Photos and article
by Chiara Ciampricotta Iacoangeli
For centuries, people have gone to al-Taif, high in the Sarawat Mountains, to escape the summer heat and enjoy the cool, lush scenery in a relaxed atmosphere. But the southwestern city really comes to life when the curtain opens on the most important event of the year, the annual Rose Festival.
A passionate local guide, Ahmad Aljuaed, took us with him to discover the most interesting aspects of the festival. The origins of the event, Aljuaed said, can be traced back to the agricultural nature of the city now more famous for its roses than its fruit and vegetables. The idea of celebrating the roses started with a special festival in 2005 and is now held every April.
A rose by any other name
The rose variety grown in al-Taif is called the Damask rose, whose flowers are renowned for their fine fragrance. The city has an abundance of water and a mild climate. There are many stories about the rose’s origins, one of which says that in the past pilgrims used to present them as gifts to the rulers of nearby Makkah.
From the first days of March until mid- May, which marks the end of the season, the farms and factories open their doors to visitors. The festival is held for two weeks in the largest parks, where there are spectacular rose displays, rose products, competitions, and plays. Tourists are welcomed with sprinkles of rose petals, Arabic coffee and tea mixed with rose water, traditional meals, popular songs, and folklore shows.
The number of visitors increases every year, and more than 50,000 people attend each day. Unfortunately, the festival was canceled this year, as it was last year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the farms and factories still opened their doors to visitors while taking the appropriate health and safety measures.
A short life, a thorny end
The roses go through a life cycle that begins in December, when farmers prune the rose bushes, and then prepare them for the season by applying fertilizer. From the beginning of March, the rose harvest begins each sunrise and the heads are then transported quickly to the traditional factories.
Weighing the roses is still performed in the traditional manner using a system of manual scales and baskets. In the same way, the price negotiations have also been maintained — fixed on 1,000 roses to a lot — and agreed between farmers and factory owners.
The traditional production process sees roses placed in copper pots with water and sealed. They are boiled for 8 hours to produce water and natural rose fragrance without chemical additives.
Scents and sensibility
The number of products made from roses is increasing every year thanks to the development of the industry and new technologies, and they have very different prices depending upon their distillate concentration.
The purest rose perfume is the most expensive at SR1,500 for 10 ml, then in descending order of price, pure rose water for skin, rose water to drink, and then shampoos, creams, incense, perfumes, and sterilizers.
Aljuaed, a tour guide since 2007, said there is a daily festival schedule starting with a farm visit in the early morning, a local breakfast, then a factory visit to see the production process, and in the evening it’s the festival itself.
The al-Taif Rose Festival is a vivid celebration of color and scent, and when you open the cap of an essential rose oil bottle, the aroma will float you back to the garden of the Hijaz.
— The Arabian Sun: May 5, 2021 | Vol. LXXVI, No. 18