Healers were well aware of the therapeutic and beautifying properties of
this fragrant flower since times long past, and the rose had a wide range
of uses during the Antiquity.
History of the Rose
The history of the rose predates that of humanity. Roses found in numerous fossil beds are estimated to be as old as 25-40 million years.
The oldest record about the rose was found in Mesopotamian clay tablets, dating from 5000 years ago. Many historians believe that ancient civilizations like Babylonia were aleady producing and using rose water. Later, we see a picture of the rose on the frescoes of a Knossian palace at Crete, built in 1600 B.C.
The oldest Egyptian hieroglyph related to the rose dates back to 1400 B.C. An Egyptian tomb from 400-200 A.D was found to have a wreath made of roses in it. The rose is a common image of the Cleopatra era. It is well known that Cleopatra loved roses, had roses sprinkled in her famous milk baths, shed rose petals under Marcus Antonius' feet, and used the rose even in her aphrodisiac recipes.
The rose had a special standing in Chinese civilization. We learn from Confucius about the Chinese Emperor's rose gardens. Confucius also informs us about the colleciton of books, more than 600 in number, on roses and rose cultivation found in the Imperial library.
The Romans learned about the rose from the Greeks. As a country famous for its irrigation canals and rich farming lands, the Romans cultivated huge rose gardens beside their wheat fields and fruit orchards. In Neron's time, the use of roses reached extraordinary amounts. It was used in feasts and meetings in numerous ways for its exquisite fragrance, and women included the rose in their cosmetic recipes. Romans were well aware of the antiseptic and the antibacterial properties of the rose; they washed their hands with rose water and loved to use it in their baths. Thus, the cultivation of roses and its trade got a prominent place in Roman economy.
Since rose water was used in the religious and spiritual rituals of most ancient civilizations, during the early years of Christianity the rose fell out of favor due to such pagan implications. But after a while, like in most other religions, it became a religious symbol in Christianity too; the red rose was identified with the blood of Jesus, and the Virgin Mary was referred to as " a rose without thorns".
The Middle Ages accentuated the therapeutic properties of the rose. It became the favorite treatment for depression during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance Period.
During the 13th century, when the Crusaders coming back home brought with them rose saplings from the Middle East, rose gardens, long forgotten in the Middle Ages, started to revive once again.
Empress Josephine loved roses and loved using rose water in her baths. Thus, during the Napoleon era, rose fragrance became very popular and regained the fame it had previously enjoyed in ancient Rome. Empress Josephine cultivated her famous rose garden, the "Malmaison Gardens", in 1798. In support for his wife's interest for roses, Napoleon ordered his captains, traveling to faraway lands, to bring home seedlings of any novel rose varieties they would encounter during their travels. The Empress' rose collection rapidly proliferated. Throughout the 16 years until her death, 250 different varieties of roses were cultivated in those gardens, cared for and funded by the Empress herself.
It took a while for the British people to get interested in the rose. As time passed by, Western European countries, the United States and Australia followed, and started using the rose in numerous ways.
The Rose in Greek Mythology
In Greek Mythology, the rose is the flower of the goddesses. Cloris, the goddess of flowers, wears a wreath made of roses. The rose is also the symbol of Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty. When Aphrodite presented a rose to Eros, the god of love, the rose became a symbol for love and desire. When Eros presented the rose to Harpocrates, the god of silence, the rose became a symbol for silence and secrecy. The rose is also mentioned in the Homeric epics; engravings of roses decorated Achilleus' shield, and Aphrodite anointed Hector's dead body with rose oil. When Aphrodite was transferred to Roman mythology as Venus, her symbol was the rose again.
During Antiquity, numerous myths developed around this noble flower. The legend for Aphrodite's birth says that a rose tree sprouted from the foam that ran down from her body, and when the goddess watered this plant with nectar, the drink of the gods, rose flowers blossomed on it. Another legend says that the rose was considered to be the flower of Dionysus, and always had a place on dinner tables; sometimes its petals were spread over tombs.
The well-known historian Herodotus writes about the fragrant rose gardens of four-petaled roses of Midas, the Phrygian King, who lived in Central Anatolia in 700 B.C. Herodotus also mentions the 60 petaled roses he had seen in Anatolia. Due to its prominent standing in mythology, the Greek poet Sappho (600 B.C.) named the rose as "the queen of flowers".
The Rose and the Turkic people
Yusuf Khas Hajib's Kutadgu Bilig, written in the 11th century, provides some important details about the traditions of Turkic people and their ways of life. His gigantic work is composed of recommendations for attaining "happiness in the two worlds", and he advises that syrups of rose water, cüllab and gül-engübin, should be served during feasts and banquets.
Another important work of the Turkic world, Kitab-ü Divan-ı Lugat-it Türk, again dating from the 11th century, writes about kumgan, the rose water container made from copper. Thus we learn that the Turkic people of the 11th century were producing and using rose water.
The Rose and the Muslim People
The rose is one of the most outstanding symbols of Islam; it symbolizes both Divine Beauty and Prophet Muhammad. "To smell a rose is a God-rewarded deed" is a well-known saying in the Muslim world, and shows the deeply-rooted traditional significance of the rose. Offering rose water during religious ceremonies became an indispensable ritual, and this ritual gave rise to the creation of some great pieces of art in the form of gülabdanlar, rose water bottles.
Rose is a symbol of Sufism too; in Sufi thought, the rose is the queen of the garden and the mother of all plants. The exquisite beauty and purity of the flowers, connected soundly to a long and thorny branch, symbolizes the mystic path to Allah. The rose is also known as the flower of Heaven.
The legend says that when Abraham was thrown to fire by King Nimrod, the fire transformed into a pond to embrace him, and a rose garden surrounded that pond. The rose is a recurrent theme throughout Rumi's Masnawi. The rose is a common figure of Turkish ornamental arts. In ceiling medallions, stone carvings, wall paintings, clothes, book covers and page ornaments, and on tombstones, the rose is depicted in various stylized forms.
Rose Cultivation in the Ottomans
The rose had a significant place in Ottoman culture and tradition.
The rose was well known in the lands of the Ottomans since the very beginning of the Ottoman state. In the 13th century, rose water produced in Nusaybin was already enjoying a great reputation, and was a valuable commercial product. Later in time, the Ottomans gained more experience in cultivating and distilling roses, and developed their rose industry immensely. Written documents point to the two towns of Edirne, Kazanlık and Zağra, of the Çermen Province (Sanjak), as the centers for cultivating and processing roses. Rose cultivation was much developed in those areas, and rose water and rose oil produced there were of the best quality.
P.I.Orozoff, the founder of the famous Bugarian rose oil manufacturing facilities, writes that rose cultivation and the method of rose oil production was "brought to Bulgaria by a Turkish tradesman at the end of the 17th century." Those lands which were under the reign of the Ottomans for 500 years (1360-1908), were separated from the Ottoman Empire after Bulgaria became an independent kingdom. Thousands of Muslim residents of that territory fled to Ottoman lands, and since most of them were rose cultivators, carried their rose saplings, and also their long standing experience, together with them to Anatolia.
The Ottomans were especially interested in fragrant roses. While people were enjoying their beautiful fragrance and benefiting from their refreshing effects, rose products were frequently used in physicians' recipes too, and was a common component of cosmetic materials used by women. Being acknowledged as a symbol for Prophet Muhammad, the rose enjoyed even a higher prestige; the mosques were being washed by rose water, and Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror ordered Hagia Sophia to be cleaned with rose water before it was to function as a mosque. Rose water and rose oil were among the most outstanding presents sent to Ka'ba each year, and offering rose water to the guests was an indispensable ritual of certain religious ceremonies. "Offering rose water" was an Ottoman tradition, practised widely in all layers of society, from the modest household to the highest ranked state offices. In the grand Ottoman state protocol, coffee was served to guests together with incense and rose water, and this ceremonial service frequently employed up to 40 attendants.
The Rose in Ottoman Medicine
The rose is one of the highly significant drugs of Ottoman medicine. We read about the rose in every medical textbook written by Ottoman physicians since the 14th century, and we see it in many medical recipes.
Ottoman medicine uses three different forms of rose products: rose water, rose oil, and rose paste and rose sherbet. The medical benefits of the rose are called as "ten golden benefits". Nine of those medical benefits are obtained through smelling the fragrance, and the tenth benefit is obtained through drinking the rose sherbet. "The ten golden benefits" are summarizd as follows:
"Smelling the distilled water which is carrying the rose fragrance
- strengthens spitirual and emotional bodies,
- empowers the brain and the mind,
- augments the life force of the body,
- regulates rapid heart beats caused by anxiety,
- relieves headaches,
- alleviates nausea, retching and throwing up,
- is good for bloody eyes and for pain in the eyes,
- strengthens the gums,
- relieves drunkenness and headaches due to drunkenness,
Drinking the rose sherbet strengthens the stomach and relieves nausea and indigestion."
The numerous uses of the rose cited in medical textbooks can be compiled under three headings:
- The rose as a drug and its status in medical therapy
- The rose fragrance and its status in aromatherapy
- The status of the rose in natural skin care and cosmetic recipes
Avicenna, the Prince of Medicine, a leading medical authority of the world until mid-16th century, noted that he used the rose for healing numerous ailments, ranging from warts to rashes, from abscesses to swollen eyes.
Here is a paragraph from his writings about the effects of rose oil: "Rose oil strengthens the brain, augments comprehension, enhances memory. It induces relaxation. According to Galen, it warms cold bodies and cools hot bodies. According to us, its cooling effect on hot bodies is more prominent."
And here is what Avicenna wrote about the effects of rose water: "Its beautiful fragrance addresses the spirit. It is soothing, is beneficial for fainting and for rapid heart beats. It augments comprehension, strengthens the memory."
The Rose in Cosmetic Recipes
The rose was included in cosmetic recipes from times long past. Women have known the anti-wrinkle effects of rose water and rose oil since ancient times and have since used them to such effect. Ottoman women also used rose water and rose oil for their beautifying effects. Rose water consumption of the Ottoman palace amounted to several tons, and rose oil was a must have even in most modest houses. Rose water and rose oil usage in Ottoman cosmetic recipes will cover a separate, long and detailed chapter. Such information will soon be added to our website.
The above information has been taken from the book of Prof. Ayten Altıntaş: Historical Therapeutic and Cultural Perspectives Rose,Rose water