Scientific name: Commiphora Gileadensis (family: burseraceae)
Former scientific name: Commiphora opobalsamum
Natural habitat: grows naturally on both sides of the Red Sea in Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Egypt, Sudan, Yemen and Oman.
Identification of our plant in the modern era
The technical ability to identify plants precisely, using a universal method that does not leave room for mistakes, dates back to the advent of modern botany about 250 years ago.
Two 18th century scientists working in Sweden – Carl Linnaeus and Peter (Pehr) Forsskal – deserve credit for identifying our plant.
The great Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) is considered the father of modern botany. He invented the classification method for animals and plants called taxonomy. This method made it possible, for the first time in history, to define all plants simply and clearly, as well as providing each plant with a scientific name.
In 1750, Linnaeus became rector of Uppsala University. A gifted teacher, he dispatched many of his students to places all over the world to collect botanical samples. Linnaeus called 17 of his best students his “apostles.”
He recrueted his most promising and most committed students, and all of them made botanical expeditions to far-flung places, often with his help. Most of them were given instructions about what to look for on their journeys. While traveling, the apostles collected and organized new plants, animals and minerals according to Linnaeus’ system. It was a very risky job: seven of the students died during their expeditions.
The man who identified the plant
Peter Forsskal (1732-1763) was a Finnish botanist, zoologist, traveler and philosopher. Born in Helsinki, he studied botany at Uppsala under Linnaeus and became one of his apostles. In addition to earning a doctorate in philosophy and Oriental languages, Forsskal joined a Danish expedition to Egypt and Yemen on behalf of King Frederick V of Denmark and Norway. One of the goals of his journey (as dictated by Linnaeus) was to discover more about the plants mentioned in the Bible, and especially to try to identify the opobalsamum, or biblical balm of Gilead. Based on biblical stories and the writings of many Greek and Roman authors, geographers and historians, including Josephus Flavius, Forsskal traveled to Yemen, home of the biblical Kingdom of Sheba, hoping to find this tree which had become extinct in Judea. The known features that could help his search were fragrance, exudation of a liquid resin – the opobalsamum, and traditional medical traits for which the balm of Gilead was famous. After a long and stressful journey, he eventually found one small tree growing on dry stony hills in the Tihama foothills at Oude Yemen, whose leaves emitted a special fragrance when crushed. Forsskal sent his “eureka” message to his respected mentor Linnaeus: “Now I know the genus of the opobalsamum. The tree grows in Yemen…” (Hepper and Friis, 1994)
Forsskal was not allowed to send plants to Linnaeus. The Danish government financed the journey and absolutely did not want any material from the journey to end up in Sweden. Forsskal still managed to slip in a small branch of the balm tree into a letter to Linnaeus, who was extremely happy when he received it and accepted the discovery. After a year in Yemen, Forsskal caught a deadly fever. He was only 31 years old when he died.
While most scientists are convinced the ancient balsamon plant is indeed the plant known to modern botany as C. gileadensis , 100% proof could be obtained only by finding the remains of an ancient balsamon plant and scientifically comparing the specimen to C. gileadensis. Such remains are no longer to be found in the Dead Sea area.
On the other hand, we do have a beautiful archaeological testimony that greatly reinforces the claim that our plant is indeed the ancient balsamon: the Madaba Map. Dating back to the 6th century AD, the mosaic map was discovered in 1896 in an early Byzantine church in the city of Madaba, Jordan, about 15 kilometers east of the northeastern corner of the Dead Sea.
The Madaba Map
The Madaba Map (also known as the Madaba Mosaic Map) is part of a floor mosaic in the early Byzantine church of Saint George at Madaba, Jordan. The map is the oldest surviving original cartographic depiction of the Holy Land and especially Jerusalem.
The mosaic was created by unknown artists between 542 and 570 AD, probably for the Christian community of Madaba, which was then the seat of a bishop. Rediscovered in 1896 during the construction of a new Greek Orthodox church on the site, the mosaic’s current dimensions are 16x5 meters.
The map depicts an area from Lebanon in the north to the Nile Delta in the south, and from the Mediterranean Sea in the west to the Eastern Desert. Among other features, it depicts the Dead Sea with two boats, a variety of bridges linking the banks of the Jordan, fish swimming in the river and receding from the Dead Sea, a lion hunting a gazelle in the Moab desert, palm-ringed Jericho, Bethlehem and other Christian biblical sites. The map may have served in part to facilitate pilgrims’ orientation in the Holy Land. All landscape units are labeled with explanations in Greek. A combination of folding perspective and aerial view depicts about 150 towns and villages, all of them labeled.
The largest and most detailed element of the topographic depiction is Jerusalem, at the center of the map.
The map of Madaba is the oldest known geographic floor mosaic in art history. It is of major use for the localization and verification of biblical sites. Study of the map played a major role in answering the question of the topographical location of Askalon (Asqalan on the map). In 1967, excavations in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem revealed the Nea Church and the Cardo Maximus in the very locations suggested by the Madaba Map.
On the map where the Jordan River flows into the Dead Sea near Jericho, two types of plants are illustrated. The extremely prominent one is date palms. This is very logical, since the Jericho region was famous throughout the ancient world for its high-quality dates.
Three other bushes are depicted there: two east of the Jordan River, in a place called Ramata, and one west of the Jordan River. This is no accident. Indeed, experts who studied the map ascertained these were balsamon bushes, which were cultivated in the Dead Sea region for many years, providing the foundation of its thriving cosmetics industry. (2)
The striking similarity between the drawings of plants made 1,500 years ago by an unknown artist and our C. gileadensis plant leaves no doubt that the two shrubs are actually one and the same.
(2) Date Palms and Opobalsam in the Madaba Mosaic Map, F. Nigel and Joan E. Taylor, Palestine Exploration Quarterly, 136, 1 (2004), 35-44.
Left and middle:Sections of the Madaba Map with the mosaic of balsamon plants. On the right:Photograph of a leaf from our plant.
Our plant is related to some extremely powerful historical stories from:
The Balsamon Timeline
A biblical story from the time of Jacob, his son Joseph and his brothers (most experts date the period of the Patriarchs back to 1850 BC to 1550 BC). There we learn of a powerful medicinal balm, called in the Bible Zori (Balm of Gilead)
“There came no more such abundance of spices as these which the Queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon.” (Kings I, 10, 10)
The golden age of the Balsamon industry lasted some 1,000 years.
From this period, many archeological findings and historical documents have remained, telling us that for hundreds of years an extremely lucrative cosmetics industry flourished in the Dead Sea region, based on the Balsamon plant.
The last chapter, the golden age, ended at around the sixth century AD. The Roman Empire had collapsed and the ancient industry operating in the Dead Sea area ceased to exist.
Peter Forsskal found the balsamon plant in Yemen where the Kingdom of Sheba was located.
The balsamon returns to Israel.