Roses in Persian History

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Roses in Persia

Roses have grown and been cultivated in Persia from time immemorial. The production of attar of roses may well be a Persian invention, and rose oil features strongly in many aspects of Persian culture to this day. The dual emblem of the rose and the nightingale appears repeatedly in Persian poetry, art and design, and signifies the beloved and the lover.

The history of the rose in Persia

Prince Xerxes behind the throne of King Darius

The claim that roses originated in Persia is unverifiable and patently dubious. The nature of plants is such that the rose would have evolved gradually rather than “originated”, and we know that what we think of as species varieties are to be found throughout the northern hemisphere. What we are able to grant, though, is that the rose has grown and been cultivated and revered in Persia for time out of mind. The written records of roses in that area of the world (the boundaries of Persia as a political entity having been fluid over the millennia, one has to think of the area of present day Syria, Iraq and Iran in this context), which are to be found on tablets discovered in modern Iraq, go back three and four thousand years. Rosa Damascena (the Damask rose – from Damascus, in Syria) was to be found in the area from very early times. As it does not propagate freely in the wild it follows that it is likely to have been cultivated, then as now, in which case it would be possible to argue for Persia as the birthplace of rose cultivation. Given the fertility of the Tigris/Euphrates nexus, the Mesopotamians’ famed delight in gardens (as in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon), and the prevalence of the rose as a symbol of beauty in Persian culture, there is no difficulty in understanding why rose farming should have begun there and then. The illustration of Prince Xerxes behind the throne of his father the Emperor Darius (courtesy of Wiki) is from a stone frieze dated circa 490 BC, and shows Xerxes holding a formalised rose.

Attar of roses

Women picking roses to make rose oil. A Mughal miniature, circa 1450
Attar, عطر, is a Farsi (Persian) term. It is possible that the process for making rose oil was invented in Persia. There is a story, which we need not take literally, that the Persian Emperor once ordered the imperial fountains to be filled with rosewater to celebrate his royal wedding to a lovely princess. When they walked through the gardens the princess noticed that tiny droplets had formed on the tepid surface of the water in the fountain. When she touched the droplets she found that they felt good and smelt of roses. And that is meant to be how rose oil was invented.
Women preparing rose petals to make rose oil, today

Today volatile rose oils are made in Persia by distilling the crushed petals of Rosa damascena, not by floating the petals in fountains on warm days. The product, though, remains as delightful as it is in the story. Rose water is used as a skin tonic, a medicine, a cooking ingredient, and in cultural and religious practices. Roses have a long history of use in celebrations. Rose petals have been scattered at weddings to ensure a happy marriage, and they are traditionally used in meditation and formal inaugurations. Even today, the Kaaba is washed twice a year with Iranian rose water. Previously this washing could be performed only by kings. It is a common ingredient in Persian sweets, sherbets, and preserves, or it can be sprinkled on rice. And, of course, attar of roses is the basis of all rose perfumes. The reason for its being such a precious substance will be understood when one realises that about two thousand blooms will produce one gram of oil.

According to The Graham Stuart Thomas Rose Book there is a Persian document in the National Library in Paris which states that in the year 810 the province of Fars (which has Shiraz as its capital) was required to pay an annual tribute of 30,000 bottles of Rose-water (in Farsi, Golaab) to the Treasury of Baghdad. That represents many huge fields of roses.

The rose and the nightingale

The "gol o bolbol" (the “gul” and the “bulbul” – the rose and the nightingale) are the perfect beloved and lover. The rose is exquisitely beautiful, and the nightingale sings endlessly of its love. Having been wounded by a thorn, the nightingale is said to have turned the white rose red with his blood. They appear as a couple in literature, art, and decorative work of all kinds. "Gol o bolbol" designs were used to beautify all manner of objects, from ceramics and woodwork to the most precious regalia and manuscripts.

The rose first appears as a discrete motif and a landscape element in the illustration of epic and lyrical texts in C13. Persian painters then drew upon literary images of the rose as a metaphor for love and beauty to create symbolic compositions in the margins of paintings evoking visions of springtime and young love, or to suggest the pleasures of the gardens of paradise as described in the Koran. In the C16, bird and flower imagery continued to feature in manuscript illustration in the form of flowering rose trees accompanied by clearly identifiable nightingales singing in their branches. And roses are found in court portraits, suggesting courtly elegance, refinement, and notions of idealised beauty.

The gol o bolbol motif on an antique Isfahan capert

By the C17 the bird and flower theme began to appear in a wider variety of media, including textiles and lacquer-painted objects such as pen-boxes, mirrors, and trays. In general the designs were densely packed, often featured nightingales, and were set against a profusion of flowers, including roses. The role of roses at the time may also be seen in references to customs now fallen into disuse, such as the “festival of roses” (ʿid-e golrizi). Persia was prosperous, and Persians loved luxury and pleasure. From the early C18 the theme of the rose and the nightingale began to predominate in the Persian decorative repertoire, so that the term gol o bolbol came to designate all bird and flower designs, and eventually even came to be synonymous with the land of Persia and its culture. Thus, the tile-work of such Shiraz buildings as the pavilion in the garden of the haft tan was embellished with designs of flowering rose bushes and nightingales. Roses were especially featured in the bindings of religious texts as symbols of the prophets, particularly of the Prophet Moḥammad, who was said to have created the rose from a drop of his perspiration.

The rose in poetry

The use of the gol o bolbol theme in Persian poetry over a period of nearly a thousand years testifies to its force in Persian culture. The rose, alone or coupled with the nightingale, serves as a literary metaphor for perfection and beauty, and might more specifically signify either worldly or spiritual love, or even the prophet Mohammad.

Everyone knows FitzGerald’s English versions of the Rubaiyyat (the verses) of the mathematician/philosopher Omar Khayyam (1048-1131, perhaps), which feature roses brilliantly, as in the following:

8 And look ... a thousand blossoms with the day
Woke ... and a thousand scatter’d into clay:
And this first summer month that brings the rose
Shall take Jamshyd and Kaikobad away.
13 Look to the rose that blows about us ... “Lo,
“Laughing,” she says, “into the world I blow:
“At once the silken tassel of my purse
“Tear, and its treasure on the garden throw.”
18 I sometimes think that never so red
The rose as where some buried Caesar bled;
That every hyacinth the garden wears
Dropt in its lap from some once lovely head.
48 While the rose blows along the river brink,
With old Khayyam the ruby vintage drink:
And when the angel with the darker draught
Draws up to thee ... take that, and do not shrink.
72 Alas, that Spring should vanish with the rose!
That youth’s sweet-scented manuscript should close!
The nightingale that in the branches sang
Ah, whence, and whither flown again, who knows!

Fewer in the West know the poetry of Rumi, which, too, is replete with rose imagery, including this utterly magnificent declaration of love:

Fire in your presence
Turns into a rose bush. (“A Mountain Nest.”)

Then, of course, there is the Gulistan of Sa’adi, which is an anthology of poems (a “rose garden/place” a gul stan), one of which I quote despite the fact that it has no roses in it, but because it is displayed in the entrance of the United Nations Hall of Nations:

Human beings are members of a whole,
In creation of one essence and soul.
If one member is afflicted with pain,
Other members uneasy will remain.
If you have no sympathy for human pain
The name of human you cannot retain.
Sa’adi in a rose garden, from a Mughal manuscript of the Gulistan, ca. 1645

According to FitzGerald, Omar Khayyam told one of his pupils that he would like his tomb to be where the North wind would scatter rose petals over it. His tomb is located in the old city of Nishapur, and roses are grown on it to this day.


Professor Alan Brimer

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