As my time in the desert winds down, I thought it apt to cross a few final adventures off my Saudi bucket list. I knew I couldn't leave without visiting the much talked aboutRose Festival of Taif.
Set high in the Sarawat mountains, Taif is a three hour drive (longer if you need to bypass Mecca and take non-muslim roads, as yours truly did) from the hustle and bustle of Jeddah. This ecologically unique area receives 7 to 12 inches of annual rain, and is also, oddly enough, home to the infamous Taif baboons, whose origins are unknown and who survive – sadly - on discarded fruit and garbage.
For decades, the region was undisturbed farmland, shared between three Bedouin tribes: the Thagif Quraish, the Hidail, and the Bani Sufyan. Beginning in 1972, the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs banned all development, but by 1990 the ban was lifted allowing for Saudi families to make Taif their escape from the heat, humidity, and hecticness of city life. Indeed, even the Saudi royal family has made Taif the location of their summer home since 1949.
But what brought me to Taif were the roses, and not just any roses. I'm talking rosa damascena trigintipetala, or, in English, the Damask Rose. It’s one special, special cultivar; a sweet smelling, pink rose known to have health benefits and a long list of therapeutic properties. And while much of Saudi is, indeed, inhospitable desert, the Damask rose flourishes in Taif's wet and cool climate.
For the past two centuries, the hills of Taif turn into a rolling pink ocean in April as the roses bloom. Then the real work begins as thousands upon thousands of them are processed for their powerfully fragrant perfume, the most expensive essence in the world (or so I'm told). A mind- boggling 15,000 roses produce just 10 grams; which will set you back a cool $1,600.
Considering that, today, a barrel of crude oil, Saudi's main source of income, is $49.23, you know how precious this "floral oil" really is.
Ironically, I can't stand the smell of roses. Still, seeing the breathtaking mass of color across this mysterious dessert land I have called home for the last several years? The scent and scenery of Taif will happily live in my memory forever.