Roses of Oman
When you think of the Middle East do you think of lush green mountains, delicate rose petals, smoky rose water, a skilled craftsman, plantation owner and his tiny grandson? Perhaps you should.
In this region the roses of Jabal Al Akhdar (the Green Mountain) are practically famous. The rose water made from these roses is popular because of its intense purity, clarity and smoky scent. Rose water is used for medicine, cosmetics and as a flavoring. I have encountered it in refreshing face sprays, coffee and hawala (a black gelatin desert).
The rose season is short. The soft pink petals bloom in April and May. I recently went on a trip to the Green Mountain to learn about the process of making rose water.
After a two-hour drive from Muscat we arrived at the military guard post at the base of the mountain. Here you must provide your identification card and have a 4-wheel drive vehicle. The 4-wheel drive is strictly enforced for the climb to 2,980 meters and you’ll be thankful for it on the steep descent when you return.
We climbed the mountain, turned off the main road and parked the car at the bottom of a hillside village. We walked through the nearest alleyway and up some steep narrow stone stairs. We passed one set of stairs, then two, then three. After the fourth set we stepped into a single-wide, sunlight street. I turned left and right, but there were no cars or people in either direction. More uneven stairs were ahead. These went up five, then turned to the right before increasing by three more and stopping in front of a green metal door. You wouldn’t have known this door from any other had you not been there before.
The tour guide knocked. A gapped toothed old man, wrinkled and tanned, opened the door. His salt and pepper hair was curly and wild. He wore a long wrap around his waste and an old t-shirt. He welcomed the guide, “sister,” in Arabic. He spoke no English and her Arabic was basic but efficient. He chatted with her just inside the doorway as a few of us filed in behind them.
We were immediately face to face with the seemingly small cauldrons cooking the rose petals. The deep smoke burned my throat on the first inhale and I hid a cough. The heat in this small space was intense. As I stood listening to the greetings my legs were roasting. I shifted my weight trying to inch my legs away from the flame, which was beginning to devour a log half sticking out of the stove.
The tiny entrance that housed this stove was only wide enough for people to pass one another carefully. There wasn’t much space between my legs and that heat.
According to our tour guide, there are only seven heritage rose water makers remaining in Oman. Those traditional makers use a wood fire to heat the roses. This creates a very smoky room and equally deep smoky rose water.
Our guide and the rose maker finished their greetings and we were motioned into the second room. This room was only slightly larger than the cubical I sat in during my 9-5 office job. The space was maybe 10 feet by 14 feet. Maybe less. My cubical housed a desk, a computer, files and a chair. This space was quite a bit different.
There was standing room only for the ten of us. The room had a workbench on one end, a small cot on one side and the rest of the room was surrounded by deep round pottery housing rose water as it settled. The middle of the room was clothed in a thin rug. Nestled on top of the rug laid soft pink roses. There were hundreds of roses.
The flowers were picked from the bud, carried home in a basket, and then tossed onto a perfectly neat carpet. The roses were sprinkled lightly with water to maintain their fresh aroma until their turn in the stove. The room was dark and cool. Everything was dusty except those roses. The entire space existed just for them.
These two rooms were the extent of the building. The craftsman is known to stay here 24/7 with his roses. He must change the petals in the stove every three hours for the entire season.
The process to create rose water starts on the stove. Imagine a small cauldron shaped like a bulbous vase with a round bottom, a thin neck and a wide opening at the top. The cauldron is inset into a wooden stove. The wide rim keeps it from falling through. The fire is enclosed except for a small hole on the side to feed the wood.
Inside the cauldron are rose petals and on top of the petals, a small copper bowl. The cauldron is sealed with another copper bowl full of cool water. The damp rose petals are heated creating steam. As the steam touches the second cooler bowl on top, it condenses and water droplets fall into the empty copper bowl inside. After three hours the bowl is removed and the process is started again. The rose water that is removed from the flame is placed into the pots that sit around his workshop. The water sits in those pots for up to 30 days allowing the sentiment to settle out. It’s filtered and bottled. You can purchase the bottles from his workbench. The bottle I purchased is glass, and has a small sticker on the front written in Arabic. The lid is sealed with tape.
I wished I could sit in this space and watch the whole process, but with ten of us inside the craftsman couldn’t get much done. Our translator helped us ask questions, we took pictures and chatted amongst ourselves about the items around the room. We were all surprised when the quiet craftsman grabbed a fancy glass bottle and splashed our hair with rose water laughing, delighted, each time he caught one of us unaware. It was a lovely experience, but we only stayed a short while in his storybook sized workshop before we were off to tour the plantation.
As we left the old man’s grandson slid into the cottage door. He was adorably shy. The grandfather laughed and tried to encourage him to wave. The tiny child grinned from ear to ear. This was the only life he knew. Playing in the village and watching grandpa’s visitors come and go from the shop. By the time he is an adult this art may be lost forever to producers with gas stoves and artificially smoky scents. Life on a plantation in the Arabian sun is incredibly taxing.
We bid farewell and followed a falaj (traditional irrigation system) through the tiered gardens of roses, onions and pomegranate trees. A Kiwi on the trip stepped out of the rows of trees and said to me, "This place is magic." I couldn't agree more.
The next time you hear a newscaster reporting terrifying details from this region I hope you will stop for a moment and balance the stereotypes in your mind. When you think of the Middle East, think me, in a smoky rose shop, with a heritage producer and his tiny grandson.