Cleopatra’s balm

Image of Robin Lane Fox

Would you like to spend time gardening in a kibbutz? I have been to check out a possible site, the most famous botanical garden with a kibbutz connection. It is indeed remarkable.

The Ein Gedi Botanical Garden occupies a site where gardening ought to be nearly impossible. It is within sight of the Dead Sea, which is itself slowly dying as its water level drops. It is near to the former home of the community with whom I would least like to have spent time in the first century AD, the intransigent Jewish Covenanters of the Dead Sea sect at Qumran. It is surrounded by low-lying desert and a hill or two with caves. In the valley below the main viewing terrace archaeologists have found terraced hillsides and the wooden coffins of those who tried to garden in the desert more than 2,000 years ago. The rainfall, however, is minimal and nowadays the main vegetation in the surrounding landscape is a series of palm groves, able to survive the drought and heat. The garden is not too far from the probable place where John the Baptist told his hearers they were a “generation of vipers”. The Baptist never tried to grow botanical plants in the desert.

Up a winding approach road the Ein Gedi garden is most surprising. Healthy trees flank the roadway and paths lead off into irrigated side-gardens of herbs and shrubs. Big banyan trees root their branches down into the hard, dry soil. There are good jacarandas, silver-leaved limoniums, creeping sorts of tropical Busy Lizzie and plenty of plants which I am still struggling to identify. In 1994 the 25-acre garden was recognised as an International Botanic Garden, the only one in which communities also live. In outlying bungalows up to 500 members of the Ein Gedi kibbutz live, work and have their being. At the top of the drive the Ein Gedi kibbutz hotel shelters visitors who are less committed and who enjoy a swimming pool of their own. I can vouch for the hotel’s excellent chocolate cake. The hotel is directly in the upper part of the garden, a delightful setting. Its parking space is bordered by excellent tall trees with hard trunks whose dark evergreen leaves resemble an aspen poplar’s. They turn out to be Thespesia populnea, a tree I never knew to have existed. It is extremely handsome and healthy.

Desert Rose Adnium

The Ein Gedi garden is the beneficiary of careful academic thought. It has close relations with Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv and its botanically interested professors. Myself, I confess to an ulterior motive. In part I wanted to see if good gardening can coexist with the kibbutz principle. The answer is that it can, as more than 900 families of very varied plants in the garden attest, by no means all from the land of Israel. I also wanted to look for the plant which was the source of the world’s most famous scent before Chanel No 5 existed. In classical times it was known as “balsam” and grew in a specially favoured grove near Ein Gedi. Famously, the balsam plantations were taken away from King Herod by Mark Antony and given to his beloved Cleopatra as a present. Those who wonder if the queen really had much of a hold on her Roman lover need to remember this remarkable gift. No doubt she asked for it. He felt he simply could not refuse. Drops of Ein Gedi balsam must have scented the bath of the most irresistible queen in history before she went to bed with her Roman lover, the man whom his favourites praised as “inimitable at sex”.

What was the balsam which Antony gave her? “Balsam” is a loose translation from Latin and renders Hebrew words which appear about 40 times in the Bible. They may have meant nothing more precise than “balm”. The most detailed description of the plant is given by Pliny the Elder about a century after Cleopatra’s death. He knew three varieties, of which the best was not a tree but a “rough balsam” which curved forwards and had the habit of a shrub. The resin had to be tapped from the stem, but iron tools were not to be used in the process. They were believed to wound the parent plant. When extracted, the finest juice was pale like a clear olive oil, but it hardened into tear drops and turned a shade of red. The drops were caught in small bowls by patient collectors. According to Pliny it took a worker at least a day to gather as much as a millilitre in a bowl at the time when Alexander the Great was nearby. If Pliny is right, I suspect somebody may even have reported or offered some of the world’s most precious scent to the great man before he passed on into Egypt.

Cactus garden at Ein Gedi

In Rome, the notorious voluptuary, the emperor Heliogabalus, is said to have burnt this balsam on his lamps. Nobody since has used it, not even in those scented lamp-burners which we give each other for Christmas. The identity of the balm or balsam has been lost. The best guess is that it was one of the Commiphora family, a loose grouping of some 100 varieties. Commiphora gileadensis is a favoured candidate, a small shrub with clusters of little white flowers on branches about 3ft long. When they are cut open, their juice hardens into brown little lumps and drops on to the ground. The Ein Gedi garden has a plant of Commiphora gileadensis, although it is a modern name for a plant which is not in fact native to Gilead. Smart money is on this plant as the original balsam, but I do not see that it fully fits Pliny’s description.

Walking downhill past the Commiphoras and the herb garden I was inclined to think that the world’s most highly prized scent has been lost. We can never smell as good as Cleopatra. In antiquity the balsam was so precious that people used to fake it for the market. They mixed it with other extracts and passed it off on the public much as artful bazaar traders have passed off false “saffron” on me and other innocent buyers. If we refound the balsam, who would own it in a modern kibbutz? Could its cultivators be trusted? The watersprings of the modern Ein Gedi garden were granted by law for the garden’s use, but enterprising gardeners are now selling the water at 8 shekels a bottle in the markets on the back of its venerable name. In a kibbutz, is everyone’s property nobody’s property, I wondered, as I passed the fine Chorizia trees from South America and admired their falling flowers. Among the jacarandas I think I found the answer. I surprised a sleeping couple who had opted for an afternoon together on the non-grass lawn. Blonde-haired, she was asleep, but black-haired and shirtless, he had his arm clamped firmly over her.

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