The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is approximately the size of France, Spain, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom (twice), Greece, and Portugal combined. Compared to the United States, its land area is roughly equal to all states east of the Mississippi River.
Saudi Arabia is bordered by Yemen and Oman in the south, the Red Sea in the west, Jordan and Iraq in the north, the Persian Gulf, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in the east. Across the causeway in the Gulf lies the island kingdom of Bahrain.
The Kingdom is essentially a tribal society. With more than 38 million inhabitants, the Kingdom has 13 regions united by the Arabic language, but each with a unique dialect, traditions, heritage, mystical beauty and culinary identity.
It’s impossible not to be moved by the imposing contours and exotic beauty of the endless, ever-changing, windswept Arabian dunes, the sand-washed ancient cities, and the aqua waters of the Red Sea and the Arabian Gulf. There are no rivers or lakes in the Kingdom.
The desert, often scorching hot by day, can become surprisingly cold at night. When it rains, the water gathers and is stored in the dampened sand. Little evaporation occurs once rain sinks below seven feet. It is believed that some plants today are still drawing moisture from rain that fell more than a thousand years ago.
There are Bedouin tribes traditionally known for their bravery, chivalry, generosity, and hospitality in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Very few of them still live a nomadic life or depend on their animals for their food. Most live near towns, hold jobs, send their children to school, and only camp in the desert at certain times of the year.
As T.E. Lawrence wrote: “Bedouin ways were hard for those brought up in them, and for strangers, terrible: a death in life. No man can live this life and emerge unchanged. He will carry, however faint, the imprint of the desert, the brand which marks the nomad: and he will have within him the yearning to return, weak or insistent according to his nature. For this cruel land can cast a spell which no temperate clime can match.”
The Arabian Peninsula included cities as well as Bedouin areas. Islam was born in two of those cities — Mecca and Medina. From there, the religion spread and found roots in a large swath of the world, stretching from Spain to China. With it spread a love of learning and science. Arab sciences and Arab translation of older Greek science provided the foundation for much of the European Renaissance and Enlightenment thinking.
In 2019, the country significantly expanded its openness to foreign visitors and actively started encouraging tourism as part of its Vision 2030 strategic initiative. Increasing numbers of visitors are now aware that Saudi Arabia is extraordinarily diverse. Tourism and travel link people, time, and cultures to a deeper knowledge and understanding of one another.
When I was the Executive Vice President of the Huntsman Cancer Foundation, I traveled to the Kingdom several times.
I wanted to return.
The below pictorial is about Ta’if, a city in the Mecca Region in the slopes of the Hijaz Mountains, which is part of the Sarat Mountains.
Ta’if: The City of Roses is the unofficial summer capital of Saudi Arabia
Simply getting to Ta’if, 73 miles east of the coastal port of Jeddah on the Red Sea, is an adrenaline rush. We snaked up the serpentine windy black road through the mountains until we reached the Ta’if plateau.
Ta’if is known as the summer capital of Saudi Arabia, as people flock to this cool city.
Every spring, rose bushes bloom throughout the city, from the valley of Wadi Mahram to the mountains of Al Shafa, south of the city. With more than 900 rose farms, the area produces the flower in such abundance that many are distilled into the world’s most expensive rose oil, or attar, and rose water, which is mixed into the perfumes of luxury brands around the world.
On Al Kur-Al Hada Road, you will find the Al Shiokh Factory, where you can learn about the manufacturing of products derived from rose oil extract. The process starts with picking the Ta’if roses, weighing them, adding water to them, then exposing them to high heat to start the distillation process and extract the rose oil. This process results in producing natural rose oil products: body perfumes, soap, moisturizers, and incense.
Growing roses in Ta’if is not just about producing a product. It is a lifestyle passed down from generation to generation.
In April, the air in Ta’if fills with the sweet scent of the city’s famous 30-petal damask roses in bloom. More than 900 rose farms produce more than 300 million flowers, which are harvested to produce the world’s most expensive rose oil.
Ta’if Rose belongs to the species Damask Rose. Damask Rose grows as a small, thorny bush with whitish hairy leaves, and pink and very fragrant 30-petal flowers. This rose is most commonly tied to Bulgaria and Turkey as countries of origin, or more precisely, to the valley Kazanlik in Bulgaria, where this rose has been cultivated for 330 years.
It has never been completely clear how the 30-petal Damask rose appeared in Ta’if. Due to its close resemblance to Kazanlik rose, it has been suggested that the Ta’if Rose was brought to Ta’if from the Balkans by Turks, who occupied this area in the 14th century.
In the West it is the Damask Rose that is known for its deep and intense fragrance, while in Arabia it is the Ta’if Rose that is famous for the same properties.
Ta’if rose flowers, whose fragrance is even more intense than the fragrance of the Damask Rose, are harvested in April, in the early morning hours, because the buds bloom at dawn. It is necessary to pick them before the heat of the day destroys the essential oils needed for the production of rose water.
The first description of the distillation of rose petals in the Middle East was provided by al-Kindi, a 9th century philosopher. A somewhat more sophisticated distillation apparatus was described by al-Razi in the 10th century.
Ta’if rose oil became famous across the Muslim world. The pilgrims coming from the East very often would take a route via Ta’if just to buy the rose oil, and Muslims who could afford it would buy at least one vial of the precious rose oil as a souvenir.
It takes about 40,000 rose flowers to produce one 11-gram bottle of attar (rose oil).
Ta’if is known for the famous WardhTa’ifi, the Rose of Ta’if. The suburbs of Ta’if are known for cultivation of this rose, which creates more income than the cultivation of any crops. Ta’if is 1.2 miles above sea level and due to its climate conditions (cooler than the climate in Jeddah and Mecca), qualitative irrigation systems, and fertile land, it is a great area for the cultivation of roses.
The process of making rose water starts with putting around 20,000 roses in a pot and adding 70 liters/18 gallons of water into it. They close the pot for 8 hours. Once done, aromatic oil has settled on top of the water. The oil is bottled and sold. Hejazi people add drops of rose water to their chilled drinking water for the aromatic taste.
Ta’if is colorful. Unlike many desert communities where buildings are the color of sand, in Ta’if they are painted yellow, gray, ochre, white and blue. Vibrant green trees are juxtaposed against the gray mountains. The mountain peaks are ragged and rough. Ancient paths crisscross the mountains where migrating animals and people have walked for centuries.
Ta’if was historically the food basket of Arabia and still accounts for much of its fruit production. Orchards of apricots. Fields of wheat. Pomegranate trees thrive in this mountain region. The region is also known for berries, pomegranates, grapes, dates, peaches, watermelons and more.