There is evidence from many sources that the Afarsimon or balsam of Judea is considered to be the most famous and expensive perfume plant in the world in the Byzantine Roman period. one example out of many, is that of Pliny the Elder, a Roman historian who lived in the first century and he wrote: “Of all the spices there is none like balsamum. The only land given this plant is Judea.”
Afarsimon is known by other names such as Bosem, which in Hebrew means perfume, also as balsam, balsemon and opo balsemon which transformed to the name Afarsimon. There are other derivatives in Hebrew, Aramaic, Latin and Arabic. I will only mention that Afarsimon is also named in Jewish sources as tzori and Nataf as incense components in the temple. As described in the book of Exodus chapter 30 verse 34.
One important comment before we continue, there is nothing between the Afarsimon and the persimmon fruit which we enjoy nowadays.
The Afarsimon grew in the Jericho valley, including in the city of Beit Haram, also known as Beit Haran, or Beit Ramta, and in its Roman name Libias, which was a Jewish city across the Jordan river in the East of Jordan, opposite Jericho. The city is mentioned first in the book of Leviticus, as one of the cities built by the tribe of Gad.
In addition, the Afarsimon was grown in the Ein Gedi and Ein Bokek area and possibly also in the vicinity of Qumran, but in any case, the largest plantations were in Jericho.
What sets the Afarsimon apart from other perfume plants like myrrh and frankincense, well usually, it does not secrete solid lumps of resin, but rather a fragrant liquid.
It seems that another uniqueness is its being such a rare plant and also the difficulty in collecting its liquid, mainly due to the high volatility level of the resin once it interacts with air – that was another reason for its popularity.
The pure liquid of the Afarsimon was a valuable product intended for the upper class, & due to its high price, it also had a lot of fakes. A lower cost derivative was called Xylobalsamum – Various parts of the tree such as leafs and fruit branches were crushed and then soaked in hot or cold oil or water and sometime cooked. These products were sold at a good price and in the Roman period constituted a significant source of income for the treasury.
The Afarsimon is also known to have medicinal properties for various diseases. From all its components it was possible to produce a strong odor while burning, for pleasure, for incense, for medicine and even for the anointing of the vessels of the Temple, by the priests and kings of Judah and Israel after the use of the anointing oil ceased.
Afarsimon is actually a collective name for several plants with similar characteristics. The most likely identifications, are: Commiphora gileadensis and Commiphora kataf. These plants have been returned to Israel in recent years.
The Hasmoneans were the first to develop sophisticated irrigation systems in the Jericho Valley. They expanded the area of the Afarsimon plantations in order to increase the kingdom’s income. It began as early as the time of Simon Thassi, and was expanded in the days of his son, John Hyrcanus. As the agriculture development of the Jericho Valley expanded, whether during the Hasmoneans or later by Herod, the water sources also expanded beyond Elisha’s spring, and new aqueducts were established that carried water also from Na’aran, Alooja and Wadi Kelt springs.
In Herod’s time after he regained the Afarsimon fields in Jericho, it can be said that the leading sources of income for Judah were Afarsimon, dates, asphalt and salt, and these increased the Judah Kingdom income, with the Afarsimon making a significant contribution that enabled Herod to build among others, the Temple and develop Jerusalem.
The cultivation of the Afarsimon and its products during the different periods, belonged mainly to the governmental entity, and with the establishment of the Hasmonean state it became a clear sign of Jewish independent sovereignty. Owning the Afarsimon groves largely expressed their longing for freedom & independence, and when the Temple was destroyed, the Jews started to destroy the Afarsimon plantations doing all they can to avoid them fall into the hands of their enemies, the Romans.
Now, just to provide some idea of the wealth the Afarsimon generated to the Romans, so according to the historian Pliny the Elder, five years after the conquest of Judea (in 70 CE), the Afarsimon products yielded 800,000 sestertius to the treasury of Rome, and just from a reference point, a liter of wheat cost at that time a quarter of sestertius and a liter of olive oil cost was 1.25 sestertius.
The fact that in the triumphant procession of Vespasian and Titus these rare shrubs were also led with the rest of the spoils, attests to the importance of the Afarsimon. After the Romans conquered the country, the scope of Afarsimon agriculture greatly expanded, both due to market demands throughout the Roman Empire and thanks to technological innovations, such as aqueducts to transport irrigation water. As mentioned, the Afarsimon yielded great economic benefit to the kingdom of Judea and the Romans.
And to conclude, as usual, a question – one of the settlements not far from here became well known by a mosaic inscription threatening those who would discover the secret of growing Afarsimon, what is the name of the settlement? The answer will appear at the end of the video.