qa of calamus, crushed and filtered.
You measure out 4 seahs (1 seah = approximately 8 litres) of this liquid mixture that has steeped overnight.
At dawn, when the sun rises, you filter the liquid and these aromatics through a filtering cloth into a vat. You clarify the mixture by filtering it from this vat to another vat.
You examine the comminuted material. You remove its bad part. You filter this solution which you clarified into a distillatory vessel … 3 qa … You throw …balsam into this solution in the vat. You kindle a fire. When the solution is heated for admixture, you pour in the oil. You agitate with a stirrer. You scrape it off; you remove the tiṇtiṇu (a type of particulate, fine). . . this liquid mixture. . . you filter it and you clarify it.
. . . your liquid mixtures, those which you have clarified . . . you pour it out . . .you add 3 seahs of pirsạ duḫḫu (an aromatic) onto the top of this liquid mixture . . . When the oil, solution, and aromatics continue to dissolve, you raise the fire… You cover the distillatory vessel on top. You cool with water. When the sun rises, you prepare a container for the oil, solution, and aromatics. You allow the fire under the distillatory vessel to die down. You remove the distilled and sublimed substances from the trough of the distillatory vessel …
…at daybreak . . . the aromatics which have interpenetrated each other . . .fire rises . . . you cover the top of the distillatory vessel, you cool it off. You prepare a šappatu jar for reed oils. You lay a filtering cloth with a sieve across the šappatu jar, then, taking a little oil at a time, you strain it through the filtering cloth into the šappatu jar. You remove the dregs and residue left in the distillatory vessel.
Perfume-making recipe for 2 seahs of processed cane oil, fit for the king, according to the mouth of Tappūtī -Bēlet-ekallim, the perfume-maker: month Muhur-ilani on the 20th day of the 5th year; the eponymate of Šunu-qardu (Tukultī Ninurta I), the chief.”
(KAR 220. VAT 10165, VAT 10445, VAT 12269 (frag). Excavation no: Ass 04347c. Vorderasiastisches Museum. Berlin, Germany.)
The Fall of Aššur
For about 627 years, KAR 220 was housed in the royal library at Aššur. Then in 612 BCE, a coalition of Babylonians, Scythians, and Medes attacked the Neo-Assyrian Empire. The new capital of Nineveh was completely destroyed, including the library of Aššur-bāni-apli. Great attention has been paid to the destruction of the Nineveh library, but the library wasn’t one building; instead, it was a system of libraries throughout Assyria. The system was supposed to serve as a backup in case one city got sacked, but it was not prepared for all of them to fall at once.
Aššur was only partially destroyed in the collapse of the Assyrian Empire, but like Nineveh, the Aššur library was razed. The library wasn’t just filled with clay tablets, though. Much information was collected on papyrus and leather scrolls as well as wax and wood tablets. Sadly, all of these objects were lost, but a funny thing happened to the clay tablets.
The fire essentially baked the tablets, making the air-dried clay stronger. The rubble protected the tablets from erosions. Aššur would be rebuilt under the Achaemenid and Parthian Empires, but they never attempted to rebuild the old library. By the middle of the Parthian Empire, no one living could read the tablets. If tablets were found in the city, there is no evidence of them being valued in later antiquity.
Old Aššur would hobble along as a city, a ghost of its former glory, until the 14th century C.E., when the city was sacked for one final time by Tamerlane and depopulated. One of the oldest cities in the world died without her people and was reclaimed by the semiarid environment. From the 14th to the 20th century C.E., KAR 220 waited under sand and rubble for humanity to relearn cuneiform, find her, and read her.
The Talented Mr Ebeling
KAR 220 was found in the ruins of the library of Aššur by the Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft excavations in 1903. The tablet was translated in 1919 by the acclaimed Assyriologist Erich Ebeling.
Most of our knowledge of Mesopotamian perfumery comes from Ebeling and a handful of other scholars devoted to the subject. Sadly, Ebeling died in 1955. While a few others have continued this research, translations have slowed tremendously in the last 30 years. However, lack of research isn’t a sign of a lack of materials or interest but a lack of funding.
We might be able to unlock untold secrets about our past from this research, but lucrative tech or pharmaceutical patents probably aren’t hiding in the +2 million untranslated tablets currently sitting in storage. Funders like paying for expeditions and fancy-flashy new discoveries. That is not easy to do safely in Iraq for the good of staff, communities, and the sites at the moment.
That isn’t stopping ancient sites from getting looted for the Western antiquities market at an ungodly rate, though. Beige clay tablets don’t bring in the museum crowds the way the treasures of the pharaohs do. This creates the perfect storm where a wealth of human knowledge is getting dusty in museum back rooms because we can’t convince enough funders that it is worth reading what we already have in collections. The West took all this stuff in one of the greatest cultural thefts of all time. The least they could do is bother to read it.
But people are still curious, and if academia doesn’t make information readily available, that’s okay…folks got google. The internet has something to say about every subject; it just may not be true.
The Girl-Bossing of Tappūtī-Bēlet-ekallim
The image you will find online frequently cited as Tappūtī-Bēlet-ekallim’s text is pictured here. This is actually tablet AO29560 located in the Louvre in Paris. This tablet is a receipt for food rations distributed to four families in the city of Uruk in the late fourth millennium. So, it’s depicting the wrong city, wrong language, and wrong era. Plus, it is flipped on its side.
I don’t expect people to be able to read cuneiform, but this is the danger of improper citation, constant online duplication, and putting up images ‘for colour’ without captions. Artists have created loving works honouring Tappūtī-Bēlet-ekallim with this tablet in the picture. It is like having a painting of Joan of Arc with a CVS receipt in the foreground. Of course, it is not the artist’s fault. They trusted those online publishers were vetting their materials properly.
You will also see contemporary art depicting Tappūtī-Bēlet-ekallim wearing a horned or floral headdress. The horned headdress is an artistic convention for depicting gods in Mesopotamia. Those sculptures are of goddesses. The floral headdress is specifically the headdress of Queen Pu-Abi of Sumer from over 1,000 years before Tappūtī-Bēlet-ekallim lived. This is not how a skilled labourer in the Middle Assyrian Empire would have presented herself.
If you look online, you will see Tappūtī-Bēlet-ekallim repeatedly referred to as Babylonian though she was Assyrian. Her tablet was found in the capital of the Early & Middle Assyrian Empires, written in Middle Assyrian, referencing an Assyrian king. I have no idea where the Babylonian reference came from.
Some posts present Tappūtī-Bēlet-ekallim as a scientist or even a chemical engineer with advanced knowledge of chemistry. Nothing in the text supports either conclusion in the modern sense of those words. This would be like calling a baker or a brewer -a molecular chemist. Both professions are engaged in creating a series of chemical reactions, but their aim is not the systematical evaluation of those reactions. There is a chemistry to cooking, baking, brewing, and perfume-making, of course, but that doesn’t mean ancient people knowingly engaged in chemistry as a discipline. Their actions can, however, still contribute to the history of science without bestowing on them academic bonafides that are not relevant to the time and context of their lives. This knee-jerk desire to do so is rooted in academic elitism.
Likewise, there is the claim that Tappūtī-Bēlet-ekallim revolutionised the industry through the innovation of alcohol as a solvent. This, too, is not supported by the text or any surviving Mesopotamian fragrance formula. The type of highly distilled spirits needed for a perfume solvent was not even technologically possible until the 12th century C.E. Early Islamic distillation owes a great debt to the embodied knowledge passed down from ancient times through the perfume trade in the region. However, no evidence supports that those sophisticated techniques were present in ancient Iraq.
There is also great confusion about her name and rank. The second part of her name is routinely discarded, probably because it is difficult for English speakers to say, but a lot of hay has been made of the meaning of Bēlet-ekallim. Many authors assume this was her title and that she was the head of a household, an overseer of the palace, or perhaps part of the royal elite. Bēlet-ekallim, however, was not a title but a reference to the goddess Bēlet-ekalli, just as the names Aššur-bāni-apli and Tukultī-Ninurta reference the deities Aššur and Ninurta.
Tappūtī-Bēlet-ekallim is one whole name. It is not a surname or title. It would have been completely inappropriate, however, for a perfumer to hold the title Bēlet, which means Mistress or Lady. Just as we know in Christianity that Our Lady of Sorrows is not referring to a random sad woman but the Virgin Mary; so too, the verbiage here is clearly referring to a goddess, not a high-ranking mortal.
The queen was only referred to as issi ekalli (woman of the palace). Why would a perfumer, a servant, be given a title that is above that of the queen and traditionally is used for goddesses? What the text says is that Tappūtī-Bēlet-ekallim held the title of muraqqītu (f. perfume-maker). If she had a more prestigious title, they would have used it.
I don’t think anyone here had bad intentions, but by presenting her this way, we lose the sense of who Tappūtī-Bēlet-ekallim was. She wasn’t a businesswoman, a scientist, or a Sumerian queen. She was a palace servant that spent her days in the bit hilṣi (perfumer’s workshop) located near the kitchens in the royal enclosure of Aššur. Cooks, apothecaries, and perfumers didn’t just work in close proximity in the royal enclosure; they used many of the same utensils, had overlapping duties, and indeed may have served dual functions within a household. Perfumery wasn’t born in a laboratory or a throne room. It was born in a kitchen.
From the text attributed to her, we can see Tappūtī-Bēlet-ekallim had a very physical job. She was a woman that spent hours preparing fragrances over an open fire that needed to be constantly attended to. She lifted heavy vats, chopped wood, filtered hot oils, and finely processed rare botanicals. It’s not exactly the place for imperial crowns, now is it? We don’t know enough about her to give her a biography or personality beyond the basic frame supported by the texts. When doing so, we create a modern puppet of a historical person. Tappūtī-Bēlet-ekallim doesn’t need to be royal or a genius to have made a valuable contribution to scientific discourse.
So, she wasn’t the first perfumer ever. She wasn’t even the first female Mesopotamian perfumer. In fact, her name wasn’t even the only one inscribed on KAR 220.
There is another formula below hers in the concordance, but the person’s name is damaged. We only have part of the ending -ninu. This ending indicates a female name, but without the lost fragment, we will never know who this person was. She may have worked in the bit hilṣi alongside Tappūtī-Bēlet-ekallim, or her formula may have been from a century earlier and was being copied alongside a newer formula that was similar. The tablet is broken; we simply can not say.
The difference between being the mother of perfumery or a footnote in history is a crack in a clay tablet. This is the essence of survival bias. Tappūtī-Bēlet-ekallim is extraordinary because her name survived, which was totally by chance. The Phoenician perfumer, her name didn’t, -ninu’s name didn’t either, but they were just as important to the advancement of perfumery.
Of course, other Mesopotamian perfumers are just as fascinating as Tappūtī-Bēlet-ekallim. Still, they aren’t the oldest on record, and because they don’t hold that superlative, no one cares about their contribution to the art. Tukultī-ša-šāmê was also a female perfumer who lived just a little after Tappūtī-Bēlet-ekallim. Her ingredients list shows that she was producing over 100 litres of product per commission. That’s a lot of perfume even today. The Marian male perfumer Nūr-ilī was a member of the bīt raqqî (perfume makers’ guild) and was responsible for overseeing all aromatic production in Mari.
What we know about Tukultī-ša-šāmê and Nūr-ilī is just as tantalisingly brief as what we know about Tappūtī Bēlet-ekallim, but they get no fan art, they get no write-ups. In making her an exception and patron saint, we lose the voices of the thousands of collaborators who helped create the idea of perfume as we know it today. The advancement of knowledge doesn’t happen due to one exceptional genius having a eureka moment, but through the contribution of many ordinary people working together over time.
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- (AS) KAR 220. VAT 10165, VAT 10445, VAT 12269 (frag). Excavation no: Ass 04347c. Vorderasiastisches Museum. Berlin, Germany.
- (UR) AO 29560. Richelieu, [AO] Room 236 – Archaic Mesopotamia (from the Neolithic to the period of the archaic dynasties of Sumer), Vitrine 3 Birth of writing. Department of Oriental Antiquities. Louvre Museum
In 2016 I wrote the post, The Lost History of Women in Chemistry: The First Perfumer. In the interim, my knowledge of Assyriology and Mesopotamian olfactory history has grown, and I no longer agree with how I framed that original story. Also, I feel errors in the original post contributed to spreading misinformation about Tappūtī-Bēlet-ekallim online. Even though those errors were corrected and noted years ago, the post continued to be cited in support of that inaccurate information. So instead of editing that piece, I chose to remove it from the site to break those lines of citation. The post above reflects my current understanding of the subject and the most up-to-date academic discourse on Tappūtī-Bēlet-ekallim and Mesopotamian perfumery. As my readers, I feel you deserve the best I have to offer, and sometimes that means admitting that past work was not up to standard and needs to be updated. I will always strive to put the best-researched material out and be transparent with you about the process. -Nuri