What peach did they dare to eat at Masada?
The Roman army commander and naturalist Pliny described, in his book "The Natural History," a rare and unique variety of peach that ripens at an early date, in the summer, and not in the fall, as did all the other peach varieties around in his day. No one knows what this rare variety was called in antiquity, but Prof. Mordechai Kislev, an expert on botanical archaeology, claims that peaches matching Pliny's description appear in a wall drawing in the city of Herculaneum, near Pompeii, and that they also grew in the Land of Israel and were part of the diet of Masada's residents.
According to Kislev, up until a few years ago, several trees of this variety grew in Moshav Amikem, located in the valley between Givat Ada and Zichron Yaakov, which is why he and his colleagues from Bar-Ilan University's life sciences department named it the Amikem. Today, the only representative left from this remnant of the ancient world is a single tree in the village of Kafr Kara.
Kislev and his colleagues think that the peach pits found in Masada are of this specific variety. Like the lone tree in Wadi Ara, they, too, match the Roman descriptions from the first century CE. These peaches may indeed ripen early, but they remain edible for a long time, says Kislev, and that is why it's likely that Masada residents preferred them to peaches of other varieties.
Masada's residents did not suffice with just peaches, of course. In excavations at the site conducted by the late Prof. Yigael Yadin, abundant remains of fruits and grains were found. At the beginning of his academic career, in the early 1970s, Kislev received from Yadin all the remains of plants unearthed until then at Masada, and a few years ago, other botanical remains were added to the collection, having been uncovered in excavations there by Prof. Ehud Netzer and Dr. Guy Shtiebel. Today the collection includes thousands of items, representing all the periods when the mountain was inhabited: from the construction of Herod's palace on the peak of Masada in 37 BCE to the era of Roman rule after the conquest of the mountain in 73 CE.
Almost 30 years elapsed from the time Kislev received the findings from Yadin until he found the time and assistance to research the material. In the last three years, he has returned to the collection, with help from Suheil Zeidan, of the Jewish National Fund, and his colleagues Dr. Orit Simchoni and Yonit Tabak, a master's student. The team found that Masada residents enjoyed the full variety of foods produced by the Land of Israel: wheat, barley, apricots, plums, pomegranates, peaches, almonds, figs, grapes and olives.
Masada's olives sparked particular interest because an in-depth inquiry into their qualities found that since the Roman era, there has been no significant change in their agriculture. Masada residents ate olives from the exact same varieties that grow in Israel today, namely, Syrian, Nabali and Melisi. Researchers identified the varieties by inspecting the pits, their structure and symmetry. Olive pits were found whole, an indication that the olives were eaten in pickled form, and not used to produce oil. This speculation was reinforced by the fact that 90 percent of the olives on Masada were of the Nabali variety, which is most suited for pickling among the local varieties that grow in Israel.
The remaining 10 percent were primarily Syrian or Melisi olives, but there were also some amounts found of two varieties that do not grow in Israel, and need to be imported from neighboring countries. One is the Shami olive, which grows in Syria, and the other is the Toffahi, from Egypt. The pits of these varieties are substantially different from those of the local varieties. According to Kislev, who lectured this week at Masada at the Dead Sea Conference on Environmental Resources and Society, the two imported varieties are considered luxuries to this day, and Arab villages tend to use them as decoration for weddings and other occasions. He estimates that they were imported to Masada during the time when wealthy and high-ranking people lived there, such as King Herod himself or the Roman generals who besieged the mountain.