A brief overview on the Balsamon tree, throughout history
Chapter One takes us back 3,700 years to a biblical story from the time of Jacob, his son Joseph and Joseph’s brothers
(most experts date the period of the Patriarchs back to 1850 BC-1550 BC). There we learn of a powerful medicinal balm, called in the Bible Zori or Zori Gilead.
Joseph was thrown into a cistern by his jealous brothers and rescued by Ishmaelite traders who happened to pass nearby: “As they sat down to eat their meal, they looked up and saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead. Their camels were loaded with spices, balm and myrrh, and they were on their way to take them down to Egypt” (Genesis, 37:25).
A more extensive list of products is mentioned in the story in which Jacob tells his sons to send gifts to Joseph: “Then their father Israel said to them, ‘If it must be, then do this: Put some of the best products of the land in your bags and take them down to the man as a gift – a little balm and a little honey, some spices and myrrh, some pistachio nuts and almonds” (Genesis, 43:11).
These verses present the products as unique and prestigious items that were made in the land of Israel (“best products of the land”) and were unavailable in Egypt during the famine. Actually, these were special export products made in Canaan, to be marketed abroad.
The importance of the medicinal balm and its extensive use is also mentioned in the book of Ezekiel: “Judah and Israel traded with you; they exchanged wheat from Minnith and confections, honey, olive oil and balm for your wares” (Chapter 27, verse 17). The prophet Jeremiah mentions balm three times as a medication for illnesses and pains: “Babylon is suddenly fallen and destroyed: howl for her; take balm for her pain, if so be she may be healed” (Chapter 51, 8; chapter 8, 22; chapter 46, 11).
Chapter Two is “only” 3,000 years old, dating back to about 1000 BC. This biblical story describes the meeting of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba: “She gave the king one hundred twenty talents of gold, and of spices very great store, and precious stones. There came no more such abundance of spices as these which the Queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon” (Kings I, 10: 10).
According to Israeli scientists Yehuda Felix and Zohar Amar, the term “no more such abundance of spices” relates to Balsamon, the high-quality perfume. They believe this is not a generic name for fragrance but a specific name for oil of Balsamon.
Balsam, according to this interpretation, also grew naturally in Ein Gedi, as mentioned several times in the Song of Songs (associated with King Solomon): “My beloved is gone down into his garden, to the beds of spices, to feed in the gardens, and to gather lilies” (Song of Songs, 6:2, 5:13).
There are several citations to support the fact that Balsamon was indeed brought to the Land of Israel from Yemen by the Queen of Sheba. Firstly, the renowned historian Yosef Ben Matityahu (Titus Josephus Flavius), who chronicled the Roman Empire in the 1st century AD, wrote about the Queen of Sheba: “Some say the balsamon plant that is cultivated in our land today, we should attribute with thanks to this woman” (Antiquities 8, 6:6). Keeping in mind that Josephus was describing an event that had taken place some 1,000 years earlier, this clearly is not unequivocal evidence, but rather a traditional version.
Significant support for the assumption that the Queen of Sheba brought our plant to King Solomon was published in 2010 in a scientific article written by French scholar Andre Lemaire. He describes a copper plaque discovered recently in Yemen, with etching in the ancient script of the southern Arabia region. The 25-line plaque dates back to 600 BC and was written by Sabahhumu, a clerk in the court of the King of Sheba. The plaque tells, among other things, of a delegation of merchants from the Kingdom of Sheba who went on a business expedition to Judea. This plaque strongly supports the biblical story and confirms there was indeed significant trade between the Kingdom of Sheba and the Kingdom of Israel (Biblical Archaeology Review – January/February 2010, p. 55).
Chapter Three, moving closer to our period, was the “golden age” of the Balsamon industry that lasted some 1,000 years, beginning in the 4th century BC and ending in the 6th century AD. From this period, many historical documents and archeological findings have remained, telling us that for hundreds of years an extremely lucrative cosmetic and medications industries flourished in the Dead Sea region, based on the Balsamon plant.
According to Jewish sacred literature (the Talmud), a Balsamon industry was operating in the 6th century BC. In the Bible, Jeremiah 52:16, we find a description of the destruction of the First Temple (dated 586 BC) and the exile of the Jewish people to Babylon. It is written there: “But Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard left some of the poorest of the land to be vinedressers and plowmen”. In the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 26a) Rabbi Yose ben Halafta explained that “the vinedressers are the Balsamon farmers from Ein Gedi to Ramata” (eastern side of the Jordan River, opposite Jericho).
Greek geographer Strabo from Amaseia (late 1st century BC) describes the Jericho Valley and adds: “Here is also where the Balsamon garden grows. Balsamon is a type of bush with a pleasant fragrance. People make cuts in its bark and collect the juice in vessels. Its ability to heal headaches in various stages, as well as weak eyesight is remarkable. For this reason, it is so expensive and is not produced anywhere else…”
(Starbon, Geographica 16: 2,41 (LCL)
Greek historian Diodorus Siculus (1st century BC) discussed the Dead Sea and later notes cultivation of dates and Balsamon. He writes: “There is in these areas, in a particular valley, a tree called Balsamon, from which they make a substantial income, since this tree cannot be found anywhere else in the inhabited world. It is used for medicinal purposes and extremely valued by physicians.” (Bibliotheca Historica (LCL) 2: 48,9)
As mentioned before, the Romans, who incorporated baths and cosmetics into their culture, were heavy consumers of perfumes and cosmetic products from various parts of the ancient world. They were absolutely crazy about Balsamon and were willing to pay top prices to enjoy the perfumes and balms which were produced from Balsamon. Detailed historical documentation describes the price paid for the perfume in Rome and the measure of it popularity there.
The Greek geographer Strabo (63 BC-24 AD) in a 16th-century engraving
Greek historian Diodorus Siculus. (1st century BC)
In the first century AD, a Roman military man, an important author and historian, was posted in the Land of Israel and wrote about the reality he faced there. His name was Gaius Plinius Secundus, or Pliny the Elder. He thus wrote about (The Natural History 12, Chap. 54):
“But to all other odors that of Balsamum is considered preferable, a plant that has been only bestowed by Nature upon the land of Judaea. In former times it was cultivated in two gardens only, both of which belonged to the kings of that country. The emperors Vespasianus and Titus had this shrub exhibited at Rome. At the present day this tree pays us homage and tribute along with its native land. The sap that seeps from a slash made in the plant is known to us as Opobalsamum. It is a sweetish substance that runs in small amounts collected in wool and kept in small horns. The price, too, at which it was sold was double its weight in silver. In any case there are no products more prone to forgery than balsam. One Sestertius (approximately 567 ml or 19 ounces) is sold by the empire for 330 dinars and is resold for 1,000 dinars; therefore adulterating the substance in cheaper substances is quite profitable.”
Among archeological findings that shed light on the Balsamon industry, are the following:
• A 1st century BC (Herod’s period) perfume processing facility was discovered in Ein Bokek near the Dead Sea in the late 1960s. The excavation was carried out by a group of archaeologists from Tel Aviv University headed by Prof. Mordechai Gichon, who specialized in military history. Several hundred meters away from the Dead Sea hotels, they discovered an impressive industrial facility, which was quite quickly identified as being designed for perfume production. Prof. Gichon, 87, is still alive and sharp as a knife, and will gladly serve as the scientific/archaeological consultant for a visitors’ center there. When it turned out he had discovered an ancient perfume factory, Prof. Gichon turned to his Italian colleague, the late Prof. Giuseppe Donato, who was an international expert on ancient perfumes. Prof. Donato hastened to Ein Bokek and was excited by the findings; he took part in the excavations and the attempt to reach a precise understanding of the local production processes. And indeed, one of the most fascinating historical affairs related to the industry that flourished from our plant involves Cleopatra the Seventh, Queen of Egypt (69 BC-30 BC). After her lover, the Roman Emperor Julius Caesar, was assassinated in 44 BC, Cleopatra was forced to return to her kingdom in Egypt. A short time later, a new Roman ruler, Mark Antony, arrived in the region. He was part of the triumvirate that ruled in Rome at the time, and was responsible for the entire eastern part of the empire. Immediately upon meeting, Mark Antony fell hopelessly in love with Cleopatra and was ready to fulfill her every wish.
What she really wanted was to control the Balsamon industry that flourished in the Dead Sea area. Cleopatra was exceedingly fond of cosmetics and even wrote a book on the subject that has been lost (but is mentioned on many occasions). In an extremely unusual move, Mark Antony decided to transfer the entire Dead Sea area from Rome’s jurisdiction to Egyptian jurisdiction, ruled by his lover. King Herod, who until that time owned the cosmetics workshops in the area (including the Ein Bokek facility), was strongly opposed to the decision but was forced to honor the will of the Roman leader. However, since the decision caused a substantial loss of revenue, he appealed to Queen Cleopatra and convinced her to lease the Balsamon cosmetics factory for a hefty sum. The story was told by Josephus Flavius (Wars, Book VII, chapter VIII, 4).
• In addition to the large Ein Bokek workshop, several Balsamon production facilities were discovered in Ein Gedi, a relatively large Jewish town.
The late archaeologist Yizhar Hirschfeld carried out lengthy excavations in the ancient Jewish settlement in Ein Gedi. In the book Ein Gedi, A Very Large Jewish Village, published by the Hecht Museum and Haifa University, he details its history from the 1st century BC to the 6th century AD, when it was abandoned following a large fire, whose remains are clearly seen throughout the site.
Aside from several Balsamon production facilities, a mosaic discovered in the ancient synagogue shows the importance of the Balsamon industry to local residents, who operated as a guild and strictly guarded the trade secrets relating to perfume production. This mosaic inscription places a curse on anyone who reveals “the secrets of the town.”
The inscription from the 5th century AD is written in Hebrew letters in Aramaic. The relevant section, in the third paragraph that begins in the middle of the mosaic after the brown spot, says:
“May they be remembered for good: Yose and ‘Ezron and Hizziqiyu the sons of Hilfi. Anyone causing a controversy between a man and his friend, or whoever slanders his friend before the Gentiles, or whoever steals the “tsevotey”(3) of his friend, or whoever reveals the secret of the town to the Gentiles - He Whose eyes range through the whole earth and Who sees hidden things, He will set His face on that man and on his seed and will uproot him from under the heavens.
And all the people said: Amen and Amen Selah.”
* Additionally, several hoards of gold were discovered at the Ein Gedi excavations, attesting to the financial success the village enjoyed due to the Balsamon trade.
Another interesting archaeological finding was discovered by Joseph Patrich and Benny Arubas in 1988 near Qumram close to the Dead Sea: a small clay pot from Herod’s period, filled with a thick liquid, probably Balsamon perfume.
After so many years, the liquid no longer had a scent, but a chemical analysis found it contained vegetable oil without animal fat. It also determined the oil was thick and its relative weight was higher than other oils (similar to the properties Pliny related to Balsamon oil). The fact that similar clay pots were found at the Ein Bokek perfume workshop is extremely relevant.
Beyond the archaeological findings, the Balsamon industry was mentioned widely in the Talmud, which refers to the plant by its ancient Hebrew name, Afarsemon :
• The Sanhedrin tractate says: “This teaches that the people of Sodom used to cast [envious] eyes at wealthy men, and entrust Balsamon into their keeping, which they placed in their storerooms. In the evening they would come and smell it out like dogs, as it is written, They return at evening: they make a noise like a dog, and go round about the city” (Sanhedrin, 109, 71). In other words, the strong scent of the balsamon enabled thieves to locate the wealthy people’s money.
• Regarding the behavior of the daughters of Zion that brought about the destruction of the Temple, the Midrash writes: “The elders tell she would take a chicken gizzard and fill it with Balsamon and place it between her heel and her shoe and when she spied a group of boys she would tap it and the scent would seep through them like the venom of acana” (Eicha Rabbah, 84, 18).
• The Balsamon of Rabbi Judah Hanassie was compared to the Balsamon of the Roman emperors, saying: “None bless the maker of perfume trees, only the Balsamon of Rabbi’s house and the Balsamon of Caesar’s house” (Blessings, 43, 61).
• The Shabbat tractate tells of a woman who used balsamon oil, lit a Sabbath candle, caught fire and burned (Shabbat, 26, 1).
Scientist Zeev Erlich found indirect mention of the perfume industry based on Balsamon in the Yoma tractate. The Talmud relates to the lovely fragrance of incense that miraculously spread throughout the eastern bank of the Jordan River: “said Raba Bar Hannah: twenty leagues from Jerusalem to Jericho… the goats in Jericho would sneeze from the smell of incense, Jericho women do not need perfume due to the smell of incense, brides in Jerusalem do not need for the smell of incense” (Yoma, 39, 2). He believed the Talmud actually mentioned the smell of the perfume industry that spread through the entire Jordan Valley and even onto the slopes of the Gilead hills to the east, blown there by the wind, and endowed it with a moral-spiritual meaning, as though it came from the incense in the Temple.
Balsamon served additional important purposes, beyond cosmetics and medicine
1. As one of the ingredients in the incense used in the Temple in Jerusalem:
According to Prof. Zohar Amar of Bar-Ilan University (Book of Incense, 2002), Balsamon is also Netef, mentioned first in the list of fragrances used for incense in the Temple (Exodus, 30, 34). It is also Zori, among the incense types used in the Temple. He quotes Rabbi Shimon Ben Gamliel (known by the acronym Rashbag) who asserted that “zori is nothing but sap that seeps from the Kataf trees.” He also mentioned Maimonides’ interpretation, which identified the Nataf and Zori used in incense with Balsamon.
2. For coronation:
According to tradition, the kings of Israel (who split off from the kingdom of Judea during the First Temple period) would use Balasmon oil in their anointment ceremony (Jerusalmi, Shkalim 76, 51; Horayot 73, 53, Bavli – Horayot 11, 72).
The golden age of our plant ended around the 6th century AD. When the Roman Empire collapsed, the ancient Balsamon industry operating in the Dead Sea area ceased to exist. Different testimonies tell of several attempts to revive the industry in Mecca and Egypt (4), but in any case they were small-scale and completely disappeared about 200-300 years ago.