x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

What's in a rose? More than just a cheap gimmick at the mall

The rose, now largely a retailers's hostage as a symbol of Valentine's Day, has a ong history as a symbol of love, and more.

Rooted in Roman Catholic martyrology, February 14 (Valentine's Day) has become a global celebration of romantic love. Like many other "special occasions", the day now represents little more than a vacuous exercise in consumerism. It is, of course, a particularly good time for flower sales, with one flower outselling all others: a flower whose very name is an anagram of Eros, the rose. But why has this ancient bloom come to epitomise beauty, symbolise love and over-represent February 14?

The rose's story begins in the ancient Middle East. The Bible, in the Book of Maccabees, for instance, delights in describing the Egyptian city of Ptolemais as "rose-bearing".

The art, architecture and literature of the broader region sometimes celebrate the rose as a decorative motif, and an object of obvious symbolic significance. One of the earliest examples comes from excavations at Ur (in modern Iraq), where archaeologists unearthed a 5,000-year-old golden figurine depicting a ram caught in a rose bush.

The rose also features prominently in western mythology, often associated with Venus, the goddess of love and beauty. The rose's five petals are said to correspond to the five points of the star of Venus representing the five elements of fire, earth, water, air and spirit. Delving deeper into the cult of Venus, the star of Venus and the five-petalled flower are cast as sacred symbols, representing the union between heaven and earth. Is it a coincidence that Chanel's best-selling fragrance of all time is called No 5?

In the various tellings of the tragedy of Venus and Adonis, we hear that Venus's beloved Adonis is brutally murdered by the jealous Mars. Adonis's red blood gives rise to blood-red roses, while the mournful Venus's tears produce roses of purest white; powerful images that have assured the rose its place as a symbol of both passion and pain, love and loss.

Fast forward to early modern Europe, and the rose insignia is a common element within the heraldry of ruling families. England's Queen Elizabeth I, for instance, adopted "the rose without thorns" as her personal emblem, an allusion to early Christian poetry celebrating the Virgin Mary as a thornless rose. Scholar's of the rose also wax lyrical about wife-beheading Henry VIII, suggesting the only wives he didn't execute were those whose coats of arms bore the rose.

As a heraldic symbol, the rose is also depicted in Shakespeare's Henry IV, where rival factions pluck either white or red roses to indicate their allegiance to the house of York or the house of Lancaster. The decades of bloody conflict that ensued are known as the Wars of the Roses.

Europe's origninal adoption and veneration of the rose was arguably a legacy of the Crusades. Allen Patterson, author of A History of the Fragrant Rose, suggests it was crusader contact with Arabs and Muslims that helped to elevate the rose to eminence in Europe. The French nobleman, Thibaut IV, the count of Champagne, is said to have returned from the crusades with a hitherto unknown red flower, Rosa gallica. Perhaps this is the origin of the close connection - in some cultures - between champagne and red roses? However, the count's red rose, also known as the apothecary's rose, was initially more prized for its medicinal properties than its romantic symbology.

Arab and Islamic cultures already had a long history of horticulture by the time of the European Crusades, and a recorded appreciation for the rose's beauty and medicinal properties. Abu Ali Al Husayn ibn Sina, known by the Latinised name "Avicenna", was a 9th century polymath who described how the rose was widely cultivated in Syria for use in medicines. The rose described by ibn Sina was, of course, Rosa Damascena, a flower still prized today for its aesthetic, medicinal and culinary virtues.

As I walked through Abu Dhabi's Marina Mall ahead of Valentine's Day this year, the rose was very much in evidence. Retailers' promotions looked like an explosion in a blood bank: red on red, with red-clad shopgirls handing out red promo-tack. The rose is everywhere, offered by adorable red teddy bears and adorning cards.

I can't help feel that the rose has been hijacked. But in spite of its indentured servitude to commercialisation, the fragrant rose, with its beauty and mystery, will continue to perfume our imaginations.


Dr Justin Thomas is an assistant professor at Zayed University Abu Dhabi