Fragrance in Travel Literature-Ethiopia



The cradle of the Blue Nile. A visit to the court of King John of Ethiopia (1877)
Volume: 2

De Cosson, E. A. (Emilius Albert)

Katarif is only a little Arab town of round grass-huts,
but, being on the direct camel route from Cassala to
Khartum, on the White Nile, it is of some importance,
and boasts of two market-days in a week. This
being one of them we had to make our way through a
long row of open sheds, made of straw, in many of
which the long cross-handled swords of the country
were exposed for sale, at one and two dollars apiece.
In some sheds squatted half-naked Arabs, selling red-
leather scabbards for these swords ; while in others such
luxuries as beads, perfumery, red pepper, and balls of
raw fat for dressing the hair, were to be bought from
coffee-coloured Arab women, who would have been
pretty if they had not had their faces disfigured by the
three long gashes on each cheek, which they here inflict
upon themselves as an ornament; for the cruel goddess,
Fashion, is no less a tyrant in the wilds of Upper
Nubia than in the drawing-rooms of Paris !


The level mud banks of the river, were, as yesterday,
only varied by a few palms and mimosas, while over-
head the sky was an unbroken blue, through which the
sun blazed without mercy, but my shelter of matting
secured me from its rays, and the rising wind fanned
our foreheads and filled the great white lateen sail,
bearing us steadily onwards. Up here the breeze was
young and fragrant from the wooded highlands of
Ethiopia. It had been cooled by the tropical rains,
and scented by the perfume of the mimosa groves
through which it had wandered, but when it should
have crossed the great Nubian desert it would be con-
verted into a burning simoom, wasting and scorching all
before it, the hot breath of which might even be felt
on the shores of Europe.

We soon gained the foot of the highlands, and
passed below the dark 'battlemented ruins of an old
palace, built for King Facil by the Portuguese settlers,
which stands, like an eagle's nest, on an eminence com-
manding a wide view of the plain and lake. Among
the flowers that grew by the way-side were some white
lilies, the delicate beauty of which struck me much ; the
prettiest variety had a broad purple stripe down the centre
of the leaf, and quite scented the air with its fragrance.


Scattered through the grounds that surround the
original castle, are several smaller palaces erected at
different dates, one of these, called the Ladies' Palace,
is charmingly ornamented with red stone work in the,
Moorish style, and the very flowers and trees that grow
wild about it seem to Lave a more graceful beauty than
those elsewhere : here the jasmine spreads a pleasant
fragrance around, and the echo of the voices of the
beautiful Ethiopians, who once trod these deserted
walks, seems still to float softly through the air, while
it is on the pink walls of this palace that the last rays
of the sun always appear to linger longest before it
sinks in the west.
" You may break, you may ruin, the vase if you will,
But the scent of the roses will cling round it still."

Not a trace of the storm remained.
The tropical sun had spread its glamour over the land,
and though the swollen river still rushed madly over
the grey rocks, its spray glistened with the varied
colours of the rainbow, and the air was sweet with the
fragrance of flowers, and gay with the song of birds and
the hum of insects. Our tent, too, no longer stood
deserted and alone ; the Governor of Gondar, Christo-
pholos the Magician, Barran Barras Tachu the chief
of Tchelga, and many others were waiting outside to
see me ; for to-day I had decided to start on my home-
ward journey through those great plains of the Soudan
and Upper Nubia which lay between me and Khartum
on the White Nile.


These beautiful trees not only please the eye by
their graceful appearance, and the sense of smell by
the sweet fragrance of their flowers, but they are ex-
tremely useful. There is a variety from the bark of
which excellent fibre is obtained by the Arabs for the
manufacture of ropes, and sacks that serve to hold
the gum-arabic which the mimosa also produces. Sir
Samuel Baker, in his " Nile Tributaries," alludes to the
beautiful effect of the pure crystallized gum-arabic on
the stems, and branches of the trees, which at one season
makes the mimosa bush look like the jewelled garden
in the story of Aladdin. Another variety of this tree,
the Acacia Arabica, produces a fruit used by the Arabs
as a medicine for its astringent and tonic qualities, and
invaluable also for the tanning of hides ; and there is a
kind of mimosa, the branches of which are said to bend
like those of the sensitive plant when they are touched.
Hence Moore, in his " Lalla Rookh," calls it
" That courteous tree
Which bows to all who seek its canopy. "

Gradually the heat became intense, and the whole
atmosphere vibrated beneath the almost vertical rays
of the sun. In the early morning I had seen beautiful
birds, of bright cerulean plumage, flitting among the
trees like living turquoises, and active, cinnamon-
coloured lizards, with blue tails, chasing pretty russet
lizardesses, with golden throats, over the glistening
quartz stones ; but now, in the burning heat, all these
were still. The birds ceased to sing ; the blue lizard
lay basking, motionless, on the rock by the wayside ; a
pair of tiny gazelles stood gazing at me dreamily with
their large black eyes from the shade of some sweet-
scented mimosas, among the boughs of which sat a
little grey monkey, too overcome by the warmth even
to make faces. The green beetles gleamed like
emeralds in the dry, yellow grass ; and not a sound
broke the stillness save the humming of numberless
insects among the flowers. It was just such a scene of
tropical beauty as Dore' has depicted in some of his
illustrations to " Atala " ; and all one's senses seemed
to drink in the sunlight and scents and sounds, with a
dreamy satisfaction that was very delightful.
" There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society where none intrudes "

My next visit was to the bazaar, where some little
European trifles were to be obtained, which to me
seemed quite luxuries. A subtle smell of scent per-
vaded the air, as it always does Eastern bazaars ; and
the provision market was very picturesque with its
piles of bright yellow and red melons, beside which
squatted ebony-coloured negresses from the White
Nile, adorned with monstrous silver nose and lip rings.

The old settlers made careful provision
for a long stay in the country, judging by their planting
those sweet scented cedars, some of which have not yet
done growing, though three hundred years have passed
since their seeds were laid in the ground. I imagine these
stern Portuguese adventurers were not bad fellows,
and they were certainly civilizing the country very
rapidly, when their fatal mania for trying to introduce
the "blessed Inquisition" made it too hot to hold
them.

Most of our followers committed small peculations on
such natives as passed, when we did not chance to be
in sight, and one man captured from a village a stick
of a kind much esteemed here. It was cut from a tree
that bears a flower like a large orange-blossom, but
with three times the scent, and the wood of which is so
hard and heavy, that it is said shepherds have been
known to kill lions with sticks made of it.

As the sun rose in the heavens, wreaths of white
cloud floated up from the woods, and gathered like a
veil round the distant mountain peaks behind us ;
whilst around stretched hundreds of miles of undulating
bush and thorny nabbuk jungle, a tangled mass of
glorious African vegetation, decked with sweet-smelling
flowers of every colour.

Travels in southern Abyssinia, through the country of Adal to the kingdom of Shoa (1844)Vol 1
Johnston, Charles, 1810-1872

We could not start this morning,
much to the great grief of every man of the
Kafilah ; the father of Mahomed Allee, and three
or four other powerful AYahama chiefs, having come
in during the night. Calahm circles, on all sides,
covered the ground, with anything but fairy rings,
though the spot itself, seemed a little Eden, where
things of light and beauty might have been
tempted to hold their nocturnal assemblies. The
tall henna trees shed a delicious perfume, far and
wide, exactly resembling that of our dear little
weed, the mignonnette ; and out of due reverence
for, and remembrance of, the sweets of home, I
carried in the bosom of my robe a small branch of
its clustered pale-yellow flowers. Whilst plucking
this, I was joined by Carmel Ibrahim, w^ho seemed
not unmindful of its delightful odour, and stuck
a small sprig in the hair at the back of his
head ; but I was still more pleased to find, that
Ina, my Dankalli patroness, had some idea of the
beautiful, having placed in her hair a wreath of
the small blue convolvulus.

Towards the latter end of our march to-day the
field of extinct craters again appeared, the cones
much larger, and increasing in height as they
approached the base of Hyhilloo and Abhidah. The
trees and shrubs clothing their sides seemed thicker
and more luxuriant; and the ground over which
we marched was covered with light green grass, a
small lemon-flavoured fragrant mint, and the little
blue-flowered thorny-leaved plant of which the
camels appear to be so fond. This latter grows
about four or five inches high, the numerous
flowerets growmg along a spike like an ear of
wheat, and when the seed is ripe it is not unlike,
in form or size, shrivelled corn.

We halted at a place called Bundurah, the
elevated apex of a large triangular plain, the base
of which to the south was formed by the Obhurah
range of hills, inhabited by the Alia Galla. Bun-
durah appeared to have been the central point of
some extensive elevatory movement of the surface
of the earth in this situation, as several long low
ridges of lava radiated from it, especially to the
north. To the west were also a great number of
small volcanic cones, some of which looked like
craters, but too distant for me to examine them.
The plain was bare of trees, but abounded in grass
and a plant of the mint species, like bergamot,
which diffused a very fragrant odour.

Towards the latter end of our march to-day the
field of extinct craters again appeared, the cones
much larger, and increasing in height as they
approached the base of Hyhilloo and Abhidah. The
trees and shrubs clothing their sides seemed thicker
and more luxuriant; and the ground over which
we marched was covered with light green grass, a
small lemon-flavoured fragrant mint, and the little
blue-flowered thorny-leaved plant of which the
camels appear to be so fond. This latter grows
about four or five inches high, the numerous
flowerets growing along a spike like an ear of
wheat, and when the seed is ripe it is not unlike,
in form or size, shrivelled corn.


After a march of four hours, we arrived at a fair
open spot, where water, in many little pools, lodged
amidst groves of sweetly-scented henna trees, and the
yellow-blossomed mimosa. Here it was determined
the Kafilali should halt for the day. The moment
we came up, five men sprung from a recumbent
position to their feet, seizing spears and shields,
whilst a little boy ran hastily to drive in three lean,
ragged-looking horses that were standing beneath
the shade of one of the larger trees, as if the
fatigue of a night march, or the growing heat of
the day had driven the animals for repose and
shelter to the same retreat with their owners.

Left Krabtu at sunrise, and three
hours after, we reached the halting-place of Sagga-
darali, situated in the wide bed of a small stream
called Korree. Its banks were composed of low
hills of different coloured, irregularly stratified rock,
that if not volcanic, had been greatly altered from
their original character of deposited formations, by
the agency of fire. The whole valley abounded
with vegetation ; wide- spreading sweetly-scented
mimosas, and clumps of luxuriantly growing doom-
palm, made travelling beneath their shade delight-
fully agreeable.

From Abiheosoph we descended, by a gentle
declivity, through a grove of the most powerfully-
scented mimosa-trees, from whose high branches,
depended the large drop-like nests, so characteristic
of the African oasis. During our progress, we
flushed, from among the roots of long dry grass,
several large coveys of the earth-coloured small
desert partridge; and vast herds of antelopes, dis-
turbed by our approach, cantered gently away
among the thin trunks of the trees, and then
halting, turned round to take a long inquisitive
gaze at the intruders.

After satisfying my curiosity mth the excellent
view of the country afforded by my situation, we
proceeded on our journey. We soon descended
into the bed of a small stream rimning into the
Gobard, along the bottom of which the heavily-
laden camels were now slowly winding their way,
among numerous sweetly-smelling, white-blossomed
mimosas, which scented the whole valley, and
afforded a delicious banquet to the busy inha-
bitants of a natural bee-hive, so situated that to
all honey-eating animals, save man, it was inac-
cessible.

We halted
several times, to rest ourselves, under the shade of
some convenient trees, and at one place we sat
until the camels came up. Here we found a wel-
come spring of pure water, that was absorbed again
by the sand, almost immediately after its escape
from the little circles of stones, through which it
bubbled. It was embosomed in a grove of sweetly
smelling mimosa trees, that grew very luxuriantly,
favoured by the constant moisture of the soil. We
all drank heartily of the clear sweet water, and
reclined upon patches of a fine velvet-like grass,
that beneath the tallest and more solitary trees
spread a beautiful green carpet for our repose.

Travels in southern Abyssinia, through the country of Adal to the kingdom of Shoa (1844) Vol 2
Johnston, Charles, 1810-1872

The hill, or a
prolonged height of Lomee, was now crossed,
covered almost entirely with fields of the common
horse-bean, whose grey blossoms perfumed the
whole neighbourhood. Generally, the fields were
quite green with yoimg grain but a few inches
high, and through these our road lay for nearly
an hour, when, by a gradual descent, we found
ourselves upon the edge of a coarse gravel bank,
that in this situation had been cut into a perpen-
dicular cliff, about thirty feet high, by the action
of the confined, impetuous river that rushed around
its base.

Their fiddles were clumsy-looking affairs, con-
sisting of a long handle, a lozenge-shaped parch-
ment body, and one string formed of a loose
bundle of horse-hairs, that at the upper extremity
of the handle were secured to a moveable pin of
wood three or four inches long, and after being
carried over a bridge which stood upon one of the
parchment faces, were looped down to a little
projection beyond. The string thus formed, was
tightened at pleasure, by simply twisting it upon
the stick pin. The bows were caricatures of the
European ones, being little tough boughs of some
tree or other, bent into a semicircle, the two ends
being connected by a loose band of horse-hair of
the same character as the fiddle-string. A piece of
attan, or the frankincense of Arabia, served the
musicians instead of resin, and was kept in little
bags that were suspended by strings from the
handles of their instruments.

Market-day again in Aliu Amba,
and as usual there was a deal of bustle in the
town, and many visitors calling ; however, the first
duty to attend to after getting up was the important
business of breakfast. This invariably consisted of
a large teff crumpet which was fresh toasted in
the frying-pan, and well overlaid with butter and
honey. Coffee, having been scorched and pounded
by Walderheros, whilst his -wife attended to the
bread, was boiled in an earthenware jar, and black
and strong, was then poured into a cup which
had at one time formed part of the canteen of Lieut.
Barker. He had bestowed it upon an Islam friend
of his, who resided in a neighbouring town, and
who off'ered it to me in exchange for a small ounce
phial, and a pomatum pot, which I had previously
been obliged to drink out of for want of anything
else. The flavour of the unsugared coffee, was
rendered doubly agreeable by the honey, the
cloying sweetness of which, subduing, and being
subdued, by the bitterness of the berry, left the
pleasant and peculiar aroma of the latter alone
sensible to the palate.

The highlands of Æthiopia (1844)Vol 2
Harris, William Cornwallis, Sir, 1807-1848

At some distance from this point are the royal
iron mines, and near them a perpendicular crag,
which rears its crumbling form from the very bot-
tom of the vale to the level of the upper stream,
marks the suddenness of the descent. The entire
face of the verdant hills that repose above the
roaring cataract, were covered with thyme and
other aromatic herbs, yielding up their fragrance
at every step ; and new and lovely flowers, spark-
ling under the morning dew, carpeted the slope.
From the very brink of the" dizzy torrent, lofty
junipers raised their tall stems, and flung their
mossy arms to a vast height, though still appear-
ing but as small twigs ; and the white cloud of
foam and spray which arose from the gloomy
chasm, reflecting the prismatic colours of the rain-
bow, completed a picture of singular wildness and
magnificence.

Arts and sciences had each their separate niche
in the spacious apartment ; and favoured votaries
were deeply engaged in scanning subtle essences, or
preparing potent spells. The hum of confused
voices was borne on the fragrant atmosphere, whilst
at intervals strange emblems and tokens were de-
livered by the elders to the attending pupils, who
each sprang aloft upon gaudy pinions to execute
the behest of his superior. But the smiling face of
fair woman was wanting to complete the scene ; for
love was unknown to the dread spirit of the lake.

Two gaudy kinds of Alcedo play on the rivulets Merops
Bulockii and Nubicus. These truly African species of the fly-
catcher are in the lower, Upupa epops, the common hoopoe, in
the upper country. Certhia tacazze and chalybea, with two other
equally beautiful kinds of the humming-bird, proceed with the
seasons to their flower-gardens, when the return of rain here, and
of warmth there, elicits the most fragrant blossoms, and covers
the shrubs of the mountain-side, or the jungle-trees, with soft
honey-insects. One of these humming-birds suspends its bag-
like nest, ingeniously woven of raw cotton, by a string of the
same material, to reeds, or cotton-plants.

Thundering peals of music, and a sudden pros-
tration, proclaimed the presence of the genius of
the place ; and, amid the clash of lute and timbrel,
a cloud of incense floating high over head, disclosed
a dwarf crouching on the shell. His aspect was
mild and beneficent, and a flowing white beard
entirely covered his minute person ; but the es-
sence of ethereal intelligence shot from his piercing
black eye, and a pale fire played among his long
yellow locks.

On a fresh morning of May, when the roses and
jessamine were scenting the dewy air, the wild
flowers springing over the face of the green mea-
dow, and birds warbled pleasantly amid the rich
foliage, the peasants came as usual to listen to the
words of other days, and to receive the blessing of
the austere anchorite. But the accustomed seat
was vacant, and no answer being returned to the
voice of inquiry, the boldest entered the retreat.


The Nile Tributaries of Abyssinia

by Samuel W. Baker


Not only are the Arabs particular in their pomade, but great
attention is bestowed upon perfumery, especially by the women.
Various perfumes are brought from Cairo by the travelling native
merchants; among which those most in demand are oil of roses, oil
of sandalwood, an essence from the blossom of a species of
mimosa, essence of musk, and the oil of cloves. The women have a
peculiar method of scenting their bodies and clothes by an
operation that is considered to be one of the necessaries of
life, and which is repeated at regular intervals. In the floor of
the tent, or hut, as it may chance to be, a small hole is
excavated sufficiently large to contain a common-sized champagne
bottle: a fire of charcoal, or of simply glowing enmbers, is made
within the hole, into which the woman about to be scented throws
a handful of various drugs; she then takes off the cloth or tope
which forms her dress, and crouches naked over the fumes, while
she arranges her robe to fall as a mantle from her neck to the
ground like a tent. When this arrangement is concluded she is
perfectly happy, as none of the precious fumes can escape, all
being retained beneath the robe, precisely as if she wore a
crinoline with an incense-burner beneath it, which would be a far
more simple way of performing the operation. She now begins to
perspire freely in the hot-air bath, and the pores of the skin
being thus opened and moist, the volatile oil from the smoke of
the burning perfumes is immediately absorbed.

By the time that the fire has expired, the scenting process is
completed, and both her person and robe are redolent of incense,
with which they are so thoroughly impregnated that I have
frequently smelt a party of women strongly at full a hundred
yards' distance, when the wind has been blowing from their
direction. Of course this kind of perfumery is only adapted for
those who live in tents and in the open air, but it is considered
by the ladies to have a peculiar attraction for the other sex, as
valerian is said to ensnare the genus felis. As the men are said
to be allured by this particular combination of sweet smells, and
to fall victims to the delicacy of their nasal organs, it will be
necessary to give the receipt for the fatal mixture, to be made
up in proportions according to taste :--Ginger, cloves, cinnamon,
frankincense, sandal-wood, myrrh, a species of sea-weed that is
brought from the Red Sea, and lastly, what I mistook for shells,
but which I subsequently discovered to be the horny disc that
closes the aperture when a shell-fish withdraws itself within its
shell; these are also brought from the Red Sea, in which they
abound throughout the shores of Nubia and Abyssinia.

I extract an entry from my journal.--"The bazaar held here is
most original. Long rows of thatched open sheds, about six feet
high, form a street; in these sheds the dealers squat with their
various wares exposed on the ground before them. In one, are
Manchester goods, the calicoes are printed in England, with the
name of the Greek merchant to whom they are consigned; in
another, is a curious collection of small wares, as though
samples of larger quantities, but in reality they are the
dealer's whole stock of sundries, which he deals out to numerous
purchasers in minute lots, for paras and half piastres, ginger,
cloves, chills, cardamoms, pepper, turmeric, orris root, saffron,
sandal-wood, musk, a species of moss that smells like patchouli,
antimony for colouring the eyes and lips, henna, glass beads,
cowrie shells, steels for striking fire, &c. &c. Other stalls
contain sword-blades, files, razors, and other hardware, all of
German manufacture, and of the most rubbishing kind. Mingled with
these, in the same stall, are looking-glasses, three inches
square, framed in coloured paper; slippers, sandals, &c. Other
sheds contain camel ropes and bells, saddlery of all descriptions
that are in general use, shoes, &c.; but the most numerous stalls
are those devoted to red pepper, beads, and perfumery."

May 10.--Fine breeze, the boat sailing well. Passed several
small temples. The henna grows in considerable quantities on the
left bank of the river. The leaf resembles that of the myrtle;
the blossom has a powerful fragrance; it grows like a feather,
about eighteen inches long, forming a cluster of small yellow
flowers. The day pleasantly cool; thermometer, 95 degrees.