Holy Botany

Some Plants of the Qu'ran and the Bible

Overview and Recent Research
American Center

Damascus, Syria

31 January 2000

Lytton John Musselman
Mary Payne Hogan Professor of Botany

Old Dominion University

Norfolk, Virginia 23529-0266



Another interesting difference between the plants of the two books is the manner in which the plants are used. Most striking is the olive (Olea europaea). In the Qu'ran, the olive fruit is mentioned as a condiment. Despite the many uses of olive oil in the bible for food, medicine, metal/wood preservative, soap, and illumination(16)-no mention is made of olives being eaten!


Why There May Be No Balm in Gilead

Balm of Gilead is an image familiar to Bible students even though it is mentioned in only two verses. The weeping prophet, as Jeremiah is known, writes in Jeremiah 8:22, "Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then is there no healing for the wound of my people?" What is this product of Gilead?

First, what is Gilead? According to the biblical account in the book of Joshua, Gilead is apparently the region from the middle of the Arnon Gorge (Wadi Mujib) to Mount Hermon (Jebel Al Sheik) with the Jabbok River (Zarqa River) being the middle of the territory. This included the domain of the Ammonites and the Amorites as well as the region known as Bashan. In division of territory to the patriarchs, Gilead was apportioned to the half tribe of Manasseh (the other half remained west of the Jordan River), Reuben, and Gad.

Although a small area in terms of square kilometers, Gilead is diverse stretching from the margins of the Jordan valley and the peaks along the Rift Valley to the edge of the Badia (steppe). In ancient times parts of Gilead were covered with forests. These forests were the southernmost extension of their kind, and the southern extreme of the range of the Aleppo pine. Today, only vestiges of these forests remain. A prime example is Dibbeen National Park.

At Dibbeen and scattered other remnants in the area, the forest is dominated by the Aleppo pine. This tree is familiar to anyone who has visited Jordan because it is widely planted. It probably only formed extensive forests, however, in areas with higher rainfall. Pines are the dominant trees but oak (ballot), pistacia (buttim), and carob (kharrob) are also present.

A feature of the natural pine forest is a distinct stratification of the vegetation. The trees are the upper layer. Much closer to the ground is a layer of shrubs, dominated by two species of the genus Cistus. More on these later. Closer yet to the soil are numerous non-woody plants, many of them in the legume family.

One of the characteristics of plants found in this vegetation type is the presence of essential oils, literally oils that have an essence. Pine would fit this category as would numerous of the understory shrubs. Some, like the legume Ononis, have sticky hairs. Others, like various members of the mint family, lack the sticky hairs but contain oils that are evident when the plant is crushed.

If the forest is degraded through heavy grazing, the oaks will predominate. This sort of forest is evident in the hills north of Ajlon as at Istayfanah. Here, you will not see a distinct stratification although the flora is rich and diverse. In the spring, the forest contains showy plants such as orchids and anemones which are most common at the margins where more light is available.

For me, the most desirable time to visit Dibbeen is in the late spring in the afternoon. Shrubs are still green, some flowers of Cistus are present. After the hot day, resin is obvious on the plants. Pine leaves, Cistus, and various native mints combine to give a sweet fragrance. The long rays of the sun in the late afternoon cast a special light over the forest. The clear, brilliant rays and contrasting shadows create a primeval ambience. It is quiet except for that special, calming sound of a light breeze through the leaves of the pine. In the distance you can sometime hear a shepherd playing his pipe. In a personal sense, this is a balm in Gilead for me!

Two species of Cistus are common in the pine forest, C. creticus and C. salvifolius. They are easily distinguished by their flower color. The large pink flowers of C. creticus and the slightly smaller but equally beautiful white flowers of C. salvifolius appear in May. On a hot day, the fragrant resin of the plants is obvious. Upon closer examination, you can see the numerous hairs that cover the leaves and young stems of both species. The resin will stick to your hands if you collect leaves.

Cistus' resin is fragrant, as noted, and has been used for millennia to produce an incense. Even today, the resin is collected in parts of Greece. It can be harvested in a variety of ways. One ancient method is to comb the hair of goats who graze in plant communities where Cistus is abundant. Another is by dragging a rake with long, leather tines across the shrubs at the hottest time of day and then removing the resin when it is dry. To my knowledge, it does not have any widespread use among modern Arabs.

I have not found any local familiarity with the plants. When some Bedouin near Anjara were asked the value of the plant, they simply replied that it was good forage for sheep and goats indicating why the shrub is absent in heavily grazed areas.

The resin is also used for medicine, as a balm that can reduce inflammation of the skin. Recent research on the biochemistry of the plant has shown the efficacy of compounds in the plant for dermatological disorders.

Other resins extracted from plants in this type of Mediterranean community include mastic. This is derived from the sap of at least two species of the genus Pistacia. The highest quality comes from P. lentiscus on the Greek island of Chios. Such trees may have occurred in Gilead in ancient times. However, there is no documentation for this. Another candidate is the resin of the Aleppo pine which has been used as a pitch and gum. Use of the resin for balm is unknown.

Back to Gilead. Is it possible these species of Cistus were widespread and more common throughout Gilead and used as a medicine? Could this be the balm of Gilead? Again, the weeping prophet in Jeremiah 46: 11: "Go up to Gilead and get balm, O virgin daughter of Egypt. But you multiply remedies in vain; there is no healing for you." This implies that Gilead was a special source of the medicine. If so, why was Gilead chosen as a site for harvesting the balm rather than similar areas west of the Jordan? We simply don't know. Nor should we neglect the possibility that the prophet Jeremiah was speaking in a metaphorically way.

What is certain is that the beautiful Cistus shrubs, perhaps the most likely candidate for the balm of Gilead, are much less frequent now then in previous years. This is due to the widespread destruction of the forest type that harbors them. To ensure that future generations of Jordanians can appreciate these attractive members of the indigenous flora, they need to be protected. This can only be done by preserving the forest in which they grow. Otherwise, there will be no balm in Gilead.


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