Rose of Syria

On a beleaguered country's resilient flower

By / June 2016

The Damask rose is a flower of far-reaching versatility. Originating in the Central Asian steppe, the flushed blossom brightens all kinds of Persian cuisine, graces Parisian parfumerie, flavors Turkish delight, and even finds its way into Moroccan spice blends. But Rosa damascena will always be most closely associated with its namesake, the city of Damascus, with the many gardens the flower’s fragrance once filled.

What makes the magenta Damask so attractive is its combination of intoxicating aroma and hardy resilience. Since the variety is a repeat bloomer, harvesters are able to double up on the annual extraction. Distilleries across Syria and Turkey and Iran employ the petals to extract the famous attar of roses, or rose oil, used in cosmetics the world over. The essence is also used as a fragrance in mosques throughout the region.

A rare heirloom variety with 30 petals per floret is also said to have healing properties and has been used to fight infection. The brilliance of the Syrian rose even found its way into Shakespeare. “I have seen roses damask’d, red and white,” he wrote of a less-than-comely mistress, in Sonnet 130, “But no such roses see I in her cheeks.”

These days many of us would hesitate to attribute floral grandeur, or superior beauty, to Syria. For the past several years the country has been a war zone. Instead of roses, images of caravans of rangy pickups retrofitted with machine guns and kicking up desert sand en route to another skirmish come to mind.

But the Euphrates River still flows through the rocky soil of Syria. And the ground is still blooming. The blushing Damask rose is still being cultivated, albeit in precipitous decline. Before civil war splintered the country, Lebanese traders and French perfumers made regular forays into Syria to acquire rose petals by the tens of tons.

Now, some rose farmers have been forced to flee their fields. Land owners can’t find workers. Since the war, the town of Al-Marah, about 60 km northeast of Damascus, has lost its primary source of income and was forced to cancel its annual rose festival a few years back. Not surprisingly, production and sales have fallen drastically.

Hard to believe that only six years ago Syria was considered by some to be the safest country in the Middle East, one of its most attractive destinations. In a now infamous Vogue article published in early 2011, Asma Al Assad, Syria’s first lady, was labeled a “Rose in the Desert,” and presented as something of a metaphor for her country, as an understated and confident beauty encircled by thorns.

On this side of history it’s easy to spot the façade of chic that concealed the truth of the Al Assad regime and duped a West hungry for a Middle Eastern version of Princess Di or Jackie O. But it’s also understandable. We do want a good story after all, at least now and then, something with alluring gracefulness. Especially when every other night the evening news plays the latest two-minute trailer to the sequel of the same old war.

The history of the Damask rose’s journey to the west actually begins with war. So far as legend goes, Crusader Robert de Brie carried the species back to Europe in the middle of the 13th century. It was an act that popularized the flower across the Continent. As Crusader armies plundered the Middle East of ancient artifacts–in methods not completely different from ISIS’s–the result was an awakening to the glories of the Near East and the Ottoman Empire.

Today, as Islamic State militants ransack Palmyra and other of Syria’s ancient treasures, the Damask finds itself in the middle of yet another conflict, and in the middle of news reports about its peril. Perhaps the rose’s value is once again on the cusp of rediscovery.

Without basic infrastructure and national security, it’s hard to imagine how flowers can still be blooming in Damascus, much less delicate roses. But they are. For whatever intrinsic beauty and sweetness the rose of Damascus possesses, it matches with resiliency. In that way perhaps the Damask can be a symbol of hope for Syria’s future even as it stands as stands as a reminder of a sweeter past.

If nothing else, it’s an image that competes with the running footage of the 24-hour news cycle. The vulnerable Damask rose can be a small tile in the mosaic of our consciousness of what Syria means, as we see past the hatred and violence to a real and suffering people clutching onto what’s left under the unblinking sun of war.


Brian McKanna is a contributor to EthnoTraveler.