‘Gift of nature from Damascus’: Cypriot village smells the roses

As Damask rose production falls in Syria, Cypriots harvest flower with passion in solidarity, employing Syrian refugees.

Rose water
Panagia Eleousa Orthodox church in Agros is surrounded by bushes of rosa damascena [Stefania D’Ignoti/Al Jazeera]

Agros village, Cyprus – Every morning in May, Nasir Karoub, a Syrian from Damascus, wakes up at 5am.

He takes his scissors and apron to the rose fields of Agros, a village tucked away in the Cypriot Troodos mountains, before the precious flowers he has been harvesting drop their petals. 

This has been his routine for the past eight years.

“Around 30 kilos of roses need to be picked up every day to keep up the pace,” Karoub told Al Jazeera. “And the process needs to be fast, because these roses blossom early in the morning and their scent fades within just a few hours.”

He is now a refugee, living with his family in Cyprus because his hometown is not safe. Back home, he also worked in the rose farming industry.

Agros, a village of just 800 people, is known for cultivating the Damask rose which, like jasmine, is considered an iconic Syrian flower.

Karoub did not know about the village’s floral history before he arrived. It is just a coincidence that he has ended up cultivating the rose, native to his country, in Cyprus.

According to Loukia Vassiliou, a researcher at the Agricultural Research Institute of Cyprus, the species – known by its scientific name rosa damascena – was introduced to Europe from Damascus in the mid-12th century by the returning Crusaders. 

It was not until the 16th century that rosewater production and distilling, for their unique therapeutic properties, became a tradition in the eastern Mediterranean island.

“The plant has found suitable weather and human conditions to establish itself and generate products of excellent quality,” Vassiliou said. “In recent years, its cultivation has expanded due to higher market demands, confirming the local high standards.” 

Rose water
The Rose Factory, run by the Tsolakis family in Agros. The company produces a wide variety of products from rosa damascena extracts, including vinegar [Stefania D’Ignoti/Al Jazeera]

Meanwhile, in its ancestral homeland of Syria, just 130 kilometres (80 miles) across the sea, the famous thirty-petal flower, featured in Shakespeare’s sonnets and poems by Nizar Qabbani, a contemporary Syrian poet, has suffered because of the war.

Before the conflict, farmlands in the villages around the Syrian capital were estimated at nearly 1,619 hectares (4,000 acres).

When the war began, agricultural families fled clashes between government forces and rebel groups.

By 2017, production hit an all-time low of 20 tonnes from 80 tonnes in 2010, and crop acreage dropped to less than 1,012 hectares (2,500 acres).

Damascus rose
A woman holds Damascene roses during the picking season at Mrah village, north of Damascus [File: Khaled al-Hariri/Reuters]

Only recently have farmers slowly started to take back control of their fields. 

With its 100 hectares (248 acres) of Damask rose crops producing about 20 tonnes a year, Agros can hardly compete with the two current largest world producers, Turkey and Bulgaria, that together account for 80 percent of the world’s rosewater supply. 

But people in the village are nevertheless pleased with what the flower has brought to them.

“We are thankful that the rosa damascena has created many opportunities in our village. The increase of tourism, employment and sustainable development are very important for the village to survive and thrive,” said Evsevia Polykarpou, spokesperson of AgRose Products, a local company producing cosmetics and traditional sweets with rose extracts.

Since the 1960s, the distillation and distribution of rosewater in the village has relied on a cooperative, with about 100 producers exclusively cultivating the rose variety.

“Our goal is to promote the preservation and name of the Damascus rose, which we think is one of the best ambassadors of Syria around the world,” said Andria Tsolakis, co-owner of The Rose Factory, one of the oldest rose businesses in the area.“We’ve been employing Syrian citizens for 24 years. They were all very good, hard-working people.”

A family company with seven full-time employees, the busy harvesting time in May usually sees The Rose Factory add four seasonal workers to the team. 

For almost 10 years, Karoub has been one of them. 

Tsolakis’s father had wanted to hire a Syrian farmer specialised in rose cultivation not only as a symbolic gesture but also to learn and integrate the best conservation practices from the flower’s homeland.

In recent years, more Syrian refugees with agricultural backgrounds have joined the trade thus beginning a tradition of cultural exchange between Agros and Damascus.

“We Cypriots feel a special connection to the Syrian culture, since our countries are not far from each other,” Tsolakis said. “As human beings first, and secondly as people who cultivate the rose of Damascus, we feel more motivated to continue this tradition as a form of solidarity among fellow farmers.

“We hope that one day Syrians will start over again from where war stopped them.” 

Rose water
Chris Tsolakis, owner of The Rose Factory, pictured next to his company’s distilleries [Stefania D’Ignoti/Al Jazeera]

Every May, Agros holds a village festival, attracting hundreds of foreigners and Cypriot visitors, who travel from every corner of the island to witness the harvesting activities.

Stalls overflow with foods easily spotted on both Cypriot and Syrian tables, from halloumi cheese and stuffed vine leaves, to mahallabiye, a milk custard with dried fruits – the Agros style is enriched with rose syrup. 

“The Damask rose represents our main source of income. Many villages in the Troodos area are disappearing but ours is thriving thanks to this gift of nature from Damascus,” said Vasilis Christofi, whose family helps organise the festival.

For Tsolakis, however, it is not just about prosperity. In her mind, she still associates Damascus with the scent of the flowers she has dedicated her career to, rather than the stench of war.

“We hope to be worthy and strengthen the legacy of rose production,” she said. “And we would be honoured if our children decide to carry on this tradition, too.”

Damascus rose
Cultivation of the famed rose, which is linked to a bygone era of Arab grandeur, was being revived in its birthplace of Syria after decades of neglect before the war began [File: Khaled al-Hariri/Reuters]
Source: Al Jazeera