The sun sets behind the mountains protecting Boumalne Dades as Fatima enjoys the spectacular view of the valley below her home. The sleepy Berber village is filled with olive groves and fig trees, dusty pink and brown ancient kasbahs, small farms filled with chickens, sheep, mules and the occasional grazing camel, a river that fertilizes much of the region, and the road to the infamous Dade Gorges.
But Fatima is looking beyond her village toward the next town over where she grew up, and once reigned as Queen of the Roses; El Kelaâ M’Gouna. Her hometown is where Morocco celebrates the annual Festival of Roses, one of the oldest festivals in the country.
She smiles, remembering the year she was crowned, beating many other girls from neighboring villages for the honor and coveted title of Rose Queen.
Fatima has been attending the festival for as long as she can remember, watching the pageantry and parade since she was a young child. When she was older and moved away from El Kelaâ M’Gouna, she walked over five hours each day to attend the festival in her hometown.
“Being elected Queen of the Festival was a huge honor for me, and even though I was incredibly shy, I was happy to have been chosen. Back then, the prize was 50,000 Moroccan dirhams, a huge amount of money, and I used it to buy a machine for my family to help with producing rose products that we sold in our boutique. I was also able to buy a few animals for our family. But more than the money, it was an honor that I will never forget.”
When asked which part of the festival is her favorite, Fatima doesn’t hesitate to reply.
“Definitely the traditional music of my people! More than the food or the souk or even the smell of the roses; I love the music!”
Approximately 50 miles northeast of Ouarzazate, a six hour drive south-east of Marrakesh, each year during the harvest in April or May, the annual three-day Rose Festival takes place in the Valley of the Roses in the Souss-Massa-Draâ region of the province of Tinghir. Hidden within the Oases of the Dadès Valley is a Moroccan jewel, a town famous for its pink roses, coquelicot poppies, and miles and miles of smaragdine and emerald shades of greens from palm, dates, orange and fig trees that sprout from the fertile earth.
Crumbling kasbahs and adobe-style terracotta homes of umber, copper, ochre and gold blend, separated only by sub-baked terraces of various heights which make up the mud-brick villages in the region where Amazigh families like Fatima’s take pride in upholding centuries of tradition and ceremony.
The views of the lush valley from Fatima’s flat-roofed riad are exquisite. You would think Fatima had grown accustomed to her breathtaking surroundings, but she sighed in pleasure as she took in the scene below before turning to get ready to attend the grand event.
There is a cluster of girls waiting in El Kelaâ M’Gouna, preparing for the festivities. Here, the women rule, and they are confident in their skill and expertise of harvesting the abundant crop of delicate, prized roses. The girls string roses into necklaces and garlands as older women organize the various tasks of label making for the various cosmetic products that will be sold, and packing crates of flowers and petals and buds onto the backs of mules and trucks. The entire village has been busy this week.
Wearing a green velvet djellaba and bright turquoise hijab covering her silver highlighted dark hair, Fatima’s hands peek out from under her sleeves to show faded henna tattoos, a reminder of yet another, more recent celebration when her daughter’s elaborate marriage ceremony lasted three days, and several hundred people gathered in the enormous salon in her riad to eat, drink, dance and sing with the happy couple.
But today she must join her family and friends as they get ready for the most important day of the year, and the elaborate crown will be passed on once again to a new queen to be chosen on Sunday, the last day of the event. Fatima’s smile gives away her delight at being a long time member of the committee of women who organize and host the annual festival. Visitors come from around the world to breathe in the sweet scents of the petals and to enjoy the luxurious beauty of the damask roses.
The most beautiful women come out to dance dressed in their best outfits, from djellabas to caftans to the bright yellow, green and orange lacy headdresses popular at Berber weddings. No matter what their choice of costume, all are decorated with roses.
The pageant contestants and those in the audience have pulled out their Sunday best; they are adorned with jewels, sequins, ribbons, beads and brass. The pounding of hundreds of drums, desert tribal songs and dancers, and a cascade of loud fireworks will be drowned out by thunderous applause once this year’s winner is announced.
Moroccans love to party, and the Festival of Roses is no exception. They’ll be plenty of traditional dishes, Amazigh music, sword fighting by men dressed in white turbaned robes, and visitors from various Berber tribes singing, dancing, performing and showing off elaborate garlands and jewelry made from freshly picked, perfumed roses.
Dating from the late Thirties, when the French opened the valley’s first distilleries, the festival celebrates the annual harvest with exuberant displays and ongoing performances, including a street-parade with brightly colored floats covered in roses, with the most spectacular float carrying the elected Rose Queen. Unlike many annual festivals and parades designed to attract tourism, the Festival of Roses, despite having become immensely popular, is a local event created by and for locals to celebrate their hard work over the years.
But of course, many locals do benefit from the huge increase in the attendees each year as more and more people spread the word about the magic and mayhem that occurs each spring. “Brochette” kebabs sizzle over charcoal barbecues, carpet sellers boast of hand woven vintage rugs, and growers, distributors and buyers haggle over their treasures. You won’t only find every imaginable cosmetic item produced by the highly prized roses. Oranges, dates, almonds and walnuts, cinnamon and saffron, argan oil, saffron, ice cream served in colored cones, and rows and rows of crafts, textiles and silver tea pots from around the country will be on display, and everywhere there will be roses scattered, strung and hung, giving off the intoxicating scent of the fragrant Centifolia rose, also called the Persian or cabbage rose. While you’re haggling over rose products, remember to stock up on spices, Berber mint tea, saffron and amber.
Directly or indirectly, practically the entire town has been involved with processing the lush pink blooms into rose oils for perfumes, beauty products, and cooking ingredients. It takes nearly 7,000 pounds of petals to make just 35 ounces of oil. Less expensive items can be found during the festival at the special markets and souks, from perfumes, creams, medicines, lotions, teas, to rose flavored jams.
The harvesting of the petals of these delicate crops is done with precision, and ever single part of the process and inspections are done to perfection. Although no one knows for sure how long the roses have been in the region, many believe they were first brought in the 10th century by Moroccans returning from Mecca. Others believe the roses were introduced to the area when a Berber merchant from Damascus brought the first Rosa damascena, the Damask rose, from ancient Syria.
In any case, this particular rose from Morocco is highly sought after, and considered one of (if not the) best in the world because of its extraordinary, unique scent and quality, unsurpassed both in the beauty of its natural, refined and subtle fragrance, as well as for its therapeutic qualities.
Plenty of vendors in the souk and on the street will be selling rose products, but be sure to check out the charming boutiques in town that off a wide array of cosmetic and cooking items, including perfumes and potions, soaps, shampoos, gels, creams, eaux de toilette and oils, and a pink see of dried Persian rose buds. As usual in Morocco, often you will need to haggle to get a decent price, however, when purchasing rose water and other rose-scented products, please keep in mind that it takes up to three tons of rose petals to produce one liter of rose water.
It’s fairly easy to take a bus or taxi from Marrakech or Ourzazette to the festival. Note that accommodations can be pretty expensive (or all booked up) during the festival, but if you’re interested, consider booking through AirBnB with Fatima and their Berber family in her riad, or, if you prefer to have a private apartment, next door where you can have your privacy. For photos and more information, check out their listing on Airbnb here.
For an additional small fee, their family will cook a tasty lunch or dinner; a traditional local dish, a feast of Moroccan flavours, such as succulent chicken tagine with preserved lemons or a special cous cous.
For more information about Morocco or the Festival of Roses, contact the Moroccan National Tourist Office at 020 7437 0073, or visit www.morocco.com.