Elon Musk? Bill Gates? These are part of the class of super-rich in today’s world. In the ancient world control over technology, production, and transportation also led to the enrichment of the very wealthy. Over 2,000 years ago, the second richest man in the Roman world was a client king in a Roman satellite 1500 miles (2300 km) to the east of Rome. We are, of course, speaking of Herod the Great.
I’ve often wondered how Herod was able to fund his massive building projects – palaces in the desert like Masada, the largest religious complex in the world on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, entire new cities with the latest building technology in Caesarea, and even the reshaping of a mountain to provide a suitable eternal resting place for himself at modestly named Herodium, and many others. Turns out that one of the main sources of his super-wealth was from one plant grown near the Dead Sea.
In the oasis of Ein Gedi was grown and processed the perfume of Judean balsam (the afarsimmon of the Bible). This special scent was derived from the sap of trees. Not even indigenous to this area but originating in the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia, the perfume was the most highly prized liquid in the Roman world. The collection and processing of the sap from this tree was done at high security installations and the communities which produced it were sworn to secrecy. A synagogue floor in Ein Gedi admonishes the congregants not to give up the “secrets” of the town. At an isolated outcropping near the ancient city of Ein Gedi and not too far from the fields there is the Arugot fort, thought by researchers to house the production center of Judean balsam in antiquity. Even today you will not find a signpost to this fort and it is “off limits” to those visiting the National Park, even though it has not produced a single gram of perfume in over 1700 years.
International conflict and cooperation helped Herod achieve his goals and status. The perfume production and trade was the cause of conflict between Cleopatra from Egypt and Herod, with ultimately Herod gaining control over the prized area, and its important industries. The Nabateans to the south and east were also rivals and partners in the industrial base of this area. Herod’s own mother was a Nabatean princess. We see influence on Nabatean art, architecture and technology from Greece and Rome throughout time not only in Petra but in other Nabatean strongholds and waterworks. The Nabatean know-how on production of high-quality spices and perfumes surely flowed towards the coast, as well influencing Herod’s Judean balsam production.
Even building styles were shared between the super-rich of Petra and Herod. There is a cliff-side palace in Petra similar to the one in Masada. Herod’s funerary site in Herodium is similar in style to the “Treasury” in Petra.
Herod’s death and the political struggles afterwards brought an end to Jewish control over the Judean balsam trade as roads were taken over by the Romans who taxed transport of the precious perfume. Successive greedy governors and the eventual crumbling of Judea would move the wealth to the hills of Rome instead of the hills of Judea.
Little remains of the road system, forts, and production centers of the liquid gold of the Roman world – afarsimmon/Judean balsam. But Herod did leave us a reminder of this industrial powerhouse and his own personal wealth in his buildings, palaces, and cities.