Friday is livestock day in the oasis town of Nizwa, an event that always attracts a crowd to the largest settlement in the A’Dakhiliyah Governorate and one time capital of the Oman. Traffic chokes the narrow approach roads to the town’s ancient souk and as I walk across its temporary car park, a dusty riverbed that’s scoured by torrents when nearby wadis are in flood, I pass flatbed trucks packed with bemused goats, sheep, and cows waiting to be sold. Tufts of soft, oily, dark brown wool drift in the breeze alongside the mournful lowing of animals and the shouts of Omanis keen to strike a bargain.
I walk through the old town’s restored main gate and enter the souk. This is still a working market, not a heritage site, and as I walk from one municipal white tiled hall to another, I pass fishmongers absent-mindedly filleting calf-sized tuna, shelves of sun-dried limes, and bottles of molasses-black local honey. The press is hardest around the merchants who sell halwa, the dark, sweet, sticky dessert so beloved by Omanis, served in enamelled tin dishes decorated with hand painted leaves, flowers, and mountain vistas.
Despite these distractions, I am in search of an altogether more delicate prize. My stop in Nizwa is only part of a longer journey from Muscat and the coast, 80 miles from here, up into the interior of Oman and the barren peaks of the Western Hajar Mountains, where I hope to find the source of a scent that defines this area in the way that Biblical frankincense defines Oman’s monsoon-washed south. The object of my quest however, is not the incense-producing frankincense tree – Boswellia sacra – but the fragrant petals of the Damask rose – Rosa X damascena – that produce the finest Omani rosewater, roses that grow only near the summit of the Jebel al Akhdar, A’Dakhiliyah’s mighty ‘Green Mountain’.
Nobody knows exactly when roses first appeared on the mountaintop terraces that give the ‘Green Mountain’ its name. Now they grow alongside paddocks of wheat, pomegranate, walnuts and citrus that cling, vertiginously, to the highest reaches of the mountainside, but it’s possible that the plants travelled the same route as the falaj irrigation system that makes their cultivation possible, and that both were introduced by one of the Persian dynasties who ruled Oman before the coming of Islam.
Despite not featuring in the Qur’an, roses and rosewater permeate almost every aspect of Islamic culture. Not only were they a key feature in Islamic gardens, they were also celebrated by physicians, poets, perfumers and philosophers, including mystics such as Rumi and Ruzbihan Baqli, who described the red rose as being ‘part of the splendour of God.’ Rosewater is also a popular culinary ingredient across the Muslim world – from North Africa to India – and is valued by traditional Islamic medicine as a treatment for ailments ranging from tuberculosis to stomach disorders and nausea.
Thanks to roses and frankincense, Oman has been closely associated with fragrances throughout its history. For the Romans, it was part of Arabia felix – fortunate Arabia – and the source of the incense used in homes and temples across their vast empire. Long before the discovery of oil, the export of frankincense made Arabia rich and now fragrance continues to play a rich part in Oman’s cultural heritage. Guests are still greeted by the smell of burning frankincense and are then anointed with aromatic rosewater at the end of each visit or a meal.
In Nizwa’s souk, I approach a trader whose stall seems overlooked and ask, via the translation skills of a local shopper, if he has local rosewater for sale. The close-cropped man grins mischievously, revealing several missing teeth, before slowly producing a bottle from under his counter whose lid reveals that it once contained Vimto. Before I can protest, he takes one of my hands in a papery palm and douses it in a cloudy, rust-coloured liquid, gesturing that I should rub this over my hands and face. As I do so, I am immediately overwhelmed, not by the smell of roses, but by the acrid tang of wood smoke. I must look shocked because the old man laughs and I quickly make my excuses before leaving, bewildered, by what I later discover is nothing but my own ignorance.
I leave Nizwa with an English-speaking local guide, Salem, who grew up on the Jebel Al Akhdar. Like so many tribes people, Salem now lives in Muscat but regularly makes the journey up into the mountains with tourists and on visits to see the older members of his family. We drive through the unforgiving gravel plain that skirts the base of the Western Hajar before entering Wadi Al Madeen near Birkat al Mauz. The village sits off the main Muscat-Nizwa highway, and its restored fort, the Bait al Radidah, once guarded the southern gateway to the Saiq Plateau, which rises to a height of more than 2000 metres above sea level. Birkat al Mauz is a place that often suffers by comparison, especially when approached from Nizwa in the west, when it appears as little more than a dusty collection of modern low-rise houses and even humbler shops.
Most tourists simply pass through Birkat al Mauz but this is a mistake and the view from a rocky outcrop on the east side of town reveals why. The ‘green mountain’s’ cool fertility comes from the rains that irrigate it each year and these eventually descend to Birkat al Mauz through a series of aflaj. One of these even travels along an impressive, four-metre high stone aqueduct that feeds into the oasis from which the village – the name literally means ‘pool of bananas’ – takes its name. A descent under the shading canopies of date palms reveals small groves of bananas that alternate with lush paddocks of millet and it seems as if the sight of bright light on fresh water is everywhere. Enormous iridescent dragonflies hover over the sight of bright light on fresh water while brightly coloured birds such as Indian rollers loop lazily the through the trees.
From Birkat Al Mauz, the road to the Saiq Plateau and the summit of the Jebel Al Akhdar winds for 36km through some of Oman’s most spectacular scenery. Only 4X4’s are allowed to make the journey – which once took at least nine hours by donkey – and both cars and their passengers are checked at a police sentry point at the base of the mountain. We drive up along improbably steep switchback turns through rock formations that churn around us, before reaching the Saiq Plateau and the Sahab Hotel, my base for exploring the mountain.
Family-run, the Sahab sits precariously on the edge of the plateau with a large terrace an infinity pool that offer spectacular views across the mountains and the gaping wadis below. To its left is a promontory, “Diana Point” where the Princess of Wales famously camped on the mountain on her first visit to Oman in 1986. The Sahab also offers some of the best views of the green terraces that hang, like a veil, from the ridgeline opposite the hotel.
My next encounter with rosewater comes in a small, soot-caked outhouse that is so blackened inside it looks as if it has been gutted. The building, a distillery, belongs to Mohamed bin Hamood al Toubi, a local civil servant who, despite having a full-time job, is one of the 90 or so people on the Jebel Al Akhdar who still make traditional Omani rosewater by hand. During the harvest season, Mr Mohamed drives to the cliff-face village of Ash Sharayjah each morning from where he climbs down ancient goat paths with his wife and daughters to the family terraces to pick flowers fit for that day’s distillation. After the gruelling climb there and back, it then takes three hours to turn 1.5kg of impossibly heady pink blooms into raw rosewater distillate however, each batch then takes a further three to four months of airtight cooling, filtration and storage before the smokiest, darkest rosewater can command a price of around 9 Riyals (90Dhs) per 750ml bottle.
The use of distillation to create perfume is an Islamic tradition that dates back to the 9th century when the Arab polymath Al-Kindi recorded the process in his‘Book of the Chemistry of Perfume and Distillations’. It was in the early 11th century however, that the Persian doctor and philosopher Ibn Sina (Avicenna) first used distillation to extract the flower’s essential oils. Until this discovery, perfumes had been mixtures of fat or oil with crushed herbs or petals, but rosewater created a perfume that was far more delicate and with this discovery, Ibn Sina laid the foundations for the modern perfume industry and for aromatherapy.
As I stand over a sack that contains the morning’s harvest an improbably sweet perfume, which smells more like the very idea of roses, drifts up from the floor. By the time the flowers arrive at Mr Mohammed’s they have collapsed and have to be kept cool, moist and used quickly if they are not to lose their potency. Despite their decay, the petals emit a fragrance that is so strong it makes me feel light-headed, and I quickly leave the distillery feeling nauseous and slightly faint. Unfortunately, there is no escape in Mr Mohamed’s garden, as immediately walk into a grove of pomegranates and vermillion ‘Sultan Qaboos’ roses whose scarlet fruits and Technicolor blooms combine with the Jebel’s blue sky and bright sunlight in a way that dazzles the eyes.
After my sensory overload, the cool air and panoramic view from the sharp edge of the Saiq Plateau come as a welcome relief, despite the terrifying drop to the wadi below. The ancient villages of the Jebel – Al Aqar, Al Ayn, Ash Sharayjah and Wadi Bani Habib, cling to monstrous outcrops of travertine while kilometres of terracing describe the near vertical face of the mountain like contour lines on a map. Many of the terraces are deserted as relatively few people still farm on the Jebel, but the dark green foliage of rose bushes is clearly visible even from a distance and, after a slighty bemused conversation, Mr Mohamed agrees to take me to his farm so that I can complete my quest.
We climb into Mr Mohamed’s truck and start the descent from the high plateau to the almost deserted village of Ash Sharayjah, the closest spot to Mr Mohamed’s farm. The heat is immediately more noticeable on the mountainside, and as we climb down rough-hewn steps, the shade of overhanging trees comes as a welcome relief from the hot sun. Remarkably, the sound of bright water cascading through the Jebel’s complex irrigation system is everywhere and long channels and deep cisterns that were invisible from the top of the mountain suddenly define every view. Up close, it’s clear that the terraces are actually made up of smaller, family-sized plots and as we pass these the site of tools stowed carefully under trees and the complex workings of sluices describe a unique community that is desperately hanging on for its life.
As we climb, Mr Mohammed point out the vines, walnuts, citrus, and pears that define the rhythm of life on the mountain but it is pomegranate, a crop whose value increases the further one gets from the mountain, that predominates.
After a descent of fifteen sweaty and breathless minutes, we arrive at Mr Mohamed’s terraces which coincide with the point at which the wadi opens up to reveal broad views out over its tortured geology. To our right and left, cliffs of upturned sedimentary strata rise vertically like the wings of some gigantic proscenium, while an enormous cone of striped limestone dominates the immediate vista and behind this, the wadi bucks and twists into the far distance. It’s a near prehistoric view that astounds, so much so, that I momentarily forget that I have arrived, chest deep, in the object of my journey. As I stand, sweating and breathless from the descent, Mr Mohammed hands me a perfect pink bloom, soft, deep, and many-petalled, but I can do no more than stand silently with the rose resting coolly in my palm. It is like a flower straight from the poetry of Rumi.
“I ask the rose, ‘From whom did you steal that beauty?’
The rose laughs softly out of shame, but how should she tell?”
A version of this article originally appeared in UltraTravel Middle East.