The Farmer Who Brought Ancient Spices Back to the Land of Israel

December 24, 2019 | Sara Toth Stub
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Frankincense and myrrh are known to Jews as primary ingredients of the incense used in the Temple—the formula is recited in daily or weekly prayers—and to Christians as gifts brought by the magi. On a farm not far from the Dead Sea, Guy Erlich cultivates the plants from which they derive. Sara Toth Stub writes:

About ten years ago, Erlich [and his family] visited the Einot Tsukim nature reserve, where he was intrigued by the ruins of a 2,000-year-old perfume factory and the story of an aromatic and medicinal plant called balsamon that once grew around the Dead Sea.

Referred to by many names, including the “balm of Gilead,” these plants show up throughout the Bible. They also spared the Jewish community of Ein Gedi from destruction by the Romans in the 1st century CE due to that community’s ability to harvest these valuable plants. They were so important to the ancient economy that they are illustrated along the Dead Sea on the famous Madaba map, a 6th-century mosaic map on a church floor in Jordan. But, like many such plants, they disappeared from the area in the Middle Ages, a time of many wars and upheaval.

For a few years, Elaine Soloway, a researcher at the Arava Institute at Kibbutz Ketura near Eilat, had been growing and studying a small number of the plants, which she got from a plant collector who had gotten them from a garden in Oman. She gave Erlich a few specimens, which he started growing in pots outside his new home. . . . Soloway also gave him some frankincense and myrrh—which also haven’t been grown widely in Israel since the Middle Ages. Erlich has added others from other collectors based abroad, enduring Israel’s tedious agricultural-imports bureaucracy.

After accumulating hundreds of plants, he needed more space, and managed to buy the nearby plot of land where his farm is based today.

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