Taif, Saudi Arabia, Asharq Al-Awsat – Al Taif al Ma’nous, or amiable Taif, as people prefer to call it, is a colorful city full of contradictions and is the bride of Saudi summer resorts. Its fertile lands are home to a variety of fruits, such as berries, grapes, apples and pomegranates, and flowers, adding to the freshness of the air. It is crowned by a warm sunshine that reveals the many myths and secrets of this legendary city lying over the Al Sarawat Mountains in western Saudi Arabia.
Famous for the unique scent of its roses and flowers, Taif remains in the memory of its visitors long after they have departed. It is said that whoever forgets to give his beloved a bottle of nectar from Taif does not know the meaning of true love or its secrets. No wedding or joyous occasion is complete without flowers from the resort town.
Obaid al Qureishi, who cultivates roses for a living, told Asharq Al Awsat the flowers of Taif are unparalleled; while Damascene roses are bigger and sometimes more beautiful, the flowers in Taif are distinguished by their strong scent. He also indicated that attempts by large farm owners to plant Damascene roses failed because they were not native to the region. “The secret lies in the [Taif] soil which is watered by rain and dew.”
The suburbs of Taif and its valleys, such as al Huda, al Shafa, al Ghadeerayn and Wadi Mahram, are celebrated for the cultivation of roses, to which farmers turned to because it brings in more revenue than the cultivation of vegetables and wheat. However, this year’s harvest suffered from frost and the production for 2006 is expected to be limited, thereby doubling the price of roses.
Farmers in this Saudi resort city rely on the ancient agricultural calendar and astrology. Sowing begins during the month of Ramadan and lasts for 75 days; farmers dig ridges in the soil where the saplings- carefully cut from roses- are placed and covered with fertilizers. They are watered according to a particular schedule and at certain times of the day and enjoy great care and attention. Harvest begins in April and lasts until the end of May. The height of rose bushes is carefully controlled and reaches a maximum of 1.5 meters. According to al Qureishi, this increases the ratio of roses per bush. On average, one bush will produce 250 roses every day. Picking takes place before sunrise, when roses are usually moist and aromatic. Roses are then sold by the thousand to distillation laboratories for $13 dollars. Mona al Utaybi, a teacher at a school for girls in al Hada, said that, during the harvest season, students race to offer their teachers bouquets of roses every morning. In her opinion, roses are affected by their surroundings. “Farmers with a pure heart and a good soul produce fresh aromatic flowers while those with evil intentions only produce shriveling flowers full of worms,” she said.
Um Ali, a Saudi woman aged 70, recalled the times when women and their daughters would go out to the field and pick roses in the early morning during harvest. “They worked in small groups, standing in horizontal lines while singing the praise of Taif’s roses and competing to cut the largest number of roses.” With the advent of technology and cutting machines, women are no longer seen in the fields and foreign laborers now collect the roses. The streets of Taif are full of vendors showcasing their latest roses and selling fruit to the thousands of visitors who flock to the city.
Rose production is dominated by five families, al Qadi, al Kamal, al Qureishi, al Ghuraybi and al Solhi. Together, they oversee most of the cultivation and laboratories in Taif.
Rose House laboratory, owned by the al Qadi family, is located in a large old building in the al Salamah neighborhood. It is one of the oldest and biggest in the city. Its name derives from the strong aroma that permeates its rooms and extends to the street. Every morning, during harvest, Mohammed Al-Qadi’s four sons, Hassan, Abdullah, Omar and Ibrahim, rise early to receive the caravans of farmers who come to sell their roses.
Abdullah al Qadi meets the farmers at the entrance of the labs prior to the counting and weighing process. Every one thousand roses are bundled together, weighed and placed in large containers made of palm tree leaves or plastic ribbons. Abdullah keeps one rose from each bundle as a record and notes every transaction in a small notebook. During harvest, the al Qadi labs can receive up to a million roses. Over the years, the family has established warm relations with the farmers who do not hesitate to ask for loans; these are usually deducted from the following season’s payments.
After the noon prayer, the roses are aired and spread over 150sq meters, forming a huge bed of roses. Omar and Ibrahim are responsible for the distillation process, which requires much attention and great care, as a small mistake could prove very costly. The labs include 96 copper distillation pots where the roses are boiled in order to release their essence. Pots have a maximum capacity of 20 thousand roses. Each is periodically coated with tin in order to prevent the oxidization of copper. According to Omar, roses from the al Shafa area are generally large compared to these from al Hada, the scent of which is more powerful.
Unlike Oud, which is imported to the Persian Gulf from Burma and Cambodia, rose essence is extracted locally but loses potency with the passing of time, especially if exposed to light and heat. Omar’s advice was to remove the plastic covering from the bottle and then close it firmly because plastic interacts unfavorably with the essence thereby affecting its intensity. The al Qadi laboratories concentrate more on the production of rose water than essence and they are Saudi Arabia’s largest producers, exporting surplus product to Gulf countries.
Rose water has many uses, including in the baking of Arab pastries and as a flavoring to drinking water. There are two types of rose water: the first is stored in small 250ml bottles and costing $2.5 US dollars and the more expensive kind, which costs $9 US dollars, used for weddings and receptions across the Persian Gulf. During celebrations, guests are sprinkled by rose water using a special ornate watering can. Women also use rose water to cleanse their faces and nourish their skin, sometimes adding it to body masks to give them a powerful rose smell. In Taif, rose water is believed to cure mild depression. Rose water and rose essence are also used to wash the Holy Kaaba twice a year, as a sign of the great care that befalls the most sacred of sacred Islamic objects.
Ibrahim al Qadi revealed how best to identify the authentic rose essence saying, “The authentic essence is known for its powerful unique aroma. It has a yellowish color, sometimes even slightly greenish. The greener it looks, the worse the quality becomes. The essence is not glutinous like oil and does not stain the skin or clothes when applied as perfume. Contrary to popular belief, the aroma does not last for very long as it is absorbed by the skin.”
“One small bottle of 11.7 grams of authentic nectar requires approximately forty thousand roses and is usually sold for roughly 1500 Saudi Riyals (400 US Dollars).” Al Qadi states that some sellers increase the prices intentionally so that the customer believes that he is purchasing high quality nectar. He adds that there are no degrees of quality in authentic Taif nectar; it is either good or bad. He says, “Good quality nectar is taken from around forty thousand flowers that have not been boiled more than twice as the more the flowers have been boiled the more affect this has on the quality of the nectar. Bad quality nectar is that which has been taken from less than forty thousand flowers that have been boiled several times.”
Taif is one of the oldest cities in the world. It is difficult to find a book on the Arabian Peninsula that does not mention this city. Taif neighbors the holy city of Mecca. Its heritage and natural and ancient monuments hold many stories for the generations to come.
Taif is home to famous valleys such as Wadi Al-Naml that was visited by King Solomon and the holy valley of Wadi Wej where the Prophet Mohammed prohibited any hunting or for anyone to cut down its trees or to threaten its wildlife. South of the city is Okaz market, one the most famous Arab markets. The city was also home to some of the Prophet’s companions such as Abdullah Ibn Abbas. In addition, Hajjaj Ibn Yusuf Thaqafi, a tyrannical leader of the Arabs had lived there. The city was of much importance to the Muslim Caliphs and it was believed that the first Ummayad Caliph Muawiyyah told the governor of Taif, Saeed Ibn Al Aas that he was blessed as he had “spent the summer in Taif, the winter in Mecca and spring in Jeddah.”