Ein Gedi Balsam Groves
Iudaea (province) (Pleiades)
Judaea, the Roman province, included parts of the areas of the Hasmonean and Herodian kingdoms, notably Biblical Judah, Samaria, and Edom. Its capital was Caesarea Maritima. Roman influence in the region began in 63 CE, when the Roman general Pompey the Great conquered Syria from Mithridates of Pontus, besieged Jerusalem, and captured the Second Temple; he appointed Hyrcanus, one of the two Hasmonean brothers fighting for kingship, as ethnarch of Judaea. Later, Julius Caesar appointed Antipater, the father of Herod, as Judaea's first Roman Procurator. Later these ties allowed Herod to seek backing from Rome against the Hasmoneans in 40 BCE, when the Senate recognized him as “king of the Jews.” His territories came to include the regions of Galilee, Gaulanitis (the Golan),Peraea and the Decapolis, and Augustus later granted him the coastal cities, Batanaea, Auranitis, and Trachonitis. Herod balanced his allegiance to Rome with the independence of his kingdom, often employing architectural projects to express his ambitions and control of nature to express his capacity to rule . His many palaces, placed strategically around the kingdom, feature dramatically designed landscapes and gardens. Upon his death, his son and heir Archelaus was unable to maintain order and the major part of Judaea was annexed to Syria in 6 CE, with its own prefect, while two other sons of Herod, Philip and Antipas, received territories as tetrarchs. By the time of Trajan, Judea was reduced in size and many of the Herodian palaces abandoned, preserving them over the millennia for archaeologists. Hadrian renamed the province After the Bar Kochba revolts (132-135)Hadrian renamed the province Syria Palaestina, erasing the name of Judaea.
The geography of Judaea comprises a wide variety of biomes, from richly watered plains of the Galilee and the Jordan, to the semi-arid Judean Hills, the humid, fertile coastal plain of the Mediterranean, and the deserts of the Dead Sea valley and the Negev. The period for which we have the richest evidence of a garden culture in this region is during the reign of Herod the Great. An allied king of Rome, Herod’s relationships with Mark Antony, Cleopatra, Augustus, and Marcus Agrippa and other officials ave been preserved in the texts of Flavius Josephus. These constitute a rare record of interactions between Rome and its territories, and provide a valuable context for understanding the trends of design in the early imperial period. The proximity of Judaea to Alexandria, whose palaces and gardens lie beneath the modern city and its harbors, may also provide a suggestion of the late Hellenistic garden culture that Romans emulated. Evidence of gardens in the Hasmonean winter palaces at Jericho and the palace identified as that of Hyracanus the Tobiad at 'Iraq al-Amir on the other side of the Jordan Valley provide rare cases where texts can illuminate archaeological evidence. These gardens require further investigation and both are threatened by local development.
The balsam groves of the Dead Sea region have been famous since the queen of Sheba (Egypt and Ethiopia) reputedly brought balsam as a gift to King Solomon (1 Kings 10:10; Josephus Ant.8. 6, 5-6.). From the time of Theophrastus, Jericho and Ein Gedi near the Dead Sea were renowned for their watered palm and balsam plantations (paradeisoi), described by Diodorus Siculus, Varro, Strabo, Virgil, Horace, Pausanias, Pliny the Elder, Solinus and Galen. They are described in some detail by Josephus (Antiquitates Judaeorum 14.54), who notes their water supply was destroyed during the Jewish Revolt. The balsam, however, is regarded as extinct and has not been identified archaeobotanically.
Itzar Hirshfeld identified a possible balsam terrace near the oasis of Ein Gedi, along the ancient road that links the palaces at Jericho with the fortress palace at Masada. Further studies were carried out by Guy Stibbel.
The only possible archaeobotanical evidence found to date for the plant itself comes from a cave at Qumran. Porath and Arubas report that a small Herodian-period juglet wrapped in palm fibers and carefully hidden in the rocks contains oil that does not correspond with any known modern oil and is consistent with ancient descriptions of balsam but analysis on the contents was less than conclusive. Date palm remains, by contrast, are commonly seen in the carbonized plant remains found in Jericho, Wadi Qelt, Masada,Kumran, and other excavations in the valley. In an astonishing recent development, botanist Elaine Solowey was able to use growth hormones to activate three dessicated date pits from excavated contexts at Masada. These were C14 dated to the Roman period. One seed successfully grew into a male palm. Subsequent work with desiccated pits from the Kumran area have produced female plants. (Sallon et al. 2020)
- Patrich, J.,“A Juglet Containing Balsam Oil (?) from a Cave near Qumran,” Israel Exploration Journal 39 (1989):43-49 (worldcat)
- Sallon, S., Cherif, E., Chabrillange, N., Solowey, E., Gros-Balthazard, M., Ivorra, S., & Aberlenc, F. (2020). Origins and insights into the historic Judean date palm based on genetic analysis of germinated ancient seeds and morphometric studies. Science advances, 6(6), eaax0384. (worldcat)
Kathryn L. Gleason ORCID: 0000-0001-6260-8378
21 Apr 2021