When the late Saudi singer Talal Maddah sang these famous, eternal words,
وردك يا زارع الورد’
…وردك جميل محلاه فتح على غصنه
‘على الجمال سلطان
‘Your flowers oh planter of flowers
How beautiful they are! They’ve blossomed on their branches…
The sultan of beauty’,
he was referring to the flowers of Ta’if, a city in Saudi Arabia’s Mecca Province.
Every spring, Ta’if witnesses the blossoming of millions of roses. Legend has it that seedlings of these roses came from modern day Turkey approximately 250 years ago, as a gift from the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire to the Sharif of Mecca. It was determined that the most climatically appropriate place to grow them was on the cool flat lands of Ta’if’s mountains, which rise more than 1,800 meters above sea level.
The pink flowers settled well into their new home, faithfully blossoming generation after generation. Ta’ifi farmers made rudimentary fragrances from them over the years. However, it wasn’t until an Indian rosewater producer visited the area (year unknown), and introduced the locals to the technique of extracting rosewater and oil from the flowers, that rosewater and fragrance began to be mass-produced by the farmers.
The 800 to 1000 farms are responsible for the rosewater that is sold in Saudi markets (as well as in the wider Gulf region and some parts of the world), and that is used as an ingredient in coffee, tea, and various local foods, as well as on the body for beauty maintenance, in addition to the oil, much of which is exported to international fragrance houses in Europe.
Our Omani photo-storyteller, Adnan Al Balushi, was given access to visit one of the rose farms earlier this month. Though a number are open for tourists, this farm, one of the oldest in the Al Hada , and which belongs to Al Sharif Sultan Al Idrisi, remains private.
Guided by Khalid Al Gharibi, one of the Sharif’s family members, we find out more about the astonishing number of flowers that blossom everyday as he walks us through the process of distilling rosewater and oil.
The rose season in Ta’if begins in March and lasts approximately 40 days. Khalid, who is 27 years old, has been working on his family’s farm since childhood, having inherited this occupation from his forefathers.
The roses begin to blossom everyday after sunrise, as a result of the heat the sun emits. They are plucked immediately to preserve their fragrance.
Roughly 20,000 to 30,000 roses are picked daily in their farm during the season, says Khalid.
The roses are transported to the workshop, where they are weighed in accordance with the requirements of a special mathematical formula before the distillation process can begin.
The weighed roses are then placed inside large brass pots, in which they are heated for several hours. The vapor that emerges is cooled and drips into jars attached from the back.
The distillation process results in liters of rosewater. At the top of each glass jar, a thin layer of rose oil rises.
It takes about 15,000 roses to produce just a tola, or 12 ml, of this fragrant oil, says Khalid. This is what gives the pure Ta’ifi oil its high price, which is sold for up to 5,000 Saudi Riyals or 1,300 USD, per tola , by Saudi perfumers Abdul Samad Al Qurashi. In addition to being shipped to international perfume brands, the oil is used on the Holy Kaaba to give it a fragrant smell.
Adnan Al Balushi is a photo storyteller from Oman.