A STAR IS BORN
Although the rose is nothing new to the fragrance world, which can be dated back to as early as the 9th century, according to al-Kindi, who was a philosopher that provided the first description of the rose petal distillation in the Middle East. What began around 330 years ago would become a phenomena that none could have imagined. Legends have it that what would become one of the most prized roses actually originated in India. Perhaps this rose, during its migration, found its way to Shiraz and Kashan. These two lands occupy the Persian regions, where rose plantations were developed. This mystery came about, because the Kazanluk Rose’s (a Turkish Rose) lineage can be traced back to the Persian areas. This rose’s resemblance would re-appear in Taif, Saudi Arabia, around the 14th century, when the Turks brought it with them from the Balkans.
Taif, located in western Saudi Arabia, nearby the holy city of Mecca, is one of the oldest cities in the world. Taif is an elevated land, around 1,879 meters on the slopes of the Sarawat Mountains. Taif has always been known for its many valleys, qualitative irrigation systems, and very fertile land. This is one reason it is the center of an agricultural area known for its vegetables and crops; more specifically its grapes and honey. Because of its cooler climate conditions, many of Saudi’s residents move to this area, during the summer months, to escape the heat. These same temperatures attribute to the perfect conditions for growing ‘Rosa Damascena Trigintipetala’, ‘The Taif Rose’. In the time of the Ottoman Empire, this region was named “The Arabian Rose”. For centuries the richest crop of all has been its roses…the rose named ‘Ward al-Taifi’.
Ward al-Taifi, or Taif Rose spawned from the Damask Rose and many have suggested that the Damask Rose was named after the city of Damascus. Both Turkey and Bulgaria have been tied to the countries of this rose’s origin. Ward al-Taifi, like its Turkish relative, grows as a small 1-2 meter thorny bush, with white-like hairy leaves, and pink 30-petal blossoms. The Damask Rose is known in the West, by its deep and intense fragrance and the Ward al-Taifi is known for the same properties in the Arabian World. However, the latter’s fragrance is much more intense.
There is a story that attributes to the acute fragrance of the rose that would later be known as Ward al-Taifi. Jahangir, the fourth Mughal Emperor of India, who reigned between the 16th and 17th centuries, credited the discovery of ‘attar’ (an Arabic word derived from ‘Ittr’ meaning, ‘perfume’ or ‘essence’) to his mother-in-law, Asmat Begum, the mother of his wife Noor Jehan. While making rosewater, she poured hot water into a kettle filled with rose petals, when a scum appeared. As she collected the scum, she discovered that its scent was so strong; it was as if a whole bouquet of roses were blooming at the same time. The Emperor, so overjoyed by the beauty of the scent, rewarded Asmat Begum with a string of pearls. In return, she named the rose oil—‘Itr-i-Jahangiri’. Other legends suggest the rose oil was discovered by Noor Jehan herself—a bath of rose petals were left overnight to cool and when she lay in the water she discovered the fragrance oil on the water’s surface.
Every year about 2000 farms around Taif will produce over one hundred million roses collectively. During the springtime, in the month of April, these roses will begin to bloom. This is the time local farmers will begin, just before sunrise, gathering these fresh flowers. The collection of these roses must be achieved, prior to them blossoming. The reason for this is to capture the rose’s precious; delicate essential oil, before it evaporates. Once the sun has risen, temperatures become too warm and much of the rose oil will be lost. After the roses are picked, they are taken to distilleries in Taif, where they are weighed and poured into copper pots. Water is then added to the roses and simmered for six hours. The distillation process creates droplets of essential oil, which are then distilled again, eventually producing the prized attar. The ‘gathering process’ has become much more sophisticated than it once was. More than two centuries ago, when the Taif Rose petals were collected, they were sealed and transported on camels for 65 kilometers, to Mecca, where the rose oil was produced by Indian distillers. The rose oil production has dramatically improved, in the way of preventing the loss of fragrant oil that frequently occurred during transport, because of the short time that rose oil evaporates. Soon after, distilleries were established in Taif and Ward al-Taifi became famous across the Arabian world. Pilgrims coming from the East would often detour their routes, through Taif, just to buy the exquisite rose oil.
Today rose oil production in Taif, although of the highest quality, is dwarfed by the quantities produced by other exporters in Turkey, Bulgaria, Russia, China, Morocco, and Iran. Even with all of these exporters, the market is not oversaturated. The Taif Rose remains expensive and considered a favorite for its intensely strong fragrance. Even the smallest amount given as a gift, is considered the highest compliment anyone can pay.