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Kohl; Mapping Cultural Memory

Setting the Scene

Above, Hadendowa bride, Kassala Province, with shining, kohl-rimmed eyes. Sisters Under the Sun, Marjorie Hall and Bakhita Amin Ismail, 1981, p154.

“Who will defend the maps / taken from the truth by lies? Who will trace the kohl for our eyes?” An extract from Kohl, by Spain-based Sudanese poet, linguist and lecturer in literature, K. Eltinaé, whose poetry resonates to the poignant and complex music of “dislocation, multiple and conflicting identities, and cultural homelessness.” Memories of displacement Sudanese poet K Eltinae on writing “verses in the sky”

“In the heat of the daluka drumbeats, / the young girls were casting charms, / from kohl-lined eyes, / where beauty felt at home”; extract from Wedding Parade, Muhammad El-Mahdi el-Magzoub, translated by Adil Babikir.

Modern Sudanese Poetry, University of Nebraska Press, 2019.

Above left, the kohl-rimmed eyes of a Sudanese bride in El-Obeid, detail from a photographic tribute by Enikö Nagy, Sand in my Eyes, Sudanese Moments, p681. Above right, (Wikicommons) winged wedjat eyes on the coffin of Henettawy, tenth century BC. More on the historical resonances of modern kohl use below.

Sand in My Eyes, Eniko Nagy

Below, one of many Sudanese proverbs and sayings referencing kohl, to the backdrop of the exquisite craftsmanship of late 19th-century Darfuri kohl containers, also featured in the article’s title photo. Inset, photograph of a Sudanese woman applying kohl, Pinterest, Dia. See more proverbs and sayings in The Dung Beetle and the Moon.

Proverbs with Muna Zaki

Kohl; Mapping Cultural Memory

A Grandmother’s Gift, A Mother’s Care Kohl and Eye Health

Maps of Defiance Kohl Historical Artifacts

A Grandmother’s Gift, A Mother’s Care

The illustrations used in this collage are credited in this post.

In her contribution to The Routledge Companion to Beauty Politics, Beauty, Spirituality and Transgression, Nada Mustafa Ali writes of the early morning farewell visit she made to her grandmother in Atbara in the 1990s. Reliving memories freighted with quiet gratitude and loss, she recounts the care and tenderness with which her grandmother prepared kohl for her departure.

“My late grandmother held a small bottle in her hand, and poured in black homemade kohl powder. She had prepared the kohl patiently over several days by adding gum into and covering a mabkhar (incense container) with an aluminum plate. She monitored the gum as it burnt and lined the inside of the plate.”

Photograph and edited text above, detailing the application of kohl and types of kohl containers, an excerpt from Women of Omdurman, 1984, by Anne Cloudsley.

Cloudsley, writing on women’s lives in 1960s – 70s Omdurman, describes her Sudanese friends making kohl using smoldering perfumed wood (shaaf) to which frankincense or myrrh were added. The wood and incense were placed in a traditional smoke hole in the house yard where the soot accumulated and was collected.

The kohl Nada Mustafa Ali’s grandmother gave her that day has accompanied her ever since, journeying with her around the world, a presence at those special occasions her grandmother would never see – her own wedding ceremony and the birth of her daughter. A great-granddaughter’s new eyes bearing finely traced paths across generations and time.

“I line kohl under the ocean / of my eye to hide you from / evil’s eye” The Bright Senka

Kohl and memories of kohl sustain the emigre and, as Nada Mustafa intimates above, become a reservoir “of sentimental and spiritual meaning: bridges to loved ones for migrants, refugees and the displaced.

An “artifact of the domain of women”, especially older women who play a key “role in its making and replenishing”, kohl brightens the eyes of the new mother, her newborn child, the newly circumcised, the bride and bridegroom, its coal-black, blue and green tints a source of propitious, talismanic beauty, thwarting the evil eye, accompanying the Meroitic dead in their tombs, still etching indelible tattoos on lips and cheeks today.

Sudanese informants, colonial and post-colonial historians (SNR,Vol 21, 1938, SNR Vol 1,1918, SNR Vol 23,1940) relate that until recently, Sudanese grandmothers or midwives would apply kohl to a newborn’s eyes seven days after birth “to ensure that the eyes are beautiful and free from disease.” Occasionally, Anne Cloudsley notes, the kohl stick would be pushed into a raw onion and drawn along the eyelids before dipping it into the kohl, provoking cleansing, stinging tears; a rite a Sudanese Egyptian friend also remembers witnessing in her family.

Pictured above, young children with kohl-rimmed eyes, dressed in traditional wedding and circumcision robes. Abdulla El Tayib notes that during circumcision ceremonies, boys in the past were dressed as girls, their eyes edged with kohl, possibly to mislead malevolent spirits, (Abdullah El Tayib, Changing Customs of the Sudan, first published 1955).

Above, medieval Sudanese Christian cross (British Museum, Sudan Ancient Treasures)

The women of northern and eastern Sudan, colonial observers also noted, would etch the sign of the cross in kohl on a newborn’s forehead, unconsciously echoing Sudan’s medieval Christian past in a ritual interpreted both as warding off the evil eye and securing protection from squints.

Among the offerings made by new mothers to the Nile and its river spirits were trays laden with dates, durra and kohl. The colonial observer, J.W.Crowfoot tells us even the Nile spirits -“invisible, wingless angels”- so “very human in many respects”, had a passion for kohl” (Angels of the Nile, SNR, Vol 2, 1919, also Dr. Ahmad Al-Safi, Traditional Sudanese Medicine: A Primer for Health Care Providers, Researchers and Students).

Right, a doum seedpod kohl container and stick, gifted to me in Meroe. Below, detail of the doum pod.

Learn more about the beauty and diversity of kohl containers in:

Painted Black; The Story of Kohl Containers

Ancient Beadwork; Kohl Containers

The Kohl pin/stick is also imbued with protective, talismanic qualities. Below, commentary on the rituals and symbolism surrounding the kohl pin by Dr. Ahmed Al-Safi and colonial historian and archeologist, A.J. Arkel. The kohl pins pictured are Chadian / Sudanese (Pitt Rivers Collection) See too Kohl Pins, A.J.Arkel, SNR, Vol 19, 1936, where he catalogues Kordofani double-headed iron pins with dangling rings, speculates that the pins originated from Asia and notes they were also made by Tuareg communities in El Fasher. See also SNR Vol 20, 1937, drawing parallels between the spiral head of the kohl pin and Egyptian hieroglyphs. For more on the magical symbolism of double spiral motifs, see “A Necklace of Shells from Distant Seas…”

Applicators for Kohl, Pitt Rivers Virtual Collection

If you are interested in other aspects of northern Sudanese women’s adornments and attire, you might enjoy

The Hagu / Hagoo, Hair Braiding in Northern Sudan A Sip from Tattooed lips

The Clove’s Fragrance “A Necklace of Shells from Distant Seas…”

Anointing in Robes of Red and Gold


Health; Kohl’s Healing Properties

Above, the Eye of Horus, invoked for wellbeing, healing and protection of the eye in traditions spanning Ancient Egyptian, Kushite and Meroitic civilizations. The creation myths tell us that Horus offered his restored eyes to his father Osiris, their revivifying power sustaining him in the afterlife. The imagery also evokes the moon whose waxing and waning was likened to injury and restoration of the eye.

The British Museum, Sudan Ancient Treasures, Edited by Derek A. Welsby and Julie R.Anderson, 2004.

Left, antimony crystals. Crushed, ground, and mixed with other substances, antimony or ithmid in Arabic is believed to have healing or protective properties and its use long authorized by Islamic sacred text and prophetic tradition for brightening the vision, cleansing the eyes and helping eyelashes to grow. See Youtube video, Kohl Use among men during the Holy Month of Ramadan, Yemen.

Al-Safi notes that in Sudan it is “white” antimony kohl which is preferred for talismanic use.

Galena has also been used in kohl making since ancient times and there is a fascinating description of kohl made with crushed galena, “mixed with ground pearls, rubies, emeralds, silver and gold leaves, frankincense, coral and medicinal herbs such as saffron, fennel and neem. These compounds were then diluted with oil, animal fats, milk or water”.

Kohl derived from ground, charred frankincense was first recorded as used by 18th Dynasty Hapshetsip and as we have seen above, is still made in this way today.

Scientific analysis of kohl compounds aims to verify claims that kohl protects the eyes by cutting glare and UV exposure, stimulating the immune response of the wearer or reducing risks of bacterial infection by repelling flies and trapping dust particles. It appears that this may indeed be the case. However, recent research has also provided evidence of dangerous levels of heavy metals, such as cadmium and lead in many modern kohl products and alarming instances of lead poisoning among some wearers.

Dr Al-Safi records that kohl compounds have been used in traditional Sudanese medicine to treat granular eyelids, ocular scarring, cataracts and even blindness.

“Tashash (blurred vision) and akula (itching) of the eye are treated, in central Muslim Sudan, with the recipe of Shaikh Al-Tayib Wad Al-Marhi called saqam fakka (instant cure). The recipe is a powder of a mixture of sinbil (spikenard, Andropogon nardus), qurunful (cloves), mahlab (Hypoestes verticillaris), filfil (Capsicum annuum), and kohl (antimony).” Right, detail from illustration to Contes du Soudan, Viviane Amina Yagi, by artist Amel Bashir.

Maps of Defiance

Nada Mustafa Ali’s loving evocation of her grandmother’s gift of kohl above celebrates the consolingly unbroken thread of traditions passed from matriarch to mother. It acknowledges the weight of women’s agency in the arena now defined as body politics. The same article also highlights the subversive potential of kohl use; its delicate tensions and creative ambivalence in negotiating the boundaries of evolving understandings of gender and gender fluidity. A negotiation thrown into sharp relief in recent months among young Sudanese activists and artists, tracing new territories “for the kohl for our eyes”. The “transgressive” use of kohl, Nada Mustafa reminds us, involves far more than just teenage girls rebelling against their mothers’ strictures and punishments for using kohl without permission:

The researcher quotes Hadia Hassaballah, a grandmother yearning but not permitted to attend public mawlid (birth of the Prophet) celebrations under an Egyptian – British regime keen not to alienate traditional sectors of Sudanese society. For Hadia and her sisters, the answer was to sit across from the entrance to the public celebrations “with half their faces covered and with their backs to the men. “Each one brought a makhalata (kohl bottle). Each would ask one of the small girls to place her kohl bottle at the gate of the mawlid celebration They would line up these kohl bottles; a line of hearts that yearn to be at the celebration. They were rarely allowed in but ” they were so pleased that each day they applied on their eyelids kohl that visited the light of Al-Mustafa.”

Historical Artifacts; Some Examples

The kings who have gone
left us the remains of their forgettable names —like Aleece or Kush

They left us their peculiar crowns
shards of skeletons
unpronounceable words

and eulogies graven in stone

Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi

In the Company of Michelangelo

Above, artifacts from New Kingdom Pharaonic cemetery (18th Dynasty), Sai. Kohl containers of alabaster (calcite), wood, faience or ivory were frequent in the Egyptian tombs of both men and women, and believed to be very important in funerary make-up, equivalent to offerings of The Eye of Horus and symbol of resurrection. The pots were found close to body and the use of kohl pots became frequent in the Middle Kingdom.

(Source; The British Museum, Ancient Treasures, p120-1, personal collection).

Left, turned ivory kohl pot, post – Meriotic / early medieval, sixth century, found inside a purpose made leather pouch, complete with an iron spatula, detail below. Middle, turned ivory kohl pot with drilled centre, same date as above. It was found in the grave of an adult female. Right a Kushite (Meriotic) kohl pot with lid, found at Sai Island and typical of many found in Meroitic graves. The wood, palisander, is non native to the Nile Valley, and was probably imported from Oman or Asia.

(Source; The British Museum, Ancient Treasures, p 200, p304, and p306).

Below, crown from the post-Meroitic period in Nubia, c. 350-600 AD, incorporating multiple wedjat eyes

(Source Wikipedia)

Below, examples of 19th century ivory kohl containers from Darfur (Sotheby’s).

This is a cultural post for

Women’s Education Partnership

Learn more about our life changing educational work in

Scenes from Our Orphans’ Schooling Programme

Opening Doors

Our University Scholarships

See too Community Literacy, Latest News and At a Glance

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