Damascus: the home of roses, iris and jasmine

By Oula Mahfouz

When the old Damascus house is mentioned, an image of a place filled with the scent of flowers, especially jasmine, iris and Damascus roses, immediately comes to mind.
The origin of the Damascus rose is disputed, but it spread from Damascus all over the world and took its name from this city. Poets and writers have sung its praises and it has been mentioned in legends.
It first spread in Europe. Drawings of the rose can still be found on the tiles of the Alhambra in Granada in Andalusia. Abd al-Rahman al-Dakhil brought it from Damascus. He also brought olives, palm trees, cotton, pomegranates, figs, daffodils, tulips, Damask jasmine and many other plants. Pilgrims and traders introduced them to the Maghreb, Turkey and Iran.
The Damask rose was soon cultivated in many European countries, including Andalusia. It later developed into an industry in the Kingdom of Castile, from which the Castilian rose (Galicia) emerged, a further development of the Damask rose. It is what we know today as the French rose. From the 9th century onwards, the Muslims in Andalusia built up a large production for the oil of the original Damask rose. Rose water is used in many Andalusian desserts. The scent of rose water became the official diplomatic scent of the royal councils. The red Damask rose became the political symbol of Seville and Granada and an essential design element of flamenco clothing.
The custom of drinking water with rose water reached Damascus again in the 16th century with the Jewish and Muslim refugees from Granada. The Jews from Granada settled in the eastern part of the old city of Damascus. Women in Damascus began to wear dresses with patterns of the Damascus rose. These designs were based on the patterns of the women who had fled from Granada. The arrival of these refugees influenced all aspects of life in Damascus. They became the main source of fashion, food and social customs. In Spain, the Castilian rose spread at the expense of the native Damascus rose as the Christian kingdoms expanded.
The scientist and physician Ibn Sina (Avicenna) is considered to be the first to discover the aromatic and distilled benefits of this plant at the beginning of the eleventh century. He described it as “a source of natural healing, nutritional and cosmetic products”. Natural rose water is beneficial for the skin, soothes colic, has an analgesic effect and calms the digestive system. Rose petals are a natural remedy for colds, flu and sore throats. They are also used to make syrup and jam.
The rose is a perennial shrub that is very tolerant of environmental conditions. Damascus rose fields were scattered in and around Damascus. After hundreds of thousands of civilians were displaced from several Syrian cities to the northern regions, including Idlib, due to the war, new plants came with them, including the Damask rose. The harvest time in Syria is between May and June. It takes about five years for the plants to produce an economic yield.
It is worth noting that the Damask rose water and oil industry is currently widespread in countries such as Turkey, Morocco, Bulgaria and Iran. In the city of Ghamsar in Iran, rose water is only produced for the purification of the Holy Kaaba. It is not available on the open market.
Another plant that can only be found in Damascus is the Damascus iris. This grows exclusively on Mount Qasioun and is considered the species with the highest risk of extinction. The Syrian government is not interested in it. The complete extinction of the iris is only prevented by the fact that its habitat is located in a military area. Civilians are therefore unable to enter the area. In addition, the slopes on which the remains of the iris grow are so steep that they are difficult to reach and cannot be cultivated.
Jasmine has also become one of the symbols of Damascus over the centuries. This flower is closely linked to the history of the city. It therefore has a high moral value for Syrians. Jasmine has spread in the orchards in Ghouta, on the balconies of houses and near the walls of old buildings. This plant remains one of the main features of the Damascene home—and its scent wafts everywhere.



Anbau von Damaszener Rosen im Umland von Damaskus. Foto: tuenews INTERNATIONAL / Maison Abdulwahid.






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