In Ancient Israel there was a distinction used for therapeutic purposes and for facial makeup. The use of makeup was strictly codified with ancient Israelite religious practices. Since the application of kohl on the eye lids was considered labor therefore it was forbidden on the Sabbath.
The temple priests distinguished between healing which was to embellish one eye with kohl and for makeup for embellishing two eyes. In Talmudic sources there is mentioned the use of dyes of blue-black (kalal) for the eyes, “These are permitted in woman’s adornments: she treats her eyes with kohl..” (Talmud, Babylonian. Moed Kattan 9b).
Cosmetics have been used for as long as there have been people to use them. Highly polished silver and copper mirrors aided the application of makeup. The use of kohl for painting the eyes is mentioned three times in the Bible, albeit with disapproval by the sages – 2 Kings, 9:30; Jeremiah 4:30; Ezekiel 23:40. In contrast, Job named one of his daughters “Keren Happukh” – “horn of eye paint” (Job 42:14).
Dyes and paints were used to color the skin, body and hair. Women in the ancient past commonly put color around their eyes. It was customary to put light red or mauve on the cheeks, and it is probable a white powder was used such as scented fine flour. Lips were colored with a cream made of oil combined with a clay called red ochre and nails were painted with pigments mixed with ash or beeswax. In addition for lips, cheeks and nails, red ochre was ground and mixed with water.
Henna was used to dye fingernails yellow or orange and also used as a rouge for lips and cheeks and also as a hair dye. Kohl was a dark-colored powder made of crushed antimony, burnt almonds, lead, oxidized copper, ochre, ash, malachite, chrysocolla (a blue-green copper ore) or any combination thereof. The colors used in ‘kohl’ or eye cosmetics were minerally based; black often being made from lead sulfate, greens and blues from copper oxide, and reds from iron oxide. Such materials were crushed into powder and mixed in a preservative oil base, with the addition of fragrance. The ‘Talmud’ mentions other cosmetic dyes such as rouge (sarak), purple violet (pikas), white for the face, and colorings for the hair, and toenails.
Women lined their eyes and eyebrows heavily with kohl. It was applied with a small stick. The upper and lower eyelids were painted in a line that extended to the sides of the face for an almond effect. Besides beautification, its purpose was also medicinal as covering the sensitive skin of the lids with colored ointments which prevented dryness and protection against eye diseases. The eye-paint repelled insects that transmitted eye inflammations.
Kohl eyeliner was believed to restore poor eyesight and reduce eye infection. Egyptian women colored the upper eyelid black and the lower one green, and painted the space between the upper lid and the eyebrow grey or blue. The women of Mesopotamia favored yellows and reds. The paint was applied either with fingers or with a stylized spatula. In the language of the Mishnah, the stick, usually made of bronze, was thickened at one end, for applying the paint – the ‘male’ end, while the other, the ‘female’ end was shaped in a little spoon or spatula and used to extract the paint from the container. “A kohl stick that has lost its ear spoon is susceptible to uncleanness because of its point.”male end” (Misnah, Kelim 13:2)
Makeup was stored in special jars that were kept in special makeup boxes. Women would carry their makeup boxes to parties and keep them under their chairs. Although men also wore makeup, they did not carry their makeup kits with them.
Throughout the nations in the Biblical world, the use of cosmetics by men for facial treatment was mainly restricted to the rubbing of oil all over the face and to many parts of the body. But occasionally a facial cream or lotion was used to protect the skin against the hot rays of the sun.
The very common creams used by women in the ancient East, and important in the hot climate were compounds of oils and aromatic scents. The oil in these creams was extracted from olives, almonds, gourds, sesame, or from trees and plants; but for those of limited means, scented animal and fish fats were commonly used.
The ancient women took great pride in their appearance and cleanliness. In the hot dry climate of the Middle East, washing the body and anointing it with oil was hygienic. Most people bathed daily in the river or out of a water basin at home. Wealthy homes had a bath -room where servants would pour jugs of water over their master. The runoff was drained through a pipe to water the garden. A cleansing cream made of animal or vegetable oil mixed with powdered lime (citrus) and perfume was used instead of soap. The ancient Israelites appreciated the improvements of the Roman style baths, “How fine are the works of these peoples! They have made streets! They have erected baths!” (The historian Josephus)
Cosmetics were an inherent part of hygiene and health. Oils and creams were used for protection against the hot sun and dry winds. To the ancient peoples facial treatment was highly developed and women devoted many hours to it. They used to spread various scented creams on the face and to apply makeup in vivid and contrasting colors. Women would cover their faces in the evening with a ‘beauty mask’ to remove blemishes, which consisted mainly of flour mixed with fragrant spices, leaving it on their face all night. The next morning they would wash it off with milk.
Precious oils, perfumes, cosmetic powders, eye shadows, skin glosses, paints, beauty unguents, and hair dyes were in universal use. Export and sale of these items formed an important part of trade around the Mediterranean. Women in India did not use soap either but instead used a turmeric germicidal cream treatment composed of gramflour or wheat husk mixed with milk. The wheat husk would remove dead cell tissue. An Egyptian papyrus from the 16th century BC contains detailed recipes to remove blemishes, wrinkles, and other signs of age.
Bathing and washing to all peoples in the Ancient East was imperative. In the Talmud it is said that one must wash one’s hands every morning and evening before prayer (Talmud, Babyl. Shabbat, 109a).” Another custom in those ancient lands was in washing the feet. Abraham observed this custom when the three angels came to visit. Washing the hands in perfumed water upon rising and before meals was a common practice for him: “Let me send for some water so that you may wash your feet..” (Gen. 18:4-5) “Wash and anoint yourself and put on your raiment.” (Ruth 3:3)
In the First Temple period, a shaved head and beard was a sign of disgrace. Great importance was attached to the care of hair in ancient times. Long hair was always considered a mark of beauty, and kings, nobles and dignitaries grew their hair long and kept it well-groomed and cared for. Beards received the same care as hair and were occasionally dyed using henna (red) or other forms of dye.
Another item pertaining to Biblical hygiene required the adults to carry out the removal of body hair from the underarm, arms, legs, pubic area etc. In Islam it is a rule for both men and women.
During the early Babylonian period, men wore long beards. Assyrian kings were represented with square beards made of a group of ringlets. Egyptian men shaved their head in order to avoid getting lice. Greek men wore beards, but from the time of Alexander the Great, they appeared clean-shaven. Roman men shaved their beards until the time of Emperor Hadrian who brought beards back into fashion.
In ancient Israel brides would wear their hair long on the wedding day as a sign of their virginity. Young girls usually kept their hair braided, while boys had shaved heads with a braided lock worn to each side. Women, devoted much time to the style of the hair while not cutting it; they would apply much care to it by arranging it skillfully in braids or sometimes used extensions with the help of wigs. Corn rows of braids was a common hair fashion. Combs, hair adornments were common items among hair fashions.
Egyptian women generally wore their hair flowing down to their shoulders or even longer. In Mesopotamia, women cherished long hair as part of their beauty, and in art are seen with hair flowing down their backs in a thick braid and tied with a ribbon. Assyrian women wore their hair shorter, braiding and binding them in a bun at the back.
Ordinary people and slaves usually wore their hair short, mainly for hygienic reasons, since they could not afford to invest in the kind of treatment that long hair required. Thus, for the majority, the care of the hair was of special importance, especially in keeping it free from lice etc.
Hair was therefore continuously washed, anointed, combed and sometimes dyed. The hair was cut and thinned regularly, and the higher the person was on the social scale, the more frequently he went to the barber or hair-dresser. Talmudic sources contain much information about barbers among the ancient Israelites and their implements. These barbers usually traded in perfumes, practiced manicures and pedicures and sometimes were called for medical functions. In Mesopotamia, hairdressers constituted an important and respected class and were organized in a guild. They also performed needed medical functions in treating wounds and ailments and shaving lepers so that they could be recognized from afar. Iraqi men and women painted their faces with kohl just like the Egyptians did. This was to protect them from the ‘evil eye.’
Talmudic literature contains a wealth of information on the marketing of cosmetics. Teeth and breath were freshened by chewing on pellets made of ground tamarisk leaves. Athough there is no evidence of toothbrushes or toothpaste it was known that people washed/wiped their teeth with cloths, cleaned between their teeth with cedar tyoe toothpicks and rinsed with salt water. Bad breath and bad body odor was grounds for shame. From the ancient sources we have learned about the use of perfumes and cosmetics; the materials used in their manufacture; and their methods of preparation.
From the archaeological treasures and from the pages of classical literature we can now understand the popularity of cosmetics and perfumes among ancient civilizations. The scented route leads to the ancient times where women as well as men enjoyed the luxury of the delicate fragrance of perfumed ointments and scents.