Every spring roses bloom in the western Saudi city of Taif, turning pockets of the Kingdom’s vast desert landscape a vivid & fragrant pink. In April, they are harvested for the essential oil used to cleanse the walls of the sacred Kaaba in Makkah.
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Thanks to its favorable climate, Taif is home to nearly a thousand rose farms, with aromatic blossoms stretching from Wadi Mahram to Al-Hada. This is perhaps why the city of Taif is no stranger to festivals themed around roses.
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The Arabic word for rose is pronounced warda and written ﻭَﺭﺩَﺓ
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Every spring, farmers head to the fields to harvest beautiful rose petals. They pick tens of thousands of flowers each day to produce rose water and oil, also prized components in the cosmetic and culinary industries.
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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.
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The perfumed oil has become popular among the millions of Muslims who visit the Kingdom every year for pilgrimages.
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Known as the city of roses, with approximately 300 million blooms every year, Taif has more than 800 flower farms, many of which have opened their doors to visitors.
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However, a few centuries ago Taif rose petals were not distilled in Taif at all. They were gathered & transported by camel caravan to the Muslim holy city of Mecca where artisanal Indian distillers were responsible for gently pressing the flowers & extracting the precious oil.
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First, the rose bushes blossom in the valley of Wadi Mahram, then higher up in Al Hada, and finally at 2,500 meters in Al Shafa, the mountains to the south of the city.
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In Taif, a mountainous region in Mecca in Saudia Arabia, a landscape rich with pomegranate, figs and honey, there is a rose variant: Rosa damascena trigintipetala – better known as wardh taifi.
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It remains a mystery how the 30-petal wardh taifi arrived in Taif.
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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 & Kashan, or India.
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Regardless of how it arrived in the highlands of Saudi Arabia, there are few aromas as revered in the Islamic world.
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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.
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During the Hajj (Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca) the Kiswah is sprinkled with rose water, and also according to the belief, upon conquering Istanbul in 1453, Sultan Mehmet II had the Aya Sophia washed with rose water before converting it into a mosque.
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In Islam, the rose is known as the flower of Heaven. Some perceive roses as symbols of the human soul so, the beautiful scent of the rose is associated with spirituality.
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Revered 11th century Persian physician Ibn Sina was one of the first scientists to emphasize the therapeutic effect of the rose scent on the heart and brain. He wrote, “Because of its exquisite fragrance, the rose addresses the soul.”
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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.
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Countries like Morocco, Syria, India & France, grow & harvest the Damask rose in much larger quantities than Taif, growing in thousands of farms. Still, Taif’s ‘humble’ amount of roses produces the valued rose water (used in cooking, tea & coffee) & rose oil used in perfume.
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A corner of the city’s vibrant Al Rudaf Park transforms into a rose village once a year. In this stunning setting, dances, plays and exhibitions are devoted to roses, alongside displays from rose farmers and producers, while parts of the park are carpeted in the flowers.
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Even though the city of Taif is miles away from France, the phrase 'La Vie en Rose' can express the beauty and joy that Taif roses illuminate. A joy that must be experienced at least once in a lifetime.
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