Judean dates were famous in the Levant and Europe in ancient times, prestigious fruit treasured for their superior taste and alleged medicinal qualities. Jewish farmers grew them. But the Jews were driven out of Israel during the Second Roman Wars (132-136 CE), and the secrets of the dates’ propagation were forgotten.
In 2005, date pits excavated from the Masada fortress were revived almost miraculously by Professor Elaine Solowey of the Center for Sustainable Agriculture at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. Read the story of the 2000-year-old date pits that sprouted under her care here.
When we first interviewed Solowey in 2012, she was hoping to mate the male palm that sprouted – named Methusalah – with compatible female trees imported from Egypt. She didn’t expect to see fruits from Methusaleh and his green concubines for at least another ten years. But edible dates from Methusalah and Hannah, a female palm sprouted from pits of the same Judean variety, now exist.
It’s mind-blowing to realize that today, we might taste dates grown from seeds eaten and thrown away 2000 years ago. Dates that might have been eaten by Bar-Kochbah, leader of the Jewish rebellion. Or, at a different time and place, eaten by Jesus and his followers.
Dr. Sarah Sallon, of the Natural Medicine Research Unit of Hadassah Hospital initiated the project in 2005. The date pits, excavated from the Masada fortress in the 1960s, were lying in storage at the Bar Ilan University. Inspired to achieve the impossible, Sallon issued a challenge to attempt sprouting them. Solowey answered the challenge and succeeded in germinating one solitary seed, who grew tall and leafy – Methusalah.
Spurred by the success, Solowey and Sallon tried the experiment again. Out of 32 other excavated seeds, six sprouted, and two are female. One, named Hannah, bore 111 dates. The team at the Arava Institute tasted some, and sent the rest away for research.
Ronley Konwiser, managed a date farm some years ago and understands the pleasure of harvesting fruit:
“From 2008 to 2010 I was fortunate to be a foreman on the “Jericho Dates” plantation, which is in the Judean desert, adjacent to Jericho.
“What I learnt from my experiences as foreman is that dates and palm trees are very special. One of the very special qualities of a date is its ability to last. Most varieties of dates are harvested off the tree already in its dry form.
“And if stored correctly, it will last and be enjoyed at any time as if it was just picked. Therefore it is not surprising, but really incredible that 2000 year old seeds that were found in the Judean desert can still be viable.”
Thanks to the vision of Drs. Solowey and Sallon, we can now hope to see a grove of Judean date palms, DNA – true descendants of the fruit that the ancients ate. Maybe in time, we’ll even shop for them at the supermarket. Incredible.