"And they came to Elim, where were twelve springs of water, and three score and ten palm trees; and they encamped there by the waters.” – Exodus 15:27
“They” were the Israelites fleeing Egypt, led by Moses, according to the biblical account. The palm is the date palm and it is mentioned time and again in the Bible. In addition, numerous references to the luscious Judean date appear in historical records from the classical period. The second-century geographer Pausanius for example extols its virtues compared with the Ionian one.
The question is, which date exactly was so revered? The date palms growing in Israel today aren’t the same as the ones in biblical and classical times. Those died out hundreds of years ago, though possibly an isolated few still survive in and around Jericho in the West Bank.
But following the germination of roughly 2,000-year-old date seeds and subsequent genetic analysis of the seedlings by Israeli researchers, we know a lot more about the extinct varieties that once flourished in ancient Judea.
The date palm species Phoenix dactylifera has scores of variants that produce fruit distinguished by color, size, flavor and aroma, from the gooey medjool to the less-syrupy zahidi and the midnight hayani. Aficionados sound like sommeliers as they extol the fruit’s shimmer, textures and/or whispers of caramel.
Date palms were apparently domesticated around 7,000 to 8,000 years ago in the Persian Gulf and Mesopotamia, present-day Iraq. They may have been one of the earliest fruits to be domesticated, commensurately with the olive.
From Arabia, date domestication spread westward and by at least 3,500 years ago had reached Egypt, whence it spread to Libya and the Sahel.
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The original wild date was smaller, with seeds about a centimeter long. In the course of domestication, the best plants were selected to breed and the fruit became bigger. By the time of the Second Temple, which began around 500 B.C.E., dates were deeply entrenched in Judean cuisine and culture.
“And there were made on them, on the doors of the temple, cherubim and palm-trees, like as were made upon the walls.” – Ezekiel 41:25
Dates grew in plantations around Jericho along the Dead Sea and in the Jordan Valley, and were exported around the Mediterranean. They were extolled by classical writers like Strabo, Tacitus and Pliny, not to mention Pausanias who thought the Ionian dates positively revolting; they were given as gifts by King Herod to the Roman emperor, says Sarah Sallon, director of the Natural Medicine Research Center at Hadassah Medical Center. She initiated, planned and wrote up the studies.
“Pliny mentions the large size of these Judean dates,” Sallon says. “Six of them were a cubit in length; i.e., stretching from the elbow to the tip of the third finger.”
In the last decade, Sallon and Elaine Solowey of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies at Kibbutz Ketura germinated date seeds that were radiocarbon-dated to between 1,800 and 2,400 years old. The seeds had been discovered by archaeologists at sites in the Judean Desert, including Masada. Seven trees grew.
The seven trees were named, from the oldest seed to the youngest: Methuselah, Hannah, Adam, Judith, Boaz, Jonah and Uriel. And lo, genetic analyses Sallon and international teams published in Science Advances in 2020, and in a 2021 paper in the journal PNAS by Muriel Gros-Balthazard and colleagues, show that these seven trees aren’t all the same type.
The changes in the genetic makeup of these germinated date palms show that Judean farmers used sophisticated agricultural practices and benefited from different varieties acquired from as far away as Arabia, Babylon and North Africa. The hybrid date variants were a product of their own diaspora and long-distance trade from the Iron Age right up to the Roman period, Sallon suggests.
By the way, how does the fruit of Hannah, one of the female resurrected dates, taste? Like zahidi dates, says Haaretz correspondent Nir Hasson. “Drier and sweeter than the medjool with a taste like natural honey.”
King Solomon’s trading routes
Before dwelling on the varieties of ancient Judean dates, what about the palms thriving in Israel today? Cultivated date palms in modern Israel were mostly brought from North Africa or Iraq in the 1950s.
“By the 19th century, there were only a few date palms around Jericho and the Dead Sea, producing mostly small dates that visitors at that time wrote were fit only for animals,” Sallon says.
Which brings us back to the resurrected specimens. Methuselah and Hannah grew from the oldest seeds, dating some time between the first to fourth century B.C.E. They are closer to eastern varieties of date palm, which grow today from Arabia to Pakistan, Sallon explains. Methuselah was similar to modern varieties that are found in Arabia, while Hannah is more like modern Iraqi varieties.
“By the time of King Solomon [the 10th century B.C.E.] there was trade between ancient Israel and Arabia, which had already been domesticating palm trees for 4,000 years,” Sallon says. “Perhaps at that time some of their high-producing cultivars were introduced or possibly were even growing here naturally.”
Adam and Judith are 2,000 to 2,200 years old. Boaz may be as young as the mid-first century C.E., and Jonah and Uriel date from about the first or second centuries. These younger palms are more similar to varieties that grow today in North Africa and may reflect Roman trade around the Mediterranean at that time, Sallon says.
As for Hannah and Judith, both are more like modern Iraqi varieties of date palms. “We know from the Talmud that the Jews worked in date plantations during their 70-year exile to Babylon,” Sallon says.
“It’s possible that on their return to Eretz Israel, they brought back with them female offshoots that are true clones of the mother, a high-producing female tree. When planted, these offshoots would then grow into another super-breeder identical to their mother.”
Genome analysis of the ancient date family at NYU by Gros-Balthazard and Prof. Michael Purugganan has shown something else as well. Modern dates today are actually a hybrid of two species of palms, the date palm (Phoenix dactylifera) and the Cretan palm (Phoenix theophrastus). This mixing probably happened in the very distant past, and modern dates still show a trace of the Cretan palm in their genome.
Interestingly though, the ancient Judean date palms show significantly more of the Cretan palm than modern dates, and the older they are (Methuselah, Hannah, Adam), the more they have of these genes.
Thus dates growing in the land that is today Israel profoundly changed, starting from tiny things discovered many years ago during excavations at Jericho, possibly wild or in the process of domestication, to the luscious fruit fit for kings by Herod’s time, incorporating elements from Arabia, Mesopotamia and North Africa.
A wild date
Are no wild dates left in the Middle East? There might be. A paper in October 2021 by Gros-Balthazard and colleagues discusses the discovery of wild ancestors of the date palm in remote mountains in Oman.
The Omani wild trees are genetically diverse, as befits a true ancestral population, and have rounded seeds that do resemble a close sister species as well as archaeological samples, but not modern cultivars, the scientists write.
It bears adding that these trees do not hold a record for growing from the most ancient seeds. A Russian team reportedly grew a flower, of Silene stenophylla, from a 32,000 year old seed found in deep permafrost, it was reported a decade ago.
Back to the resurrected Judean dates. What are the future plans for them?
“Well, we want to grow them in large quantities using tissue culture and reestablish them in commercial plantations,” Sallon answers. “If successful, in a few years, Judean dates may again be a major export of this country ... as they were 2,000 years ago.”
Aside from her research into these fascinating dates, Sallon is also keen to have her children’s book “The Dates’ Tale” published (it will be in English). “It’s Methuselah’s story from his point of view," she says. "It's also about nature’s extraordinary resilience: how seeds so old could be brought back to life. It’s a beacon of hope in these difficult times.”