When Eros, the god of passion and sexual love, wed Psyche, a maiden whose name means ‘soul’, the daughters of Zeus, the Hours and the Graces, scattered roses about the land and made all glow with the beauty of the rose. The soul of the rose is the marriage of the erotic and the spiritual, the alliance of the physical scent, silk velvet and intricate folds of the rose with its intangible powers of seduction and compassion.
The other day, as I smelled one of the late roses growing in my parents’ garden, and later, my small bottle of precious rose otto oil, I caught a powerful scent of pepper. One of the chemotypes of the rose, eugenol, is also found in peppercorns, cloves, cardamom and many spices, as well as in carnations. But chemistry will only bring us so far into the soul of the rose. That whiff of pepper carried me, as on the Poniente wind, from a small rocky garden on a hillside in Andalusia across the seas to ‘a land of spices’, the island of Sri Lanka, which I explored with my parents when I was ten years old, just before the war. There I saw my first black pepper vine. From Sri Lanka, I flew to a small coffee stall in Basra souk, where an ancient man served me a coffee laced with cardamom and sugar, right next to a spice shop overflowing with wares from all over the Arabian Peninsula, the Horn of Africa, India and beyond. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a man hold a rose to his nostrils, breathing in deeply. It 2003, in the middle of the war, and Basra had just fallen to the British Army. In that small gesture, in that strong-scented rose, there was not a whiff of war.
After that war, and after another, I settled in my home city of Geneva for a while, in a flat on the 9th floor overlooking Mont-Blanc. I grew herbs, tomatoes and roses. Below is one of my favourite roses – one of most fragrant in the world, with a voluptuous scent of Rose de Mai with a hint of lemon, the Bolshoï, a hardy hybrid tea rose named after the famed Russian ballet company. I grew several bushes of it and they thrived for many years, filling my home with their powerful smell of love, dance, sex and spices.
Then there were canals with does planted by them,
does that were hollow, pouring water,
sprinkling the plants planted in the garden-beds,
casting pure water upon them,
watering the myrtle-garden
treetops fresh and sprinkling,
and everything was fragrant as spices,
everything as if it were perfumed with myrrh.
Birds were singing in the boughs,
peering through the palm-fronds,
and there were fresh and lovely blossoms–
rose, narcissus, and saffron —
each one boasting that he was the best,
(though we thought every one was beautiful).
from The Palace and The Garden, Solomon Ibn Gabirol, Al-Andalus, 11th Century.
I came to Andalusia by twisted pathways, but once here, I fell in love. With the land, with the people, with all the living things here, and with the stunning Alhambra palace and its gardens, poems of fountains and damask roses set in geometrical shapes and, in the North-east of the gardens, against a semi-wilderness.
The Alhambra, for all its beauty and majesty, was the dying glory of a brilliant transplanted civilisation, al-Andalus, known to us as Moorish Spain. Knowing that makes its roses all the more poignant. We can’t know the Soul of the Rose without accepting, loving even, the heartbreaking transience of roses, which reminds us of our own. No sooner do they bloom than they start to fade, their scent wafting away in the breeze. After the most beautiful rose has died, its soul remains, a memory of its smell – soft or powerful – of the satin touch of its petals against our fingers and cheek, of its delicate architecture, a love that refuses to die, a sadness that will not be consoled, a vibrancy that gives fully of itself in attar of roses and all the great perfumes created from it, and fills the land with roses.
We are so very little, as my friend the rose
Told me this morning.
“At dawn I was born, baptised with dew-drops
I blossomed, happy, in love.
In the ray of the sun, I closed for the night and woke up old.
And yet I was beautiful, yes, the most beautiful
rose in your garden.”
…. We are so very little, and my friend the rose
Died this morning.
The moon in darkness kept a vigil for my friend,
But I saw her in my dream, lighting up the nights
Her soul was dancing well above the clouds,
She smiled at me.
Believe me if you wish
But I need to hope, or I am nothing,
Or else so very little.