Roses of the Jabal


HE rose gardens of Al Jabal al Akhdar — the Green Mountain — are a sight to behold: hundreds upon hundreds of rose bushes growing on terraces cut into the side of a mountain, cascading all the way down to the bottom of the gorge.

 Rose bushes, source of the prized Omani rose essence, are cultivated in terraced gardens in Al Jabal al Akhdar.

In April, swathes of this rocky and rugged landscape break out in a spectacular bloom of bright pink, as the famous roses of Al Jabal al Akhdar blossom in their millions exuding a rich fragrance all around the countryside.

At dawn each day, these rose gardens are filled with the light-hearted banter of men and women plucking the petals of full-blown roses. The harvest is collected in a sheet of cloth, gathered in a bundle and taken to one many traditional extraction units set up by villagers in these parts.

This ritual is replicated in many hamlets around the Saiq Qahtana plateau in what is the dominant pursuit of villagers during the March-April rose season.

Al Aqar is one of several villages at the heart of the rose water cultivation and extraction business in these mountains. The gardens lie just beyond a jumble of stone-and-mud houses interspersed with a few modern dwellings.
Millions of roses blossom during
March-April season in the Green Mountain

Access to these gardens, overlooking the mighty Wadi al Mayahi gorge, is by way of a narrow path clinging to the mountain’s edge. Often, the path merges with an aqueduct channelling the waters of bounteous mountain springs to the terraced gardens.

Hamed bin Ahmed al Mayahi, a veteran of the rose water extraction trade, says demand for Omani rose essence often outstrips supply.
“Demand has been increasing over the years, but not many bottles of rose water remain in stock beyond the extraction season. It’s good business for the 100-odd essence makers like me in the jabals.”

At RO5 per 750ml of rose essence, Omani rose water is the priciest in the local market. Other imported commercial brands vary in value from RO1.5 — RO2 per bottle.

According to Al Mayahi, buyers are willing to pay this premium value for Omani rose essence because it outshines other brands in the quality and flavour department. Its primary use is in the making of Omani halwa which, without the essence of Al Jabal al Akhdar’s roses, is deprived of its extravagant flavour and rich taste.                                   A veteran essence-maker gathers
                                                     his harvest of rose petals

Tradition-minded Omanis also add a dash of the rose water to a range of hot and cold beverages, and as flavouring in food dishes and sweets.

A cupful of the essence is also believed to be good for heart, while applied to the scalp, it is believed to ease headaches as well. Its potential for use in exotic perfumes and fragrances is yet to be tapped, say local villagers.

Despite the overwhelming demand for Omani rose water, the extraction process is as primitive as the origin of this trade. Essence-makers have thumbed their noses at a modern technique proposed by government experts, insisting their ancient technique ensures production of top quality rose essence.

The process is rudimentary: An earthen pot, sealed within a hearth, is stuffed with petals and heated for about two hours. The essence condenses into a metal container placed within the pot. The condensate is cooled and filtered several times, yielding a clear liquid.
Some 100 people are involved in the traditional
rose water manufacturing trade in Al Jabal al Akhdar

Al Aqar’s essence makers often labour in hot, clammy rooms simultaneously working several hearths at a time. But the bother is well worth it says, Salim Saif al Toobi, who netted a profit of over RO1,000 in rose water sales last year — for just two months’ of hard work.

As in the case of the date cultivation and harvest business, rose growers often hire out their bushes to professional essence-makers at the rate of about RO20 per bush.

Each bush yields about 15-20kg of petals during the season, while it takes about 2kg of petals to generate 750ml of essence valued at RO5. With the demand for Omani rose essence as strong as ever, the arithmetic works out in everyone’s favour — grower, extractor, seller and halwa-maker included.
                            An essence-maker at work in
                                       Al Jabal al Akhdar

When the rose season ends, the farmers of the jabals then turn their attention to a range of Mediterranean-style fruits that are cultivated here, each similarly commanding premium prices.

All eyes, however, will be on the most luscious of the jabal’s fruits — the pomegranate — which like last year, promises a bountiful harvest this time around as well.

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