The Balm of Gilead is a rare perfume that made the Romans crazy! As a private tour guide in Israel, it is sometimes hard for me to bring the ancient world back to life. Sometimes I find myself struggling with the question; how as someone that gives guided tours in Israel I can pass over to my guests how things smelled or tasted 2,000 years? Not easy right? So This post is about this as well.
The Balm of Gilead
The famous Balm of Gilead was a legendary plant in the times of the Bible. Known for the great healing powers of its balm. The Balm of Gilead is mentioned several times in the Bible. For example in the Book of Jeremiah 8:22. Also the writings of Pliny the Elder indicate that the tree was brought to Rome in the first century C.E. Another interesting fact is the historian Josephus recorded that the Queen of Sheba made a gift of balm of Gilead to King Solomon. The Balm of Gilead was very rare, the tree or shrub producing the balm is commonly identified as Commiphora gileadensis.
The plant was renowned for the expensive perfume that was thought to be produced from it. As well as for the exceptional medical purposes that were attributed to its sap, wood, bark, and seeds. Commiphora gileadensis is instantly recognized by the pleasant smell given out when a twig is broken or a leaf crushed. The bark of the balsam tree is cut to cause the sap to flow out. This soon hardens and has a sweet smell that quickly evaporates. The hardened resinous gum is chewed, is said to taste either like a lemon or like pine resin, and it is also burned as incense. Some botanical scholars have concluded that the actual source was a terebinth tree (Pistacia terebinthus) in the genus Pistacia.
The Balm of Gilead In the Biblical Account
Balsam is designated by various names in the Bible. For example, Bosen or Nataf and Zori, just to name a few. And in rabbinic literature: afarsemon or balsam. In the book of Genesis it is told that after having cast Joseph into a pit, his brothers noticed a caravan on its way from Gilead to Egypt. And among other goods, they were transporting balm and myrrh (Genesis 37:25). When Jacob dispatched his embassy to Egypt, his presents to the “unknown ruler” included among other gifts a little balm. During the final years of the Kingdom of Judah, Jeremiah asks “Is there no balm in Gilead?” (Jer. 8:22). Lastly, according to Kings 10:10, balsam was among the many gifts the Queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon.
The Balsam in the Greco-Roman Period
In the later days of Jewish history, the neighborhood of Jericho was believed to be the only spot where the true balsam grew, and even there its culture was confined to two gardens, the one twenty acres in extent, the other much smaller. Because of the lucrative production and export of balsam is centered in Jericho, we hear about Zacchaeus the tax collector in the New Testament; his position there must have carried both importance and wealth.
The resin of the balsam poplar tree is collected when it seeps out of the tree during the summer months. Seepage increases when humidity levels are high. Slits may be made in the tree’s bark to collect the resin more rapidly. The bark and leaf buds are also collected.
Theophrastus, who was the successor to Aristotle in the Peripatetic school. He is often considered the “father of botany” for his works on plants. His two surviving botanical works, Enquiry into Plants (Historia Plantarum) and On the Causes of Plants, were an important influence on Renaissance science. In his Enquiry into plants (Historia Plantarum) he refers to the date trees and the balsam cultivated in Judea.
“Balsam of Mecca grows in the valley of Syria. They say that there are only two parks in which it grows, one of about four acres, the other much smaller. The tree is as tall as a good-sized pomegranate and is much branched; it has a leaf like that of rue, but it is pale; and it is evergreen; the fruit is like that of the terebinth, in size shape and color, and this too is very fragrant, indeed more so than the gum […]
Balsam is said not to grow wild anywhere. From the larger park are obtained twelve vessels containing each about three pints, from the other only two such vessels; the pure gum sells for twice its weight in silver, the mixed sort at a price proportionate to its purity. Balsam then appears to be of exceptional fragrance.” (9.6.2)
Till the 2nd century, B.C.E Judea without a doubt was a part of the province of Syria. Therefore we can deduct quite surly that he is referring to the Jordan Valley. Also, this is the only place where it grows.
The Balm of Gilead In the Roman Period
In describing Judea, Tacitus says that in all its productions it equals Italy. Besides possessing the palm and the balsam (Hist. 5:6). And the far-famed tree excited the cupidity of successive invaders. By Pompey it was exhibited in the streets of Rome as one of the spoils of the newly conquered province, 65 B.C.E. And one of the wonderful trees graced the triumph of Vespasian, 79 C.E.
During the invasion of Titus, two battles took place at the balsam groves of Jericho. The last being to prevent the Jews in their despairing frenzy from destroying the trees. Then they became public property. And were placed under the protection of an imperial guard But history does not record how long the two plantations survived.
According to Pliny (Hist. Nat. 12:54), the balsam-tree was indigenous only to Judea, but known to Diodorus Siculus (3:46) as a product of Arabia also. In Palestine, praised by other writers also for its balsam (Justinus, 36:3; Tacitus, Hist. 5:6; Plutarchus, Vita Anton. c. 36; Florus, Epitome bellorum 3.5.29; Dioscorides, De materia medica 1:18) this plant was cultivated in the environs of Jericho (Strabo, 16:763; Diodorus Siculus 2:48; 19:98), in gardens set apart for this use (Pliny, Hist. Nat. 12:54; see Josephus, Ant. 14.4.1; 15.4.2; War 1.6.6); and after the destruction of the state of Judea, these plantations formed a lucrative source of the Roman imperial revenue (see Diodorus Siculus 2:48)
The Balm of Gilead: The Descriptions of Pliny
Pliny distinguishes three different species of this plant; the first with thin, capillaceous leaves; the second a crooked scabrous shrub; and the third with the smooth rind and of taller growth than the two formers. He tells us that, in general, the balsam plant, a shrub, has the nearest resemblance to the grapevine, and its mode of cultivation is almost the same. The leaves, however, more closely resemble those of the rue, and the plant is an evergreen. Its height does not exceed two cubits. From slight incisions made very cautiously into the rind (Josephus, Ant. 14.4.1; War 1.6.6) the balsam trickles in thin drops, which are collected with wool into a horn, and then preserved in new earthen jars.
At first, it is whitish and pellucid, but afterward, it becomes harder and reddish. That is considered to be the best quality which trickles before the appearance of the fruit. Much inferior to this is the resin pressed from the seeds, the rind, and even from the stems (see Theophrastus, Hist. Plant. 9:6; Strabo 16:763; Pausanias 9.28.2). This description, which is not sufficiently characteristic of the plant itself, suits, for the most part, the Egyptian balsam-shrub found by Belon in a garden near Cairo. The plant, however, is not indigenous to Egypt, but the layers are brought there from Arabia Felix; Prosperous Alpinus has published a plate of it
Medicinal Usage of the Balm of Gilead
Dioscorides (De materia medica) attributes many medical properties to balsam, such as expelling menstrual flow; being an abortifacient; moving the urine; assisting breathing and conception; being an antidote for snakebite; treating pleurisy, pneumonia, cough, sciatica, epilepsy, vertigo, asthma, and gripes.
In the era of Galen, who flourished in the second century, and traveled to Palestine and Syria purposely to obtain knowledge of this substance, it grew in Jericho and many other parts of the Holy Land
The Balm of Gilead: In Christianity
From the Bible, we know that the Three Magis gave Mary, the mother of Jesus, frankincense, myrrh and gold. There is a claim that the gold given is actually the Balm of Gilead. Firstly, it was more precious than gold and those days. Secondly, at that time of the Second Temple, the only ingredient of the anointing oil of the Kings of Israel was the Balm of Gilead. In order to be the King of the Jews like Jesus was according to the New Testament. He had to be anointed with the Balm of Gilead.
In fact, today the Christian rite of confirmation is conferred through the anointing with chrism, which is tradinannly a blend of olive oil and balsam. Balm seems to be used everywhere for chrism at least from the sixth century.
The Jewish Town of Ein Gedi 1,700 Years Ago And It’s Secret
The indigenous Jewish town of Ein Gedi was an important source of balsam for the Greco-Roman world until its destruction by Byzantine emperor Justinian as part of his persecution of the Jews in his realm. A synagogue mosaic remains from Ein Gedi heyday, including a Judeo-Aramaic inscription mosaic (now on display at Jerusalem’s Schottenstein campus museum) is warning the inhabitants against “revealing the town’s secret” – possibly the methods for extraction and preparation of the much-prized balsam resin, though not stated outright in the inscription – to the outside world
Where Can We Find Today The Balm of Gilead
As a private tour guide in Israel, I like to take my guests for a visit to the Ein Gedi Botanical Gardens. There you will find over 1,000 varieties of flora from all over the world. Including the Balm of Gilead. Another place to see this ancient plant.
In Kibbutz Almog next to the Dead Sea, Guy Erlich remixes blends of perfume and incense that he believes were used by royalty in the biblical era. He claims to have recreated a scent that Cleopatra may have dabbed on her skin and oils that anointed ancient Jewish kings. He now cultivates around 60 biblical plants, including the Balm of Gilead. Elaine Solowey, a desert agriculture specialist at Israel’s Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, helped him to identify some of his plants. For now, the small-leafed species take up only a limited part of his farm, but the honey he produces sells at a premium price: $1,000 per kilogram.
Erlich also claims to have re-created fragrances used at the time of the two biblical-era Jewish temples, the first destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BCE and the second by the Romans in 70 CE.