A secret recipe for curing epidemics

Writen by: Neta Yaron

The Franciscan religious order in Jerusalem was famous for its medical services and its staff of doctors, pharmacists and monks who came from Europe.

The monastery pharmacy was the largest in the entire Middle East and was located in the southern part of San Salvador Monastery, near the new gate in the Christian Quarter.

A member of the Franciscan Order, Elazar Horn, describes the pharmacy of the mid-18th century in great detail: “The Jerusalem Pharmacy is one of the best in the entire Christian world. Its warehouses are equipped with just about any drug… Upon entering it, minerals on the right and left can be seen in wooden boxes, fruits and fruit cores, blends, pills, pips and pastes wrapped in paper; salts, liquids, resins, juniper berries, bone marrow extracts and glazed pitchers; acids, distilled water, wines and other alcoholic juices and their extracts; brews, jams, sweetened medicines, hawk wine, oils in glass vases or glazed utensils with large or small mouthpiece, for easy pouring; aromatic spices, flowers, tree bark, roots, settled grasses, good stones, pitchers, jars, tin or glassware, etc.”

The pharmacy was particularly famous for the production of “The Balsam of Jerusalem”. The balm was distilled from many herbs and had different formulas. It was renowned as effective in curing various diseases and in preventing pandemics, and had such a worldwide demand that an industry of cheap, forged balsam even developed.

The Jerusalem Pharmacy was mentioned as early as 1620, but the famous balm was discovered by Franciscan Father Antonio Manzani, who came to Jerusalem from Tuscany in 1686 to serve in the Holy Land. In Jerusalem, Father Antonio was given the position of Head of the Clinic and Physician and he cared for members of the Franciscan Order and the poor of Jerusalem. For 24 years, Fr. Antonio conducted many experiments trying to devise an effective balm. The investment paid off when Fr. Antonio eventually found the winning formula that consisted of alcohol-dissolved plants. Among the types of plants he used were myhrr, frankincense, rose petals, violet, gum and aloe vera. There were several formulas for balsam – a “simple” and basic formula for the poor and another, more complex mixture, for the rich that contained about 40 different types of plants. To date, modern pharmacists still do not know how to decode the complete list of complex balsamic formulas.


The balm was successfully used to cure a variety of illnesses and symptoms: wounds, bowel spasm, fistula and even the plague. There are writings that document patients with various diseases that were treated with the balm and recovered. The plague that spread in Europe in the early 18th century also reached the Middle East and the Land of Israel and the Jerusalem balsam was presented to the public as an effective cure for the disease.

Antonio wrote about the healing abilities of the balm, “In Acre, the Netherlands Consul ordered the family of a very distinguished church member to take our balm three times a day, thus saving all its members. In Beirut, a Capuchin friar gave twelve drops of balsam in a drink to the dying son of a Catholic man and thus saved his life.”

And even though the plague claimed thousands of victims, the worldwide reputation of the Balsam of the Holy City, was never really hurt. And really, why spoil a good story with facts? And, truth be told, modern studies of the balm and its composition have proven it to be effective – partly because of the alcohol and active ingredients found in the frankincense plant which are  effective against bacteria.


For almost 300 years, the Franciscan pharmacy manufactured Jerusalem Balsam and by the end of the last century was exporting it to Europe and Asia. The pharmacy closed in the early 20th century and today the famous balm can no longer be obtained.

As for the pandemic of 2020 – we are still waiting for someone to invent a “balm” for us.  We don’t know who it will be but, millions of people are anxiously awaiting the discovery.

Based on excerpts from articles in the catalog Jerusalem: A Medical Diagnosis and the exhibition presented at the Tower of David Museum in 2014

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