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. Because of the altitude at which they’re grown, these delicate, intensely perfumed 30-petal wonders are a little fresher in character than traditional Damask roses. Moreover, they are a crucial part of Taif’s economy and identity.
In the so-called City of Roses, more than 900 rose farms produce more than 300 million flowers every spring. The harvest is taken to factories across town and distilled into some of the world’s most expensive rose oil, or attar, as well as rose water, which is mixed into the perfumes of luxury brands from Givenchy to Jimmy Choo.
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.
Al Gadhi Rose Factory, not far from the center of Taif, is one of the oldest and biggest rose factories 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 distill 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 12 grams 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 has had a business here for almost 100 years, refining a centuries-old but notoriously delicate process — particularly 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, was known to buy the whole season’s oil. Today, visitors from the United Arab Emirates pay huge sums for liters of pure Al Gadhi rose oil, which is considered to be a gift of the highest respect in Arabic culture. A tolah of rose oil has also become a classic souvenir for pilgrims traveling 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 from those planted in Turkey, Bulgaria, Iran or India — but the microclimate created by Taif’s altitude resulted in especially fragrant petals. This aroma still scents the morning air in Al Hada and Al Shafa during the spring, when farmers wake before sunrise to pick roses by flashlight, since excessive sun exposure will diminish the fragrance of the rose petals.
A magical type of alchemy is also responsible for determining whether the roses produce oil. Even when the petals are distilled in sealed alembic pots, such as those at the Al Gadhi factory, there’s no guarantee that they will produce rose oil.
Visitors wanting to buy rose oil or rose water can do so at the Al Gadhi Rose Factory, or at Al Gadhi’s little shop in Taif’s central market, where a small bottle costs around SAR50 (about US$13). The little shop is often manned by Omar and Abdullah Al Gadhi, two of the five second-generation brothers who own Al Gadhi. Opposite the shop is a concession stand run by Al Kamal (another old family-owned rose producer, with a factory in Al Hada, that makes everything from lotions, soaps, air fresheners and scented tissues to its own brand of perfumes made with attar); in it, you’ll find a cafe serving rose tea and a small garden of knee-high rose bushes.
It’s also possible to visit the area’s small farms accompanied by local guides like Khalid Sherbi, whose English is as impeccable as his knowledge of his hometown. “Taif is simultaneously one of Saudi Arabia’s largest, yet coziest cities. What I love most about Taif is the amount of diversity we have in one city — diversity in agriculture, folkloric dances, dress, and even accents! And, of course, the geographic diversity. We have mountains, valleys, hills, and deserts within 50 kilometers of each other.”
Whether among the apricot trees of the Wadi Mahram valley or the high peaks of Al Shafa, it’s possible to take in the full breadth of what goes into the aroma of the famed roses beloved by pilgrims, sheikhs and kings alike.