KIBBUTZ ALMOG, West Bank – Guy Erlich is a pioneering Israeli farmer, but not in the way you might imagine.
Instead of developing new crops or innovative biotechnology, Erlich is engaged in a grass-roots project: Reviving ancient plants mentioned in the Bible.
Think frankincense and myrrh, plus a few others.
At his farm on Kibbutz Almog, a West Bank settlement a stone’s throw from the Palestinian city of Jericho and a few miles from the Dead Sea, Erlich is growing ancient plants once used to make holy balms, perfumes and natural medicines.
Frankincense and myrrh, along with gold, are forever intertwined with the Christmas story as the gifts the wise men took to the baby Jesus in the city of Bethlehem, just 20 miles from here.
While frankincense endured, myrrh almost disappeared after the fall of the Roman Empire. The balsamon tree, whose extract was used to make myrrh’s exotic perfumes and embalming oil, no longer grew on the banks of the Dead Sea, where ancient Hebrew farmers worked.
Although various species of the plant – known scientifically as commiphora – were found in other places in the Middle East, as well as in Asia, Africa and the Americas, the myrrh industry was all but dead in the Holy Land.
That is until eight years ago when Erlich heard about the legendary balm of Gilead, a species of myrrh even more powerful and once abundant on the Dead Sea’s shores that provided medicine and incense used during the time of the second Jewish temple 2,000 years ago.
"I was looking for a business project, and on a family visit to the Dead Sea it hit me that this was it," he said.
Some called him crazy, Erlich said, as he searched for the plant over the next few years.
Then he learned of a botanist who had smuggled it out of Saudi Arabia.
Somehow, one sapling had ended up in Jerusalem’s botanical gardens, but the tree had failed to flourish in the city’s cool air. It was sent to the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in Israel’s southern desert, where Elaine Solowey, head of the center for sustainable agriculture and a biblical plant expert, began to study it and try to revive it.
"These trees and plants were once so important that caravans stopped to buy their products, either as oil or raw sap," she said.
Solowey named the three important incense trees during that period as frankincense, myrrh and the balm of Gilead, which was cultivated only by the Dead Sea.
"These trees were very medicinal back then, but even today we know that frankincense is powerful as an anti-cancer plant and is used as an anti-inflammatory," she said.
Today, the trees are a threatened species, Solowey said. In the places where they grow abundantly, such as Yemen and Somalia, their resources are over-tapped and there is little conservation. The trees also suffer from low germination and fail to regenerate without human help, she said.
Today, Erlich has more than a 1,000 commiphora plants; its relation the boswellia, whose resin is used to make frankincense; and numerous other types of biblical greenery growing on an expansive plantation.
His plot of land, on the outskirts of the kibbutz, sits way below sea level in the humid and dusty Jordan Valley. There, the land is sandy and salty because of its proximity to the Dead Sea. Erlich works alone; hired help is too expensive, he said.
For now, his plantation is fairly sparse, except for an area he’s named the Hill of Frankincense. Two years ago, Erlich planted hundreds of commiphora or myrrh saplings and several rows of frankincense trees. They appear to be flourishing.
Erlich also runs a visitor’s center on the kibbutz where he showcases his plants.