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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On Natures Gifts and a Mysterious Balm

My father once gave me a lump of bauxite that he had brought back on one of his travels. It was rust-coloured stone consisting of small spherical particles in a buff matrix, and I was amazed to learn from him that somehow, by some alchemic magic, out of this strange conglomerate came that thin silver foil that my mother used so abundantly to wrap thing up in the kitchen. Australia is the world's greatest producer of bauxite and it is just one example of the vast reserves of natural wealth of that continent.

Israel, on the other hand is a country with few natural resources, Interestingly, the little mineral wealth it has, comes largely from the sea, such as the chemicals extracted from the waters of the Dead Sea and the substantial recent discoveries of offshore natural gas in the Mediterranean. It was in close proximity to the Dead Sea that another important product was once obtained, this one from a mysterious plant that was grown in the vicinity of the village of Ein Gedi, and nearby in the wastelands around Jericho. This was balsam (Heb. bosem - בושם), a gold-coloured oleoresin extracted from the Opobalsamum plant and known as the Balm of Judea or the Balm of Gilead. It is recorded as having been grown in this region in the Hellenistic and Roman-Byzantine periods when balsam served as the source of a highly prized perfume favoured by the upper classes and commanding a high price. It has been claimed that Pompey exhibited the balsam plants in Rome together with other spoils from his siege of Jerusalem in 65 B.C.E., that balsam was displayed in the triumph of Vespasian in 79 C.E. and that the Romans placed the plantations of balsam vines under an imperial guard. The great prestige of this plant was due to its unique aroma as well as its claimed medicinal uses for treating various ailments including headaches, cataracts, as a diuretic, a snake bite antidote and as a curative for respiratory diseases. It was also used in embalming, as the name suggests, forming a critical part of the aromatic substance used to preserve the dead along with another substance obtained from the same region - bitumen. Balsam was highly regarded for that purpose in Egypt where embalming of the dead was typically carried out, and consequently was eventually secreted away to be grown solely in royal gardens in Egypt.

A sense of how valuable and highly regarded balsam was in the Middle Ages is reflected in a letter from the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, Evremar, to his former teacher, Bishop Lambert of Arras. He writes that he presents the bishop with a gift of a gold ring and two crystal ampules, filled with balsam.* However, a number of medieval sources suggest that by the crusader period balsam was in fact no longer grown in the Dead Sea region. Rorgo Fretellus, canon, chancellor and possibly archdeacon of Nazareth, and perhaps also of Antioch, who lived around 1119-54 wrote: "Between Segor and Jericho is the district known as that of Engaddi, whence also are the vineyards of Engaddi, where the balsam used to grow in wonderful richness."** Other pilgrims accounts refer to it as having been removed from the region of the Dead Sea and taken to Egypt where it was grown exclusively in the royal garden at Matariyya, northeast of Cairo:

Of old there was no balsam in all the world save in the land of Jerusalem, and that was in Jericho. Afterwards the Egyptians came thither, took away the shrubs into Egypt, and planted them in their city of Babylon [Cairo] which is now the only place where balsam is found. There is nothing remarkable in the trees, but if they be grown by any save Christians they bear no fruit, and will be doomed to barrenness for ever. ***

But one twelfth century pilgrim, John of Würzburg, who generally appears to be reliable, suggests that it was still grown at Ein Gedi during crusader rule (c.1160): “…[there is] a large Jewish village beside the Dead Sea [which] is called Engaddi, at which balsam is grown and from which it is exported.”**** Perhaps it still was, or perhaps, as is often the case, John's was not a first-hand account and he was in this matter relying of misinformation that reached him from other sources. A later pilgrim, the Swiss Dominican, Felix Fabri, recorded that balsam was grown in a famous vineyard in, Engaddi, and that sources claim that it was planted there by King Solomon with roots given him as a gift by the Queen of Sheba “a gift beyond all price”.***** Fabri notes that this vineyard is now in Egypt, and he also records that earlier pilgrims in their itineraria recorded that when they sought for it they found shoots of balsam, but no shrubs.

* Regesta Regni Hierosolymitani, no. 42 - Revised Regesta no. 73 -

** Rorgo Fretellus, Description of Jerusalem and the Holy Land, Palestine Pilgrims’ Text Society, vol. 5, trans., James Rose Macpherson, London, 1896, p. 12.

*** Anonymous Pilgrim V. 2. Palestine Pilgrims’ Text Society, vol. 6, transl. Aubrey Stewart, London, 1894, pp. 34-5; Anonymous Pilgrim VI. (Pseudo Beda), p. 47.

**** John of Würzburg, Description of the Holy Land, Palestine Pilgrims’ Text Society, vol. 5, transl. Aubrey Stewart, London, 1896, pp. 57-8.

***** Felix Fabri, The Book of the Wanderings of Brother Felix Fabri, Palestine Pilgrims’ Text Society, vol. 10,2, transl. Aubrey Stewart, London, 1893, p. 190

H no. 42RRH no. 42

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