Pictures from the Balkans
Fraser, John Foster


Where the Best Attar of Roses Comes from - Kasanlik - A Rose Garden Eighty Miles Long - The Plantations - The Process of Distilling - Adulteration - Prices - Potency of Attar of Roses

LADIES who are fond of the most precious of perfumes, attar of roses, will find, if they have the best attar, the name Kasanlik on the label.

But where be Kasanlik, whether in Germany or France or Italy, is a matter which not one lady out of a thousand bothers her fair head about. Kasanlik, however, is a little town on the Plain of Thrace, almost within shadow of the Balkans. The Plain of Thrace is like hundreds of others I saw in southeastern Europe - absolutely flat, and the mountains surrounding rising almost precipitously. There is no undulation. All the valleys suggest the bottom of dried lakes cupped by hills. The remarkable thing is that this is the uniform topographical feature over a stretch of hundreds of miles.

Now a great slice of the Thracian plain is devoted to roses. In the district of which Kasanlik is the centre there are one hundred and seventy-three villages devoted to rose culture. Roses, roses all the way, is the feature of the landscape. Where in other lands the peasants grow wheat and rye and feed cattle, here for long miles all the fields are rose gardens. It is the biggest rose garden in the world - eighty miles long. The world seems dotted with roses; the air is


heavy with their perfume. It is not the richness of the soil that produces the abundance. The soil is rather indifferent, but there is a peculiar quality about it - like the soil of Champagne for grapes - which produces the rose most capable of yielding an exquisite essence.

The rearing of roses is a legacy from the Turks. They grew the roses, distilled the attar, supplied the harems of the pashas at Constantinople with the scent. The dilettante Ottoman has gone, and now there are big firms which speculate in roses as Americans speculate in wheat, and out-bid one another in purchasing the products of whole villages before the bushes have even put forth a bud - firms which are in keen commercial rivalry, and have their representatives in Paris, London, and New York.

The distilling of roses began in Persia: the word "atar" (fragrance) is Persian. Until three hundred years ago only rose-water was obtained. It was about the beginning of the seventeenth century that the method of securing the real essence was discovered. From Persia the art spread to Arabia, from Arabia to the Barbary States, and from the Barbary States a wandering Turk brought a rose tree to Kasanlik. The Rosa damascena, grown in such quantities, is the same as the Rosa damascena grown in Tunis, though now in decreasing quantities. The Rosa alba, also grown, can be traced, in a sort of backward route, right through the Turkish Empire to Persia, where it is abundant.

Fifty years ago something between four and five


hundred pounds' weight of attar was produced at Kasanlik. In 1904 the exact amount was 8,147 pounds. It is by an accident that rose culture on so gigantic a scale has grown up in this out-of-the way part of Roumelia. But everything is favourable. The mean temperature is that of France; the soil is sandy and porous, and the innumerable rivulets from the mountains provide constant irrigation.

There are plenty of other regions favourable to rose-growing. No region, however, is quite so suitable for roses needed for attar. The attar rose is sensitive to climatic conditions. Exactly identical methods with those followed in Bulgaria have been adopted at Brussa, in Asia Minor, but not with success.

The rose plantations of the Kasanlik region are not arranged in isolated plots or in narrow little hedgerows, as in the rose district of Grasse, in France, but in high parallel hedges, about a hundred yards long, taller than a man, and with a space of about six feet between them. The setting of a plantation is peculiar to the locality. Entire branches, leaves and all, from an old rose tree, are laid horizontally in ditches fourteen inches wide and the same depth. These boughs, each about a yard long, are placed side by side, four or five abreast, and form a long continuous line in the ditch. Part of the earth taken from the ditch is piled lightly on the branches, and above the furrow is placed a slight layer of stable manure.

The rose harvest begins with the flowering time, about the middle of May, and ends about the


middle of June. Conditions most favourable to the grower are for the temperature to be moderate and the rain frequent, so that the harvest is prolonged for a full month. Great inconvenience is caused if the harvest is quickly over. Gathering takes place every day during the blossoming period. Every flower that has begun to blow, and every half-opened bud, is plucked. A hectare (2 2/5 acres) produces generally about 6,600 lbs. of roses, that is almost three million roses. These three million yield at most 2 1/5 lbs. of attar. With regard to distilleries the question of water takes the lead, for unless water is at hand distillation is impossible.

The distilling apparatus is simple. Its essential part is a large copper alembic, about 4 feet 10 inches high, resting on a brick furnace. The alembic consists of a cistern with a peculiar mushroom-shaped head, and a cooling tube. The oost of the alembic is reckoned according to its weight; thus one weighing about 163 lbs. costs about £4 6s. The cost of the vat into which the cooling tube enters is from 2s. 6d. to 10s. The cooling tube enters at the top on one side, and passes out into a flask at the lower part of the other side. The operation of distilling rose-water lasts about one to one and a half hours, and is repeated again and again until all the petals picked that day have been used, because petals distilled after twenty-four hours' delay have lost so much of their scent that they only afford an unfavourable yield.

To extract the attar from the rose-water a second distillation is necessary. From 40 litres


of rose-water a flask containing 5 litres is distilled. Upon this the attar collects in the form of a yellow, oily layer about 2 to 4 millimetres thick. It is skimmed off by means of a little bowl in the shape of an inverted cone, with a small hole in the bottom to let the water, which is heavier than the attar, pass through.

The current form of adulteration is to mix attar of rose with attar of geranium, produced from the Indian geranium, or Palma rosa. Adulteration is not confined to Constantinople, whence, it may be said, not a single gramme of pure attar is exported. It is done in Bulgaria, sometimes by the grower himself. Since 1888 an attempt has been made to remedy this, and the importation of attar of geranium has been forbidden by the Government, so that it can only be obtained secretly. Much more often the attar is sent on to Constantinople, where it is adulterated in perfect freedom. Another, and the simplest method of adulteration, is to add some white roses to the red ones to be distilled, the product of the white being less fragrant but much richer in stearoptene. The attar of geranium is, in its turn, often adulterated with oil of turpentine. So it is within possibility that the little flask of attar of rose you purchase in a fashionable shop may have very little of the genuine perfume in it.

Simple and kindly-mannered are the peasants engaged in rose culture. But the life is not so idyllic as might be thought. There are no big rose farms. Indeed, the merchants find it more to their advantage to buy from the peasants who, on their


little patches, have grown roses, and by the most primitive means obtained the attar. This provides the merchant with security from loss. If a particular crop is damaged the peasant bears the loss. Besides, the two or three Kasanlik merchants have the monopoly in their hands; they have their own peasant customers, and have the power of fixing the price of the attar. The humble rose-grower can take it or leave it, but, if he keeps his attar, where else is he to find a market? Some fortunes have been made out of attar of rose; but no peasants have grown rich.

I had the pleasure of seeing over one or two of the Kasanlik stores. The merchants are amiable. But each took me aside and whispered in my ear: "Of course, we are quite friendly with our competitors, only I would like you to remember one thing: ours is the only genuine attar. All the other is adulterated. Of course, our rivals deny it, but we know." That little speech was made in each place. I would like to believe that all the attar sent from Kasanlik is pure. But when, searching for truth, I made independent inquiries, I was sorrowfully reduced to the conviction that none of it is absolutely pure.

No perfume is quite so strong as that of attar. Remember the yield is less than one twenty-fifth of one per cent. (0.04) of the roses used. For 1 lb. of attar more than 4,000 lbs. of roses are needed. The peasant gets about 18s. an ounce. For the same thing, as sold in Paris or London, the price is £8 an ounce.


So strong is the odour that nothing short of a hermetically sealed jar will restrain it. A glass stopper, however tight, will not keep it back. Indeed, so strong is genuine attar of rose that it is nauseating. To remedy this and make it genial to the nostrils may be put forward as a kindly explanation why it is so often adulterated and weakened. To be in a Kasanlik store was to be in a thick and sickening atmosphere. I put my nose over a copper jar in which was £8,000 worth of attar, and the smell was so powerful as to be disgusting and productive of headache.

The time to visit Kasanlik is about the birth of June. Then you can get astride your horse and ride for two days, forty miles a day, feast your eyes on a land of damask blooms, and breathe the scent of millions of roses. When the wind is gentle the roses of Kasanlikh have their perfume carried fifty miles. Anyway, Bulgarians fifty miles off have assured me that the breeze from the Kasanlik region has been laden with the breath of a rose garden. The village girls are out early, piling their aprons with roses and filling the slow and creaking oxen carts. No Battle of Flowers at Nice ever had such a mass of roses as deck the rude carts of Kasanlik in June. And the brown-cheeked, black-eyed peasant maidens always deck their hair with the most gorgeous of the blooms.

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