Withered by war: Syria’s damask rose is under threat

DAMASCUS // Its fame is such that it features in a Shakespeare sonnet, but for Syrian farmers cultivating an ancient flower that produces the heady-scented oil used to flavour Turkish delight, tragedy may await.

The damask rose is a staple of perfumers, drink makers and confectioners, but it is withering in the city and surrounding fields that gave it its name.

Jamal Abbas looks out over farmland in Al Mrah, about 60 kilometres north-east of the capital of a country ripped apart by five years of civil war.

“The damask rose is dying,” he said in Nabek village, known for growing the 30-petalled flower, but where the cultivated land has decreased by more than half.

The tradition of picking the crop has also faded as families fled the fighting between government forces and rebel groups.

War prevented access to the rose fields for a time and forced the cancellation of the annual rose festival, depriving Al Mrah of its main source of income.

Rebels were routed from the area in 2014, and on Sunday the festival was staged again, despite the production of damask roses hitting an all-time low.

“We went from 80 tonnes in 2010 to 20 tonnes this year because of the war, in addition to a drought,” said Hamza Bitar, 43, another farmer.

Before the war erupted in 2011, “Lebanese merchants came to buy rose petals by the tens of tonnes for export to Europe”, he said. “French perfumers distilled the dried petals to produce essential oil.”

Thanks to its heady, rich and smooth scent, the damask rose – it flowers naturally in May but can also be grown throughout the year – is used to produce essential oils and cosmetics.

Experts swear by its therapeutic properties in fighting infection and as a relaxant, and rose water is used across the Middle East both as a refreshing drink, to scent mosques and even to bestow luck at weddings.

In and around Damascus, the rose used to adorn gardens, balconies and roadsides, but the decline in production and care make its presence these days more fleeting.

For farmers and traders, the damask rose is a symbol of a people’s agony and a country racked by a conflict that has killed more than 270,000 people and created millions of refugees.

Abu Bilal, 52, had a distillery in Ain Tarma in the Eastern Ghouta area near Damascus where he made rose oil, but that is now a rebel stronghold. War closed him down in 2011.

“Douma used to smell of roses,” he said of the besieged main town in Eastern Ghouta. “Now it reeks of gunpowder, they tell me.”

Mr Bilal now works in a souq at a perfumery in the Old Town of Damascus. Only two of the eight distilleries are now operational in the souq.

According to merchants in the souq, it takes three tonnes of dried rose petals to make a kilogram of essential oil.

“Today there are barely 250 grams of oil available to buy in the whole market,” he said.

Most of the world’s damask rose crop is grown in Bulgaria and Turkey, but Mr Bilal insists the original from Damascus is unique. “Its smell is heady, its quality is better and it produces more oil.

“The pharmaceutical and cosmetics companies, and our customers in the Gulf, like to buy the original – it’s a source of pride for them.”

Back in Al Mrah, Amin Bitar, in his eighties, has spent his entire life cultivating the damask rose.

“It’s not just a business relationship we have with the flower, it’s part of the family,” he said.

For him, the damask rose “will not come back to life until this war is over”.

* Agence France-Presse