Frankincense and myrrh are making a comeback in the Holy Land
KIBBUTZ ALMOG, West Bank — Guy Erlich is a pioneering Israeli farmer, but not in the way you might imagine.Instead of developing new crops or innovative biotechnology, Erlich is engaged in a grass-roots project: reviving ancient plants mentioned in the Bible.
Think frankincense and myrrh, plus a few others.At his farm on Kibbutz Almog, a West Bank settlement a stone’s throw from the Palestinian city of Jericho and a few miles from the Dead Sea, Erlich is growing ancient plants once used to make holy balms, perfumes and natural medicines.
Frankincense and myrrh, along with gold, are forever intertwined with the Christmas story as the gifts the wise men took to the baby Jesus in the city of Bethlehem, just 20 miles from here.
While frankincense endured, myrrh almost disappeared after the fall of the Roman Empire. The balsamon tree, whose extract was used to make myrrh’s exotic perfumes and embalming oil, no longer grew on the banks of the Dead Sea, where ancient Hebrew farmers worked.
Although various species of the plant — known scientifically as commiphora — were found in other places in the Middle East, as well as in Asia, Africa and the Americas, the myrrh industry was all but dead in the Holy Land.
That is, until eight years ago, when Erlich heard about the legendary balm of Gilead, a species of myrrh even more powerful and once abundant on the Dead Sea’s shores that provided medicine and incense used during the time of the second Jewish temple 2,000 years ago.
“I was looking for a business project, and on a family visit to the Dead Sea it hit me that this was it,” he said.
Some called him crazy, Erlich said, as he searched for the plant over the next few years. Then he learned of a botanist who had smuggled it out of Saudi Arabia. Somehow, one sapling had ended up in Jerusalem’s botanical gardens, but the tree had failed to flourish in the city’s cool air. It was sent to the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in Israel’s southern desert, where Elaine Solowey, head of the center for sustainable agriculture and a biblical plant expert, began to study it and try to revive it.
“These trees and plants were once so important that caravans stopped to buy their products, either as oil or raw sap,” she said.
Solowey named the three important incense trees during that period as frankincense, myrrh and the balm of Gilead, which was cultivated only by the Dead Sea.
“These trees were very medicinal back then, but even today we know that frankincense is powerful as an anti-cancer plant and is used as an anti-inflammatory,” she said.
Today, the trees are a threatened species, Solowey said. In the places where they grow abundantly, such as Yemen and Somalia, their resources are over-tapped and there is little conservation. The trees also suffer from low germination and fail to regenerate without human help, she said.
“What Guy has done in reviving these three plants in different formats so that we can evaluate them is an important step to finding ancient medicine for which there is no good modern alternative,” she said of Erlich’s work.
When Erlich reached out to Solowey eight years ago, she agreed to give him one small plant. That is what he used as the nucleus of his business.Today, he has more than a 1,000 commiphora plants; its relation the boswellia, whose resin is used to make frankincense; and numerous other types of biblical greenery growing on an expansive plantation.
His plot of land, on the outskirts of the kibbutz, sits way below sea level in the humid and dusty Jordan Valley. There, the land is sandy and salty because of its proximity to the Dead Sea. Erlich works alone; hired help is too expensive, he said.For now, his plantation is fairly sparse, except for an area he’s named the Hill of Frankincense. Two years ago, Erlich planted hundreds of commiphora or myrrh saplings and several rows of frankincense trees. They appear to be flourishing.
Erlich also runs a visitor’s center on the kibbutz where he showcases his plants.Showing a reporter around his open-air greenhouse, Erlich referred to his collection as “my team.”
He reeled off a list of botanical phrases and names and explained that he brought them here from Mexico, Oman, Yemen, India and Somalia, among other places.Even though they are related, frankincense and myrrh look quite different. The myrrh is a thorny plant with leathery leaves, and its sap comes out clear and dries into reddish crystals. Frankincense is more treelike, and its resin is milky, creating cloudy white marbles when dried. When burned, both of the saps produce potent smells ranging from musk to citrus, depending on the species.
Although Erlich’s goal was to make money, he now believes that reviving these spiritual balms and medicines could also serve as a uniting factor.”They are holy for Jews, Christians and Muslims,” he said.
Some believe that the myrrh the three wise men carried was the oil used by Jewish high priests to anoint the kings of Israel. Muslims still use incense derived from these plants in their holy sites and use the resin for health purposes, he said.
But the location of Erlich’s project — on an Israeli settlement viewed by much of the world as illegal and as an impediment to achieving peace between Israelis and Palestinians — makes his dreams precarious.
His work has drawn attention from those seeking to build a third Jewish temple in Jerusalem, on the spot where two previous temples once sat. Today, the place houses the al-Aqsa Mosque and is considered Islam’s third-holiest site.
These third-temple proponents, Erlich said, have their eyes on his balm of Gilead.Rabbi Chaim Richman, the international director of the Temple Institute, an organization preparing for the third temple, said the balm was almost certainly one of the ingredients of incense compounded in the temple. Jewish tradition considers the incense service to be the most precious part of the service to god.
“I’m not a religious man, but I am happy to be bringing back something from the past,” Erlich said. “Thousands of people used this plant for thousands of years. There must be something special in it.”