Cleopatra's Eyes

A recent survey in Britain reached a not-very-surprising conclusion: men do not like women with lots of make-up. In particular, foundation was a pet hate among most men.

As a male myself, I yield to no one in my admiration for a beautiful woman - smooth, flawless skin, healthy colour, hair, eyes, figure, yep! But then you get a bit closer and discover that the smooth flawless skin is also matt with the texture of fine concrete and the healthy colour ends under the jawline, and suddenly things are not quite so attractive.

Some women take things to an obvious excess: the late Barbara Cartland was so heavily made up that one worried every time she laughed in case her face cracked and fell in fragments about her feet, leaving only naked skin beneath. Others are more restrained and attempt to be natural-looking, but the result is still unattractive, both visually and orally. Kissing a sticky cheek is so unpleasant that I dub the stuff "kiss repellant"!

There is, however, one form of make-up that does turn me on: eyes heavily outlined in black. It seems to be an art that Middle Eastern women have perfected and Western women cannot do. They either neglect the stuff entirely or paint it on with such a heavy hand that they look like Coco the Clown or the victim of a brutal accident. A tawny-skinned Egyptian girl, however, with her dark eyes surrounded by kohl, is a thing of beauty and a joy forever.

Furthermore, if ancient Egyptian paintings are to be believed, it is an art that has been practiced for the last 4,000 years, which I suppose is why they are so good at it! Paintings in tombs not only depict women with eyes darkened with kohl, but in some cases they are even shown applying the make-up.

Even better, Sir Flinders Petrie's excavations at Kahun turned up dozens of cosmetic boxes, some decorated with ivory, others just plain wooden boxes with sliding tops held shut by string wound around two pegs. Inside the boxes - because archaeologists were too curious to leave the boxes unopened - were the cosmetics that any well-dressed Egyptian woman would be wearing: juniper berries, whose red stain could be applied to lips; haematite powder - rusty iron to you and me - which might not look much on fair European skin, but probably was just right for adding a touch of colour to the cheeks of a dusky damsel; and kohl sticks.

However researchers at the Louvre Museum in Paris now believe that there was more to kohl than just attracting the men. A team of scientists led by Philippe Walter examined samples of ancient kohl and discovered that a key ingredient was galena, otherwise known as lead ore. Galena is a natural form of lead sulphite and their first thought was that the lead in the kohl would be poisonous to the wearer.

On the other hand, they were aware that Greek and Roman authors claimed that kohl protected the wearer from various eye ailments. The first suggestion was that at very low levels, lead salts might produce nitric oxide, a chemical which has been shown to boost the immune system.

However in order to discover the truth, the team devised a probe one tenth the thickness of a human hair, which allowed them to track the effects of kohl on a single cell. They tested their tiny electrode with a lead chloride salt used by the Egyptians called Laurionite and confirmed that the immune system was boosted by the presence of Laurionite.

In addition, they found that the stuff acted as an antiseptic and deterred flies, which swarm around unprotected eyes, sucking the tears as a source of moisture in the dry heat of Egypt, and leaving all sorts of nasty bugs behind. Finally, like American footballers who smear black on the cheeks in order to reduce glare - so they claim! - the French suggest that putting kohl around the eyes might serve to protect the eyes against damage from the sun.

I admit to being dubious about that last claim, but the others are plausible. It is, however, a trifle unromantic to think that when Julius Caesar lost his heart to the dark eyed Cleopatra, her seductive looks had nothing to do with wooing the conqueror of the world and everything to do with keeping her ocular orbs healthy.

It takes all the romance out of those beautiful Egyptian eyes.

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foundation Foundation is a thick gooey paste that is daubed on the face, allegedly to cover up blemishes and imperfections in the skin. Claimed to be "skin coloured", it comes in a variety of shades, from aged oak to revolting pink. Once it has been applied, the victim is supposed to complete the deception by adding rouge, blushers, eye shadow, lipstick and several coats of Dulux.

Most women try to hide the fact that they are wearing the stuff by ending it at the jawline; the theory is that the shadow cast by the jaw will blend the lighter natural skin in to the foundation-covered face. It doesn't. Others, realising the futility of the attempt, continue the stuff down the neck and try and blend it into their natural colour somewhere below the collar, which leads to unfortunate results if the woman in question is wearing a low-cut dress or a light-coloured one on which smears of "foundation" show up. Return

© Kendall K. Down 2010