Kohl is a black powdery substance made from galena, an ore that is the source of the mineral lead. Galena ore was found near the Nile River at the city of Aswan, in present-day southeast Egypt, and on the banks of the Red Sea, among other places. Egyptian rulers sent expeditions to bring back the ore, which was made into sticks of the dark powder and used to make thick dark lines around the eyes. Cosmetics were an important part of the ancient Egyptian costume, and rich and poor alike used kohl to darken their eyes. The kohl used by poorer workers was made in sticks, while the wealthy kept their kohl in ornate boxes made of precious materials and often carved in beautiful shapes. Small amounts of kohl were taken from the box and mixed with animal fats to make it easier to paint on the face.
In ancient Egypt kohl was used as a cosmetic to outline the eyes with a dramatic black line. While makeup was valued as a beauty aid, most cosmetics had other uses as well. The dark eyeliner gave some protection from the bright Egyptian sun, and the galena also helped to keep insects away from the eyes. Kohl had a religious purpose, too. Ancient Egyptians used large drawings of an eye to symbolize the eye of the god Horus—the Egyptian god of healing, among other things—and believed that the drawings would protect them. Many historians think that Egyptians believed that outlining their own eyes would help them carry the protection of the gods with them. Kohl became a popular cosmetic once again during the 1920s, when an "Egyptian look" came into fashion in the United States and Europe, and it is still used as eyeliner in many Eastern countries.
Balkwill, Richard. Clothes and Crafts in Ancient Egypt. Milwaukee, WI: Gareth Stevens, 2000.
Harris, Nathaniel. Everyday Life in Ancient Egypt. Danbury, CT: Franklin Watts, 1994.