Occasionally I come across articles mentioning “roses from Syria” as “a precious” ingredient in perfumes. One of the pieces even appeared in a newspaper that runs daily reports on the war in Syria. But real world events don’t enter into the fantasy bubble of beauty writing, with absurd and morbid results. We’re conditioned to think of perfume as something so rarefied and intangible that for all we know angels pick the flowers and blend essences in their celestial realms. The thought that a country, which has been at war for five years, might have difficulty growing roses doesn’t cloud the writers’ imaginations.
Until the war, which started in 2011, Syria produced 80 tonnes of roses, some of which were distilled on site and some exported to be processed in Europe. Syria wasn’t as large a producer as Turkey, Bulgaria or Morocco, but its roses had a delicious raspberry nuance. The last commercial sample I was able to get in 2011 still smells of sun warmed fruit and spicy honey. Damascus and the other rose growing provinces have suffered tremendously during the war, especially the area held by the revolutionary army and targeted in the heavy bombing campaigns by the Syrian regime. People have fled from the fighting, leaving plantation owners with few work hands and resources. As a one-time distiller told a reporter of The Express Tribune, “Today there are barely 250 grams (half a pound) of oil available to buy in the whole market.” What are the chances that it makes its way into a perfume produced by a luxury brand?
At first, seeing references to Syrian roses made me puzzled. A query among fragrance companies confirmed my suspicions that the writers were simply confused by the terminology. There is no rosa damascena from Damascus in your perfumes. It most likely comes from either Turkey or Bulgaria.
Rosa damascena (damask rose) is one of the two main types of roses used in perfumery, the other being the green and citrusy rose de mai, rosa centifolia. Its origins are probably in Central Asia, but when it was brought to Europe from Syria in the Middle Ages, it began to reference one of the greatest contemporary cities, Damascus. So, when press releases or perfume notes mention “rosa damascena” or “damask rose,” all they mean is a type of essence, rather than a place of origin.
The massive loss of lives and cultural heritage in Syria is a great tragedy and so is the loss of Syrian roses. There is a tendency to speak of Syria and other places in the Middle East as being in some other, dark and hostile universe, and reports of war tend to flatten and distort the image of the countries further. But East and West are false categories. The Syrian Ummayad dynasty was in Europe for over three centuries, and the contributions of Islamic scholars to algebra, medicine, mathematics, physics, agriculture, and arts are hard to overstate.
In perfumery, for instance, we are still using the same methods developed by the Persian polymath Avicenna (Ibn Sinna) to distill rose essence and some of the accords we favor in so-called oriental perfumery have origins in the courts of Cordoba. When Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani writes, “I have come to you . . . from the history of the Damascene rose that condenses the history of perfume,” he speaks the self-evident truth.
One of the best history books I’ve read lately is Aleppo : The Rise and Fall of Syria’s Great Merchant City by Philip Mansel. It shows many layers of Aleppo that can’t be glimpsed through newspaper reports. Without romanticizing its past, Mansel presents a vivid portrait of a city and its inhabitants. One of the most cosmopolitan cities in the region, Aleppo has always been a true melting pot, with commerce and trade as the glue that brought people from different religions and communities together. This resulted in one of the most sophisticated cultures, not to mention splendid cuisine and architecture. “Paris, c’est joli, mais ce n’est pas Alep,” comments an Aleppo lady in response to a question about her vacation. “Paris is pretty, but it’s not Aleppo.” Since we are living through the complete obliteration of the city–the most recent Russian bombardments have laid waste to the oldest parts of Aleppo, Mansel’s book can make for heart-wrenching reading, but for this reason, it’s even more important to understand what exactly we are losing.
Photography by Bois de Jasmin, rosa damascena