Henna’s historical trail begins in ancient Egypt. Modern Egypt remains one of the
main commercial suppliers of the plant, as do the parts of Sudan corresponding with
ancient Nubia. Egypt’s associations with henna are confirmed by its botanical
nickname Egyptian privet. The term “henna” derives from the Arabic, al khanna.
There is a hieroglyph, pouquer, which is believed to indicate the henna plant. The
term mehndi, used synonymously for henna, derives from the Sanskrit mehandika.
Much of the modern revival of henna derives from its popularity in India and
Pakistan. It is believed, however, that the plant arrived in India as a gift from Egypt
and there is much debate as to when it actually arrived on the subcontinent, perhaps
Archaeological research indicates henna was used in ancient Egypt to stain the
fingers and toes of Pharaohs prior to mummification. But research also argues the
Pharaohs were not the only Egyptians to use henna. Ancient Egyptians and many
indigenous and aboriginal people around the world believed that the naturally
derived red substances of ochre, blood and henna had qualities that improved human
awareness of the earth’s energies. It was therefore applied to help people keep in
Ani, a mummified scribe (1400BC), had fingernails stained with henna. There are
also several medieval paintings depicting The Queen of Sheba decorated with henna
on her journey to meet Solomon.
People all over the world continue to use henna, primarily for cosmetic purposes.
However, in countries where henna is rooted in historical tradition, members of the
working class more commonly apply henna for medicinal and healing purposes, as
In Cairo, Egypt, for example, many working class citizens had their hands and feet
dipped in henna to produce a solid covering, which differs from the common
decorative design that is usually applied for weddings and other celebrations.