“Rose is sent to earth by the gardeners of paradise for
empowering the mind and the eye of the spirit”
The Queen of Flowers
An enduring symbol of love and devotion since ancient times, the exquisite rose is the queen of flowers, reigning over her floral kingdom for nearly 40 million years.
The intoxicating aroma of this fragrant bloom renders a scent that is like no other. A scent that was sacred to Aphrodite and Venus – the Greek and Roman goddesses of love – and to the Egyptian Queen of the Nile, Cleopatra.
The rose spans a vast array of cultures and religions but it is the Damask rose which is the most highly prized in perfumery. It’s typically sourced from Bulgaria, where it has been cultivated for more than 330 years, and Isparta in Turkey.
The Saudi Arabian Rose
However in Taif, a mountainous region in Mecca in Saudia Arabia, a landscape rich with pomegranate, figs and honey, there is another variant: Rosa damascena trigintipetala – better known as wardh taifi.
It remains a mystery how the 30-petal wardh taifi arrived in Taif.
With similarities to the famous Bulgarian Kazanlik rose, some say it was brought to Saudi Arabia by the Ottoman Turks, who once ruled a vast empire over much of the Arabian peninsula. Others claim that it came from the Persian rose plantations around Shiraz and Kashan, or even India.
Regardless of how it arrived in the highlands of Saudi Arabia, there are few aromas as revered in the Islamic world.
With its deeply floral, honeyed notes, Taif rose symbolises nobility in the Middle East.
The precious essence of Taif rose is intertwined with Islamic culture, most notably in the twice-yearly ceremonial washing of the holy Kaaba in the Grand Mosque of Mecca, which uses the highest-quality rose oil.
Even 16th-century Ottoman poet Hakani once described the Prophet Muhammad’s divine aroma as akin to a fragrant rose:
“That inclined face was like a rose-petal [and] smelled pleasant as it perspired”
Because Taif rose is so exceptionally rare – with anywhere between 10,000 and 15,000 hand-picked roses creating just a small vial of oil – it is the ultimate gesture to honour a guest with a dab on their wrist or bestow a newly-married couple with a vial as a wedding gift.
A pink rose painted at the end of Hilye-i Şerif by 16th-century Ottoman poet Mehmet Hakani
The Rose of the Prophet: Floral Metaphors in Late Ottoman Devotional Art by Christiane Gruber
© Süleymaniye Kütüphanesi
The rose season in Taif
Every April, the terraced fields of Taif transform with pink, fragrant flowers. However, the season is fleeting, lasting just a month.
Just as fleeting is the harvest, which takes place well before dawn to prevent the heat from the sun to cause the volatile rose oils to evaporate.
Once the hand-picked blooms are gathered in baskets, they are taken to local distilleries where the flowers are sorted, weighed and distilled in giant copper alembics. Today in Taif, there are only a handful of rose distillers producing a fraction of the oil extracted in Bulgaria, Turkey or Iran. However, a few centuries ago, Taif rose petals were not distilled in Taif at all. They were gathered and transported by camel caravan to the Muslim holy city of Mecca where artisanal Indian distillers were responsible for gently pressing the flowers and extracting the precious oil to craft magnificent aromatic blends known as attars.
Today, distillers use the process of steam distillation, which releases the essential oil into vapour. Once the vapour condenses and cools, the rose absolute essential oil separates from the rose water, the globules of oil rising to the surface, where they are carefully syringed away.
This highly prized oil is then collected and sold – usually in the form of a "tolah" – a small glass vial of 11.7 grams.
The price of a tolah will vary according to season and quality, and later according to age, but it is common to see tolahs of Taif oil sold for upwards of $800 in some perfume houses in Dubai.
The finest oil – usually just a handful of vials brought back from the latest harvest – is the most expensive, and is often hidden away beneath the counter.