A SCENT OF HISTORY
Unlike most women I have never really understood the attraction of perfume. As a teenager I would receive occasional gifts from admirers but they were invariably ill chosen. One called ‘Poison’, advertised as Dior’s ultimate weapon of seduction, was in my case the ultimate cause of nausea. It ended up in the drawer reserved for other unwanted tributes waiting to be taken to the charity shop.
Imagine therefore my slight trepidation at the prospect of writing a story about scent, as whilst researching ‘Unexpected Israel’ I discovered that Ein Gedi, the oasis on the edge of the Dead Sea, was at one time the main production centre for a perfume called Balsam. But this was no common or garden perfume, rather something totally unique. According to the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, the Queen of Sheba brought the first balsam bushes to Judea for King Solomon around 3,000 years ago.
This was a gift of outstanding generosity, for balsam was then the most valuable commodity in the world. Its resin sold by weight at a price equal to twice that of gold. Consequently it became an important part of royal revenue.
Mani standing at the balsam terraces, Ein Gedi
It was so highly regarded that Theophrastus ( a student of Aristotle 3rd – 4th centuries BCE), the first non-Jew to write about Judaism, which he considered a model philosophical religion, wrote nothing of the Jewish homeland with the exception of balsam. Two centuries later the Greek Historian Diodorus Siculus, wrote extensively about it, describing amongst other things, the importance of Judean balsam as a successful treatment for a wide range of ailments.
In Roman times, Mark Anthony took the balsam plantations away from its owner, King Herod, and presented them to his lover Cleopatra – a gift unmatched by anything known in the ancient world.
Later, in 68C.E. during the First Jewish Revolt, Roman forces largely destroyed Ein Gedi but balsam production continued with the Jews toiling under the yoke of their oppressors. Pliny the Elder wrote of this, elaborating on the highly complex process of extracting resin from the bushes, which was carried out under the strictest secrecy.
So esteemed was this perfume, that the Emperor Vespasian and his son Titus ordered a balsam bush to be displayed during their triumphal procession through Rome. This was one of their affirmations of power, demonstrating that these bushes and the valuable perfume were now the property of the Roman Empire. A depiction of this can be seen on The Arch of Titus in Rome, commemorating the destruction of the Temple and the capture of Judea.
More recently archaeological finds have confirmed balsam’s importance. In 1965 a mosaic synagogue floor from the Byzantine period was uncovered at Ein Gedi. It bore an inscription ordering the community to keep their ‘secrets’ and cursing anyone who might reveal them. Archaeologists consider that this referred to the closely guarded details of balsam production. Evidence of perfume manufacture was also discovered at nearby Arugot.
The cultivators of balsam belonged to a guild that amazingly survived for over 1,000 years. It was not until around the 6th century CE that Ein Gedi was once more destroyed, this time by the Bedouin, and balsam cultivation ceased. Since then many attempts have been made to recreate this enigmatic perfume.
In 1998 excavations at Qumran conducted by the Hebrew University and the Texan archaeologist Wendell Jones (supposedly the inspiration for the movie character Indiana Jones), unearthed a first century CE clay jug containing dark, sticky oil. Jones claimed it was the long lost perfume, but extensive analysis failed to confirm its botanical identity.
Mani, cutting balsam, Ein Gedi 2014
To bring the story up to date I visited Ein Gedi where I met Mani Gal, a botanist. He told me that in 2003 seeds were brought from England by Professor Zohar Amar and planted at Ein Gedi where they have now grown into bushes about 5 feet high. We entered a locked compound where dense prickly bushes with tiny leaves and small berries were growing on terraces. At once I noticed an unusual and pervasive scent.
Mani explained how Professor Amar considered that ancient balsam is probably one of the species of myrrh (Commiphora Gileadensis). The factors that convinced him were that the scent of the resin is carried in the air, it is flammable and when the sap is put into a sealed bottle it does not solidify. (Incidentally, myrrh was one of the gifts sent by Jacob to his son Joseph, the Viceroy of Egypt, and also presented to the baby Jesus by the Three Wise Men).
Mani took out a small sharp object and gently scored a stem. Immediately, a white sap seeped out. It was extremely sticky and smelled strong, unusual and quite unlike anything I have ever come across. I asked if we were any closer to discovering the secrets of balsam. He replied that the kibbutz itself did not have the resources to engage in research, but that the plantation is used regularly by scientists working on different aspects of this elusive plant. including its medical applications.
Today, a flourishing perfume trade exists in Israel claiming to use ‘aromatic essences’ from over 90 plants including frankincense, myrrh and spikenard. ‘Scents of The Bible’ are sold in hand-painted bottles ‘inspired by’ those found at archaeological sites. Products are advertised as essences for industry, detergents, air fresheners and wet wipes. For me, sadly, this link with toilet deodorisers utterly fails to conjure up the allure of a perfume once associated with the Queen of Sheba and Cleopatra.
Israeli manufacturers do nevertheless manage to capture the imagination when naming their products, offering ‘King David’, ‘King Solomon’ and ‘Lion of Judah’ aftershave as well as ‘Queen of Sheba’ anointing oil and surprisingly, one named ‘Ruth’ – undoubtedly the perfect gift for me if only I knew who, what, when or how to anoint.
So will we ever again experience the fabulous balsam? Under the guidance of Professor Amar, botanists believe they have once again restored balsam to Ein Gedi, connecting us with the Jews of ancient times. We can only hold our breath and wait, but imagine the excitement if they do succeed and we might once again breathe in the aroma that so captivated our ancestors.
However I am not quite sure how our Rabbis will react. Balsam is mentioned in the Talmud and a special blessing for it exists, so we are prepared in this respect. But the Midrash goes on to describe “its pungent odour” as one of the methods used by the sinful daughters of Zion to entice lovers. ( Lam. R. 4:18.) Do I sense a slight whiff of disapproval?
On reflection I have decided that the final word must go to those Rabbis who teach us how “in Messianic times the righteous will bathe in thirteen rivers of balsam”. (JT, Av. Ar. 3:1, 42) Now THAT is something to look forward to!