Monday, August 22, 2011

A Celebration of Roses

The best time to visit Kashan, a city on the edge of Iran’s Dasht-e Kavir Desert, is in May when the entire town is filled with the heady fragrance of roses. Kashan is one of two major centers of rosewater production in Iran (the other one is Shiraz), and May is when the harvest is in full swing.

The desert may not seem like the best place to grow a water-hungry plant like the rose. But Kashan is uniquely situated between the desert and the Karkas Mountains, where abundant water and cool air create ideal conditions for flower cultivation. In particular, the climate is perfect for the Damask rose, (Gol-e Mohammadi in Persian), a deep pink bloom with an especially strong and appealing fragrance.

Rosewater, or golab as the Iranians call it, is mainly an ingredient in perfume, cosmetics, and air fresheners here in the West, but in Iran it turns up in traditional medicines, cooking, and even religious ceremonies. Rosewater is used to treat many ailments, from skin infections to heart palpitations, and it flavors sweets such as cream puffs and ice cream. One of my favorite Persian desserts is sholeh zard, a rice pudding scented with saffron and rosewater.

Kashan rosewater is so highly prized, in fact, that every year the region sends barrels of it to Mecca, where it is used to wash the Ka’aba during the annual Hajj pilgrimage to this holiest of Muslim sites.

Ghamsar, Iran
Iranians celebrate the essence of the Damask rose with a series of ceremonies during the Gol-o-Golab (Rose and Rosewater) Festival, which is held in Kashan and nearby towns over a period of several weeks, starting in mid-May. The specific dates change from year to year because this festival is entirely dependent on the flowers it celebrates and must wait until the roses unfold their petals.

Over the course of the rose harvest, rosewater producers in Kashan, Ghamsar, Niasar, and other nearby towns open their homes and gardens to visitors, who flock to the region to watch the locals extract the essence from pink rose petals. While many mechanized factories exist, most rosewater is still distilled by hand, using age-old techniques and traditional equipment.

The day begins early, when men and women head out to the fields to pick blossoms. This has to be done before dawn, since the rose’s scent diminishes in the heat of the sun. Then they dump the gathered harvest into copper cauldrons, add water, cover the pot, and bring its contents to the boil. The rosewater is distilled through metal pipes and collected in traditional clay vessels.

The Gol-o-Golab Festival is much more than just an opportunity to see rose distillers at work. In the evenings, after a long hard day at the rosewater distillery (remember, they get up before dawn), people head for the parks to listen to music and watch parades and pageants. Educational programs are also on offer; in past years, Kashan University has invited the public to attend lectures on rosewater extraction and new methods of rose cultivation.

Photo by Persian Boy
I’ve yet to attend this celebration of roses, although the festival is high up on my bucket list. So far, I’ve always managed to visit Iran at the wrong time of year. The closest I’ve come to this fragrant experience was on a trip to Kashan in October. While exploring the city’s Bazaar, I caught the scent of roses and followed my nose. It led me to a section where shop after shop had roses for sale in every possible form, from rosewater to dried petals. I bought a small bag of gol-e sorkh (dried rose blossoms) and learned all kinds of uses for them. They’re especially good steeped in tea or crushed and sprinkled over yogurt.

I’m due for another trip to Iran soon, and May in Kashan sounds like a pretty good deal to me.


  1. Great post, Heidi. This sounds like a unique photo opportunity as well!

  2. Take me with you, Heidi! I can smell the bouquet from here. And by the way, gulab means rose in a number of Hindi languages and gulabi means pink or rose colored.

  3. Thanks, Gerhard! I plan to take lots of photos when I go to this festival. I may have to write about it again. :)

    Sure, Supriya, come along! And there's that Indian-Persian connection again. I'm always amazed at how many words the two languages share in common.

  4. Duh, I meant Indian languages, of which Hindi is one. I need an editor...

  5. Fascinating and interesting post. I never would have guessed there'd be so many uses for rosewater. And that color of pink is beautiful. I love roses. I can't imagine how wonderful it would be to take part in this festival. I hope you get to cross it off your bucket list soon!

  6. Thanks, Lynn. I'm glad you enjoyed the post. I plan to go next spring - ensha'allah. :) What I'm looking forward to is the fragrance. These blooms have a strong scent that you rarely find in roses anymore.

  7. I gotta see this one day. Roses are my favorite flowers!