The first-ever depiction of the Balm of Gilead, the exclusive perfume of Cleopatra and the Temple, may have been found in Jerusalem.
Inscribed on the 2000-year-old amethyst seal, which was worn as a ring, there appears a bird and next to it a branch that apparently depicts the famous plant. In ancient times, this expensive plant went by multiple names including biblical persimmon, bosem or balsam, and even the Balm of Gilead. This amethyst seal was discovered at the Foundation Stones of the Western Wall, north of the City of David. This may be the first depiction discovered in the entire world with an engraving of the famous plant.
This biblical persimmon plant, which is not at all related to the orange persimmon fruit that we are familiar with today, is known from biblical and historical sources and was used during the Second Temple Period as one of the more expensive ingredients for producing the Temple incense perfume, in addition to medicines and ointments.
According to the historian Josephus, Mark Antony gifted valuable persimmon orchards that formerly belonged to King Herod, to his beloved, Cleopatra.
Some commentators identify the persimmon in the list of gifts given by the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon.
This surprise discovery was found at the Emek Tzurim National Park operated by the City of David, where archaeological remains are sifted by volunteers and archaeologists. Participants were sifting soil from Israel Antiquities Authority excavations conducted along the foundation stones of the Western Wall, when they saw the 2,000-year-old tiny oval stone that served as a seal during the Second Temple Period.
The seal is made of a precious amethyst, in a range of shades of purple and lilac, with a hole where a metal wire was inserted which was used to wear the stone as a ring. The length of the oval stone seal is 10 mm, its width is 5 mm and its thickness is 7 mm.
In an article that is expected to be published soon, researchers Eli Shukron, Prof. Shua Amorai-Stark and Malka Hershkovitz, who studied the findings, are trying to characterize the engraving on the seal. According to the researchers, on the precious stone there are two engravings next to each other. The first engraving shows a bird, probably a dove, and next to it appears a long, round, thick branch with five fruits on it. After examining the findings, the researchers believe that the plant that appears on the stone is the persimmon perfume plant mentioned in the Bible, Talmud, and various historical sources.
"This is an important find because it may be the first time a seal has been discovered in the entire world with an engraving of the precious and famous plant, which until now we could only read about in historical descriptions," says archaeologist Eli Shukron, who conducted the excavation at the foundations of the Western Wall on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority and the City of David.
According to the researchers, "Towards the end of the Second Temple Period, the use of stone stamps expanded and became more common, but in most stamps discovered so far with plant engravings, it is common to find plants that were common in Israel at the time: vines, dates, and olives, which are among the seven species. But on this stone seal, we immediately noticed that the fruit that appears on it, is unlike any of the fruits we have encountered to date," says Prof. Amorai-Stark. After an in-depth examination of the findings, the researchers hypothesized that it was the famous 'Balm of Gilead,' the biblical persimmon."
"The balsam plant is a positive symbol because beyond the fact that it was used to produce perfumes and medicines, the ancient persimmon, which by the way is not at all similar to today's persimmon, was attributed magical and ceremonial properties and is one of the ingredients used for making the Temple incense during the Second Temple Period – which is when this seal was made," Shukron explained.
According to Prof. Amorai Stark, "The dove is also a positive motif in the Hellenistic, Roman, and Jewish world. It symbolizes wealth, happiness, goodness and success." She notes that the engraving on the seal attests to the identity of the person who wore the ring.
"If it is indeed the famous and expensive biblical persimmon, then it is likely that the seal owner was a Jew with means, since the production and trade that took place around the persimmon plant was tightly controlled at the time by Jews living in the Dead Sea basin, where the fruit was grown. I guess the owner of the seal was a man who owned a persimmon orchard, and when he came to the craftsman who made the ring for him, it is possible he may have brought a branch of persimmon so that the craftsman knew what to carve on the stone."
According to archaeologist Eli Shukron: "The research that takes place around the finds allows us to get a glimpse into the daily lives of the people who lived in the days of the Second Temple, the glorious days of Jerusalem."
The "Archaeological Experience" at Emek Tzurim National Park, sponsored by the City of David together with the National Parks and Nature Reserves Authority, is an activity that is closely accompanied by archaeologists and in which the participants become "archaeologists for a day," where they filter dirt that originates from the excavations at the City of David, and find treasures from the past. Among the finds discovered so far as part of the project: the seal of King Hezekiah, coins from different periods of Jerusalem, arrowheads, jewelry, and more.