Every spring, the city of Taif blooms pink and red. 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. These delicate, intensely perfumed 30-petal Damask roses are more than just things of fragrant beauty. They are a crucial part of Taif’s economy and identity.
In the so-called City of Roses, more than 900 rose farms produce well over 300 million flowers every spring season. The harvest is taken to factories across town and distilled into rose water and some of the world’s most expensive rose oil, or attar. With an aroma of powerful complexity, rose water is used as a standalone fragrance or mixed into the perfumes of luxury brands from Chanel to Guerlain.
As part of the Taif Season in August — 11 areas of Saudi Arabia are the focus of events at various ‘seasons’ during the year — a corner of the city’s vibrant Al Rudaf Park transforms into a rose village. In this lively setting, dances, plays and exhibitions are devoted to roses, along with exhibits from rose farmers and producers, while parts of the park are carpeted in the flowers.
Al Gadhi Rose Factory, not far from the center of Taif, is the oldest and biggest rose factory in town. It’s open to visitors during the harvest season, from early March until the end of April, when tourists will also see local farmers queue outside to have their rose petals weighed on antique scales. The factory’s 100 traditional copper alembic pots, housed under a corrugated iron roof, are in near-constant action during this period. Each pot will distil tens of thousands of petals at a time to create a few liters of rose water and, on a good day, a tiny tolah of rose oil — just 80 millilitres but fetching as much as SAR1,600 (almost US$430). In a season, a team of 15 might process close to 100 million rose petals, working almost round the clock. In the central room where guests are greeted under stained-glass windows and chandeliers, the floor is usually covered in a thick layer of rose petals.
The Gadhi family have had a business here for almost a hundred years, refining a centuries-old but notoriously delicate process, especially collecting the pure oil that is considered by many to be the best in Taif. In the 1970s and 80s, King Khalid bin Abdulaziz, ruler of Saudi Arabia, would come to buy the whole season’s oil, and even today sheikhs from the UAE pay huge sums for liters of pure Al Gadhi rose oil, considered a gift of the highest respect in Arabic culture. A tolah of rose oil has also become a classic souvenir for pilgrims travelling to Makkah, where the Yemeni corner of the Grand Mosque’s Holy Kaaba is scented with its aroma.
Why the roses are so special here is, in some ways, a mystery of nature. Sometime after the mid-14th century, they are said to have been brought to Taif from the Balkans and Turkey by traders and entrepreneurs who wanted to grow roses close to Makkah. The seeds themselves were no different to those harvested in Turkey, Bulgaria, Iran or India — but the soil and temperate weather in high-altitude Taif somehow resulted in especially fragrant petals.
This aroma still scents the morning air in Al Hada and Al Shifa during the spring, when farmers wake before sunrise to pick roses with flashlights, because excessive sun exposure will limit the fragrance of the rose petals. Even when the petals are distilled in sealed alembic pots such as those at the Al Gadhi factory, there’s still no guarantee that they will produce rose oil. There remains an almost alchemical magic to the process.
Visitors wanting to buy rose oil or rose water can do so at the Al Gadhi Rose Factory, or at their little shop in Taif’s central market, where a small bottle costs around SAR50 (about $27). The little shop is often manned by Omar and Abdullah Al Gadhi, two of the five second-generation brothers who own Al Gadhi. Opposite that is a little concession of Al Kamal, another old family-owned rose producer, with a factory in Al Hada, a small cafe serving rose tea, and a little garden of knee-high rose bushes. Al Kamal produce a wider range of products than Al Gadhi – everything from lotions to soaps, air fresheners, scented tissues and own-brand perfumes made with attar.
It’s also possible to visit the area’s small-scale farms accompanied by local guides like Khalid Sherbi, whose English is as impeccable as his knowledge of his hometown. There, whether among the apricot trees of the Wadi Mahram valley or the high peaks of Al Shifa, it’s possible to see the soil and the toil that goes into the aroma beloved by pilgrims, sheikhs and kings alike.
The Al Gadhi Rose Factory is open from 9.30am to 2.30pm, Sunday to Thursday. The Al Gadhi and Al Kamal shops can be found in Taif Souq, and are open from 9am to 2pm and 4.30pm to 11pm, Saturday to Thursday.
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