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The Mystery of Kohl

Egypt 3500 BC to the present

As I revisit the photographs I took of the tailor’s family for my upcoming book, Modern Nomad: Into the Heart of the Silk Road, Afghanistan 1977, kohl captivated my imagination, since all the women of the tailor’s family wore kohl, including the baby (photo above.) The ancient “eyeliner” was used as medicine, beauty, and for protection against the “evil eye.”  I had to know more….

From the TAILOR’S FAMILY Chapter:

During a lunch at the tailor’s house, I was honored to be given permission to photograph the family. When I saw the precious baby girl sitting up with a grape in each hand, I quietly moved in closer. I was enchanted by the kohl lining her lovely big eyes, as well as other markings with kohl and tattoos on her face. The deep black outlines around her eyes made them even more beautiful. No wonder kohl was used as a cosmetic eye-liner throughout history, since black-outlined eyes become dramatic, alluring, and enchanting.

Tailor’s Family, “Waiting for Lunch” © JOANNE WARFIELD

Decades later as I am writing this book, I decided I wanted to dig deeper into the history behind the use of kohl and was curious how the women, girls, and baby of the tailor’s family began wearing it. I knew the tailor’s family were from the Kuchi tribal peoples, and recently learned that the use of kohl was part of their tradition. Kohl was used as preventive medicine. It was used to cut down on the U.V. rays from the stark, bright deserts which they would cross on their migrations. Its use almost becomes mythological, as its story is deeply integrated into the way of life and the cultures of the people who used it.

While in Afghanistan, I decided to give this mysterious and dramatic black substance a try and bought some from a local “cosmetic” shop. The applicator was a small wooden wand which was dipped into the powdered kohl and run along the inside edges of the eyelids.  Ancient Egyptians used more luxurious materials of brass or hand-blown glass for their wands.  To get the powder on the inside of my eyelids I had to close my eye on the wand and drag it across.  I loved it and wore it for years. Now, here in the US, I use a safe eyeliner pencil with the same dragging technique as I did with the kohl (which gives some people the jitters). Perhaps I’m a nomad at heart.


The use of kohl can be traced back to 3500 BC to the ancient Egyptians and the ancient (and mysterious) kingdom of Punt on the Horn of Africa. Cleopatra, the pharaohs, and noble women all wore kohl around their eyes, as did the nomadic Toureg and Bedouins. It was originally used for prevention of eye ailments but was also thought to protect from “the evil eye.” The use spread about Central and South Asia, the Mediterranean, Horn of Africa, and India, where it has a variety of names and is still seen lining eyes today.

Galena eye paint (later termed kohl in Arabic, from the Akkadian word for the cosmetic) was widely used in Ancient Egypt. It was derived from a natural mineral form of lead sulfide. Upper eyelids were painted black and lower ones were colored green (from malachite), as depicted in ancient texts that describe the use of both. Ancient graves from the pre-historic Tasian culture point to the early application of galena in Egypt, a custom stretching from the Badarian period through to the Coptic era.


The Louvre Museum in Paris has a 4th-century-AD dilekythos, a double blown-glass cosmetic tube for kohl in its collection (see below). Makeup was applied with an ivory, bronze, or glass stick. As a substance, kohl has always been culturally precious. Ancient Emirati women were buried with at least three things as the essentials for the afterlife: jewelry, pottery, and seashells containing kohl. A wonderful variety of unique kohl-container styles are still being found throughout the Middle East, North and West Africa, the Horn of Africa, and South Asia.

In Egypt, the 18th Dynasty saw an increase in domestic comforts and a growing taste for luxury. The wealthy embellished their homes with elegant utilitarian objects, including cosmetic pots, which had always been an important part of Egyptian life. This miniature jar from the period is shaped as a Nubian slave figure and still contains traces of the kohl.  The various shapes and types of kohl containers reflect the culture that was using it and makes a wonderful study on its own.

Kohl pot in the form of a Nubian porter
© Musée du Louvre/C. Décamps


Kohl was and is still used in many celebrations such as weddings, special initiations, and dances.  All members of the family might wear it — men, women, and children.

In Punjabi culture, surma is a traditional ceremonial dye, which predominantly men of the Punjab wear around their eyes on special social or religious occasions. It is usually applied by the wife or the mother of the person.

A Varanasi food seller with his granddaughter wearing kohl.

The Prophet Muhammed used kohl and recommended others to use it because he believed that it was beneficial for the eyes, and it is used by Muslim men today during Ramadan as a sign of devotion. Curiously, the Prophet used to apply kohl to his right eye three times, and twice to his left eye. Tradition runs deep, as this use of kohl began around 610 CE when Muhammed began teaching.

In the Wodaabe Tribe, men’s vanity reaches for new heights of beauty. The Wodaabe tribe, who live in the Sahel, come together each year for arguably the most intense beauty pageant in the world: the Wife-Stealing Festival. The men (who are never seen without a mirror) wear special colors of makeup all over their faces with white graphic designs, black lips, and lots of kohl eyeliner that they each create.  All the men wear dresses and do a wild dance where their liberally kohl-outlined eyes dart back and forth to attract women. Their goal is to “steal” as many wives as possible and take them into the bush. The women are in charge throughout the ceremony, for it is they who get to choose who they fancy and can make off with as many husbands as they wish.  In this realm, kohl is king…  or queen, depending on your point of view 😉


Currently, kohl is not considered safe in the U.S. These formulae are for historical information only.

A very simple formula:

In rural Bengal, kajal (kohl) is made from the “Monosha” plant, a type of succulent spurge (Euphorbia neriifolia). The leaf of Monosha is covered with oil and is kept above a burning DIY mud lamp. Within minutes, the leaf is covered with creamy, soft black soot which is so safe and sterile that it is even used on infants.

In Afghanistan, women use a mixture of pounded antimony and almond oil to make kohl. Antimony is believed to strengthen the eyes.

Koh is still used in Ayurvedic medicine for healing, and in Southern India in particular, women of the household prepare the kajal, adding various beneficial herbs to the formula. Local tradition considers it to be a very good coolant for the eyes. It is also used for eye infections and conjunctivitis, as a protectant from the heat and glare of the sun in the desert, and shielding the eyes against dust and sandstorms.

In the 18th Dynasty, Ancient Egyptian Queen Hastshepsut ground charred frankincense into her kohl eyeliner.  In addition to preventing eye infections, this formula kept the flies away which were the main cause of transmitted eye disease. The Egyptians historically used sulfide of antimony rather than lead.

There is a lot of controversy about the safeness of various formulae of kohl.  Much of this is being researched and still disputed today. It has been thought that the traditional use of lead sulfide raises lead levels in the blood.  Others feel it is non-harmful and even beneficial at low levels. I’m sure there are “safe” versions, but research needs to continue to verify this. What is called “kohl” by U.S. manufacturers in makeup is not the real thing, it’s merely lifting the name.


The film actress Theda Bara used kohl to rim her eyes throughout her career.  She was thought of as one of cinema’s earliest sex symbols.  Her “femme fatale” roles earned her the nickname The Vamp (short for vampire).  She made over 40 films.  Her eyes were her big feature.

Charlie Chaplin in “The Tramp” (1915) wore kohl for a “comical effect.’’

Rudolph Valentino, known as the “Great Lover” of the 1920’s, was masterful in applying classic kohl pigment for his “vampy” heartthrob look.

Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards attributes his use of kohl to the Semi-nomadic tribes of North Africa, where he vacationed frequently in the late 1960’s.

In 1972 Mick Jagger wore kohl as he rocked the glamour look.  His slightly effervescent cat eyes made his audience swoon.

Johnny Depp, as Jack Sparrow in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films, wore kohl around his eyes.

And nobody did makeup like Bowie.

Ziggy Stardust
View this wonderful tribute to David by Vogue Magazine

In the song “Miss Sarajevo” by U2, a line asks, “Is there a time for kohl and lipstick? / a time for curling hair / is there a time for High Street shopping? / to find the right dress to wear.”

Edward Gorey wrote: “The Wanton, though she knows its dangers / must needs smear kohl about her eyes / and wake the interest of strangers / with long-drawn, hoarse, erotic sighs.”

In 2009, fashion designer Tom Ford directed “A Single Man” and the character Charley (Julianne Moore) wore kohl to prepare for her date.

So the myth and use of kohl continues today. Look around to see if you can spot “kohl” users. Moi included:



Bharatanatyama Dancers

Nubian Pots


History: Men Wearing Eyeliner (& Kohl)

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