x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 23 October 2017

Deconstructing Kohl

Painting kohl, or kuhl, around the eyes dates back thousands of years and can be traced across several continents

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra. Silver Screen Collection / Getty Images
Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra. Silver Screen Collection / Getty Images

Although it varied from region to region, the traditional method of making kohl involved grinding the minerals galena or stibnite into a fine powder and blending with fat to create a lustrous black paste.

In ancient Egypt, from about 3,100BC, the upper lids of the eye were painted with black galena, while the lower lids were decorated with a paste of green malachite. The Egyptians considered galena to be medicinal, and thought it protected eyes from the sun, even fending off flies. It may actually have helped against endemic eye diseases such as trachoma, although the high lead content has since been linked to health problems.

Other methods of making kohl include mixing sandalwood soot with ghee, or grinding various leaves, nuts and seeds with gum resin or butter fat.

Women in the Arabian Peninsula have long used black kohl to denote marriage, a tradition that was brought to North Africa in the 7th century. Today, a few Berber woman still paint a vertical line from lip to chin with kohl. In the Horn of Africa, Somali, Eritrean and Ethiopian women used heavy kohl to protect their eyes from the sun; in West Africa, Hausa and Fulani men and women don kohl to celebrate weddings and Eid.

In India, mothers smear kohl around a newborn’s eyes to strengthen them; while in some parts, men wear kohl for occasions and women wear dots to ward off the evil eye.

The tradition of kohl still thrives, and is seen as a cat’s eye flick, or smudged into a smoky eye. Cinema fans will have seen Captain Jack Sparrow sporting black-rimmed eyes in the Pirates of the Caribbean films, and in Petra, Jordan, on black-eyed Bedu men riding around on their horses.

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