Taif - Saudi Arabia

Every spring, you can smell the sweet aroma of millions of damask roses in Taif. In summer there is a very different smell in the city in the Hidjaz Mountains, when thousands of camels race against each other in Taif Camel Square. Getting to Taif is a real experience. A scenic road winds up through the mountains from Mecca to the plateau where the city is located. Along the way, you pass rose farms and enjoy breathtaking views of deep valleys. Taif is a hidden gem for nature lovers and the name Ta'if comes from the Arabic word for wanderer. 

The climate of Saudi Arabia is stifling in the hot summer months. Consequently, many residents flee to the higher elevations of the country, such as the Sarat Mountains. Even the king prefers to spend his summers in 1,800-meter-high Taif, an hour's drive east of Mecca. But the Hijazi Mountains and their welcome coolness are not the only reason justifying a summer visit to Saudi Arabia.

In July and August, Taif attracts thousands of fans of the most striking and popular Saudi sport: camel racing. Just ask around and chances are there are races taking place in Taif Camel Square on Fridays and Saturdays. The biggest event is the Crown Prince Camel Festival, with hundreds of races and a prize pool of more than fourteen million dollars.

Big business

With more than 13,000 participants, the festival in Taif is a logistical challenge, but leave it to Saudi Arabia to make such an event a success. You are also in the right place for the world's largest replica of a camel, whose geometric shapes are illuminated with 51,000 lights.

Camels are big business. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman made Saudi Arabia the leading destination for camel racing with Taif as the main venue. You can also make a pretty penny with beauty contests for camels. Indeed, the prize money at the King Abdulaziz Camel Festival north of Riyadh is considerably higher at 66 million euros. Because of these astronomical sums, many camel owners are tempted by illegal tactics. In 2021, 43 camel owners were disqualified for injecting botox into camel lips and inserting gel implants.

Sweet smells in Taif

Taif also has a poetic nickname: the City of Roses. Its vast rose fields, which bloom from March to April, produce petals that are harvested for highly sought-after rose waters and oils, used in perfumes from brands such as Chanel and Hèrmes. The annual Taif Rose Festival, held in May, is a visual and olfactory delight, when parades, exhibitions and cultural performances are staged to celebrate the region's botanical heritage. The essence of roses is even combined with honey, a local specialty, and is known for its pure, unprocessed quality and health benefits. At the Taif souq, in the subtly renovated historic center, you can discover these treasures in a peaceful setting. Despite its size, it does not have the hectic bustle of a large city market.

Taif has nearly a thousand rose farms that together produce about 550 million roses, from which the world's most expensive rose oil is made in rose factories such as the 120-year-old Al Qahdi Rose Factory. The picking season lasts about a month and a half. Each morning the flowers are harvested as early as possible, when the petals unfold in the morning light. In this way, the fragrance is optimally preserved. The harvested petals are then heated for hours in large copper cauldrons. The resulting vapors are cooled and collected as rose water in large glass jars. At the souk in Taif, then, everything revolves around roses, from rose water and rose oil to rose soap and rose perfume. The flowers are even used in coffee, tea and some local dishes.

While visiting Taif, do not stare blindly at the colorful splendor of the rose fields or the region's vines and orchards full of pomegranates and fig trees. From the hairpin bends in the road to Mecca, you look out over the golden-brown slopes of the Hidjaz Mountains, where relatively tame mantis baboons are too curious to keep at bay. Monkey watching is a lot more fun here than at the Al Kar Tourist Village located atop the ridge, where the toboggan run and the bright colors of the water park's slides rather clash with the natural surroundings.

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