Making Eye Contact

Met kohl pot and stick

Kohl jar and Stick, Met Museum, New York (36.3.62, 36.3.63)

Think about the ancient Egyptians, or perhaps rather imagine Cleopatra, and the most distinguishing detail of her appearance which comes to mind will be, for most, a pair of dark, accentuated eyes. But whereas Elizabeth Taylor’s eyes are weighed down with blue eye-shadow and heavy black lines, Richard Burton’s have no such definition, naked in their naturalness. But then again he was Mark Anthony, and a Roman: he knew nothing of the dangers brought by Egyptian sand, sun and the infectious Nile. The image above shows a Kohl Jar and Stick from the Met Museum in New York which is dated to the ‘New Kingdom’, Dynasty 18, around 1492–1473 B.C. Many like this have been found from Ancient Egyptian sites and attest the widespread use of kohl in Egyptian culture.

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Fragment of a stone-painting which shows a servant holding a mirror and a crayon of Kohl. 1285-1069 BCE. Louvre Museum, Paris  (E25333)

Kohl, sormeh, surmah, kajal, tozali, kwalli all refer, more or less, to the dark powdered chemical which was – and in parts of the world still is – applied to the area around the eyes. The purpose of this application is and was varied, and seeking its origin leads to many interesting and insightful ideas about sight, superstition and – perhaps more surprisingly – ophthalmology. In its various forms, the use of this powder and the objects associated with it cover vast areas of land and periods of time. To give some idea of what that means, the earliest kohl pots in the British museum collection are from the Middle Kingdom (Egypt), usually dated from 2050 BC to 1800 BC, and the latest are from Yemen in 2005.

In Ancient Egypt, kohl was composed mostly of galena, a lead-based mineral which is known now to be lead sulfide, which was crushed with other ingredients, mostly precious stones and herbs. These could include pearls, rubies, emeralds, frankincense, coral; and saffron, fennel and neem. This powder was then diluted with a liquid such as oil, milk, or water. Aside from aesthetic purposes, the kohl was used to protect the eyes from the sand and sun of the desert. As such, it was used by everyone, men and women, rich and poor.  But kohl might also have had another practical function.

A group of french scientists in 2010 analysed samples of kohl found in 52 Kohl containers from the collections of the Louvre museum in Paris. They found four uncommon lead ‘species’: galena, cerussite, phosgenite and laurionite. The latter two are not naturally found in Egypt, suggesting that deliberate manufacturing took place, amounting to a “large scale chemical process”. Whilst the idea of lathering your eyelids in toxic lead powder sounds like opposite of a medicinal solution (and indeed there are still concerns about this with the use of kohl today), these lead-sulphates cause the skin cells to produce more nitric oxide, a chemical which stimulates the immune system and stimulates blood flow, thus assisting with fight infections, such as conjunctivitis. Indeed, there is evidence of the awareness of the medicinal benefits of lead-sulphates in the Ebers papyrus, a document dated to 1550bc which contains recipes for eye drops and ointment for the eyes. The text repeatedly cites  the ‘sia-mineral of the north’, frequently associated with Galena. With kohl used by all members of Ancient Egyptian society, we can only imagine the extreme risk of lead poisoning.

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Ebers Papyrus, 1550BC. Bibliotheca Albertina, Leipzig

The arabic origins of the world ‘kohl’ bring us to another later society in which kohl played a central part. Ibn Abi Shayba (dated 235/849) was an early Islamic scholar who who collected and authored many legal works. Included in this legal compilation is a large section on etiquette which records the importance blow one’s nose with the left hand, clipping the moustache and beard, how to mount animals, blessing sneezers and how to apply kohl to the eye. In hadith narratives, which record the words and actions of the Prophet Muhammed, it is stated that the Prophet applied kohl and said that it was useful. As a result, kohl plays an important part in many Islamic traditions.

Man with kohl - yemen sculpture

Sculpted head of a man with inlaid shell and glass eyes, highlighted with blue kohl. 1st C. BC – 1st C. AD, Yemen. British Museum, London

Kohl was also associated with several special powers in the Arabic folk traditions. The first of these is the power of invisibility. In Amir Khusrau’s Khamsah, Ram, the prince of Yemen, is outcast by his father and stepmother. He meets some strangers at a drinking party who give him vital advice to assist with returning home: a spell to put people to sleep and kohl which when applied to the eyes makes the wearer invisible. The kohl only gets Ram so far, however, before smoke is used to wash away the protective kohl and Ram’s identity is revealed. In the collection of folktales known in the Anglophone world as ‘Arabian nights’, after their English translation, kohl also appears with supernatural powers. In the Tale of Judar, Abd al-Samad tells Judar of how he learnt the art of magic, solving mysteries and bringing hoards to light. His father left him a book of Fables which he took to an old man called Al-Kahin al-Abtan. The old man told al-Samad that if he wanted his own book, then he must find the treasure of Al-Shamardal. Amongst this famous treasure is the Vial of Kohl which enables the wearer to see the buried treasures of the earth. It is armed with this Vial of Kohl that Judar is able to set out on the next part of his journey to seek out treasure.

The powers of kohl told in these two tales are, unsurprisingly, associated with the power of sight: the former takes away the power of others, and the latter gives the wearer supernatural sight.


Finding Out Egyptian Gods’ Secret Using Analytical Chemistry: Biomedical Properties of Egyptian Black Makeup Revealed by Amperometry at Single Cells. Anal. Chem., 2010, 82 (2), pp457-460