The Arabic word “balsam”, from the root “balsama” meaning to dress (a wound), treat, restore to health, has a direct link with European languages. From it comes our own word balsam, a healing agent; and most likely also balm, a substance that heals or soothes pain.
One great soothing agent, well known as a component of skin creams, toothpaste, mouthwash, and even tissues for sore noses, is Aloe vera. It has been present for millennia in Egypt and has recently begun to appear in natural healthcare lines made locally and sold in upmarket health stores.
We have a young aloe plant in a pot at the front of the house. Recently, I repotted it at a favourable moment in the Northern transplantation time, separating one of the babies and transferring it to a separate pot. Now, the mother plant has got carried away and produced a flower bud although she is no more than 30cm high.
An article in New Scientist last year* described how the gel found inside the leaves of aloe was used by Queen Cleopatra as a skin softener; and how it was employed by the Greek surgeon Dioscorides to treat soldiers in the Roman army for all sorts of complaints, from sore throats to bleeding wounds.
But apart from Cleopatra – who came rather late in antiquity – there is no trace of aloe vera in our books on ancient Egyptian medicine or medical herbs. One thing to remember is that it is difficult to match ancient names with particular plants, so identification can be tricky. But no trace of the plant at all?
I have therefore assumed that aloe vera was introduced to Egypt in late classical times, much as the article outlined – travelling with soldiers or merchants along the frankincense and myrrh route from southern Arabia, and then perhaps being traded across the Red Sea.
Then I struck gold. On a recent visit to Egypt’s National Museum in Tahrir Square I came across a lovely little ceramic pot, at least 5,000 years old, decorated with images of a boat, ostriches and – yes, aloe vera plants!
Dating to the pre-dynastic Naqada II** period, (3,500-3,100 BC), the pot is a gorgeous pinkish-red with darker red decoration. And what a find it was! Here was a tantalising glimpse of Egypt at a time when significant areas of the land were covered by savannah, and giraffes, elephants and ostriches still roamed.
What I still don’t know, however, is whether the ancient Egyptians had developed medical applications for the gel. Any number of ancient mummies and skeletons have been found showing marks from arrow and club wounds: more than likely physicians such as Imhotep, adviser to Old Kingdom pharaohs, would have known about its healing properties. They may even have used it to staunch bleeding. But I am speculating.
What we do know is that aloes as a genus originated millions of years ago in southern Africa. Plants – like animals – migrate, and they made their way north-, west- and east-wards, taking root in areas from central Africa to Madagascar and Egypt . Aloe vera most likely emerged in Yemen or on the island of Socotra; there are now 7 wild species in the area that are very close relatives.
Coming back to contemporary uses for the gel, it’s a wonderful product for tired and scraped gardener’s hands. My little pot of balsam from a company named Nefertari – motto “proudly handmade in Egypt” – is a godsend: so soothing!
*”Smooth Operator” by Stephanie Pain, New Scientist, 18 July 2015
** Naqada era artefacts are from the area of Abydos in Upper Egypt. In the UK, a good place to see a significant collection is the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology at University College London, where the stunning cache of very ancient finds arguably just about outweighs the eccentric method of displaying them.