The soft, pink color of dawn still lingers in the sky, and the first golden rays of the sun are just starting to touch the tips of the surrounding mountains. Yet in the rose fields of Qamsar, a small town in the highlands of central Iran, work is already underway. Amid the chirping of nightingales, locals make their way into the fields, where the crisp morning air is heady with the thick aroma of Damask roses.
In a rose field on the outskirts of town, I watch as Javad Jafari picks rose after rose. His calloused, nimble fingers break each stem right below the petals with almost reverential delicacy, before he drops them into a length of cloth tied around his waist and neck.
Like many of the other rose pickers who are busy in the fields around us, 66-year-old Jafari has been picking flowers since he was a young boy, helping his father in their family farm, or harvesting the flowers of neighbors. During the rose season, he wakes up at 5 a.m., says his morning prayers, and heads to the fields.
From late May to the middle of June, idyllic Qamsar becomes a dazzling canvas of pink roses. Rows upon rows of the plants, known in Iran as Mohammadi roses, bloom over the course of 25 days. Every year, hordes of tourists from all over the country and abroad come to watch as workers, farmers, and entire families pick roses and distill them into rose water.
The result is a culinary and therapeutic extract that has been used in Iran and the Middle East since ancient times. Qamsar is one of Iran’s main producers of rose water, an ingredient that flavors and aromatizes ice cream, baklava, rice pudding, and many other dishes in the Persian kitchen. Persians also use rose water to treat everything from headaches to heartache, as the fresh graves of the newly deceased are washed with rose water.