Human Flower Project

Mighty Like Qamsari Roses

Iranian rosewater, used for centuries to wash Islam’s holy sites, now serves a secular purpose, too: tourism.


Workers gather rose petals in Niasar, Iran, for the Gol-o-Golab (Rose and Rosewater Festival)

Photo: Morteza Nikoubazl, for Reuters

It’s harvest time in Iran. The Mohammadi roses, indigenous to this part of the world, are loaded with fragrant attar. Right now they’re being picked and processed into rosewater and rose oil before the parch of summer.

For centuries, the rosewater from flowers of Kashan, Qamsar, and Niasar has been revered for its almost mystical properties and handled accordingly. Most famously, this fragrant ablution has been used to wash the Holy Kaaba of Mecca, a rite observed twice each year, and the privilege of kings to perform.

But more ordinary people enjoy and extol Iran’s rosewater too. Go-lab (rosewater) is sold as perfume, medicine and culinary spice, all three. “Chefs sprinkle it over rice, and one of the country’s favorite summer snacks, faloudeh, is a noodle sorbet peppered with pistachio nuts and drenched in glycerin rosewater.”

imageApparatus for extracting rosewater

Photo: Cultural Heritage News Agency

While Bulgarian roses currently dominate the world market for attar, Iranian farmers and exporters hope to fortify their position—thus the Rose and Rosewater Festival, held in Kashan and its environs. The event, now in its sixth year, takes place May 16-24 and is expected to draw a million tourists to the region.  It combines sales with seminars on rose breeding and demonstrations: visitors can see how rosewater is extracted and rose oil distilled. “In addition, the ceremony of dusting off the pilgrimage places and washing the shrine of Ali ibn Mohammad Bagher Mausoleum will be held during the third day of the festival.”

We find this floral event particularly fascinating. Its combination of horticultural education and commerce with religious ritual seems a poignant State of the Union message, addressed to the whole world. It reveals the richness and complexity of contemporary Iran, a nation seeking to balance (or perhaps supercede) Western and Eastern ideals.

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