Ever Tried 2,000-year-old Dates? Now You Can, Thanks to These Israeli Researchers

Researchers celebrate – and sample – the first fruit of palm trees germinated from ancient seeds from the Judean desert

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Dates tree grown by a 2,000-year-old seed retrieved from archaeological sites in the Judean Desert, in Ketura, Israel, September 2, 2020.
Dates tree grown by a 2,000-year-old seed retrieved from archaeological sites in the Judean Desert, in Ketura, Israel, September 2, 2020.Credit: Marcos Shonholtz

On Friday, an unusual ceremony was held on a hilltop overlooking the Old City in Jerusalem’s Abu Tor neighborhood. It included the Jewish Sheheheyanu prayer recited on momentous occasions, as well as the traditional offering and tithing ceremony. At the heart of the ceremony was a small package of dates.

But these weren’t ordinary dates. They were the first dates to ripen from date palms grown from seeds that are more than 2,000 years old. Over the past 15 years, a project has been underway in Israel’s southern Arava region to revive ancient species of date palms germinated from seeds found at archaeological digs in the Judean Desert.

Dr. Sarah Sallon, the director of the Borick Natural Medicine Research Center at Hadassah University Hospital, and Dr. Elaine Solowey, who runs the Center for Sustainable Agriculture at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies at Kibbutz Ketura, have so far successfully managed to germinate seven seeds, among dozens that they have attempted to revive.

The largest and most famous so far has been dubbed Methuselah, but the plant turned out to be a male, meaning it will never bear fruit. The first dates to ripen came from a palm tree named Hannah, which was grown from a seed about 10 years ago. The two researchers pollinated the flowers from Hannah with those of Methuselah to reconstruct the taste of ancient date palms to the maximum extent possible.

Methuselah was grown from a seed that was discovered at the archaeological excavations at Masada, while Hannah is from a seed discovered a little further north along the Dead Sea at Qumran, the site where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. Both seeds have been dated to between the 4th and 2nd centuries B.C.E. The researchers conducted a series of tests to verify the age of the seeds, and it was confirmed through carbon 14 dating that they were more than 2,000 years old.

Elaine Solowey of the Arava Institute of Environmental Studies with the tree named 'Judith.'Credit: Alex Levac

The species has earned the new name Judean date palm, along with the scientific name Phoenix dactylifera. They are similar in taste and form to the modern day zahidi dates. They are drier and sweeter than the medjool date and taste like natural honey.

Sallon explained that the taste is very close but not exactly the same as what the residents of the country would have eaten 2,000 years ago since in ancient times dates were grown from shoots from the best producing trees rather than by pollinating date palm flowers. Nevertheless, the taste and shape of these revived dates are consistent with the history of the dates that the two women have derived from their genetic research.

“There are two groups of date species – eastern and western. The eastern ones are all the species from Arabia and Iraq, and the western ones are from North Africa,” Sallon explained. “In Egypt and the Land of Israel, the two species come together. Methuselah and Hannah, which are the oldest, have more eastern DNA, while the other trees’ DNA is more western.”

Hannah’s DNA is reminiscent of that of ancient trees from Mesopotamia, today’s Iraq, as is the modern zahidi variety, which is considered an Iraqi species. Sallon has a hypothesis regarding Hannah’s ancestors. “We know from the Talmud that the Jews exiled to Babylonia [in Mesopotamia] cultivated date groves. It’s possible that they brought the seeds with them on their return to Zion,” she said.

Last week, when the first dates ripened, a harvest was organized. About 100 ripe, tasty dates were cut from Hannah. Sallon, who lives in Jerusalem, offered one to a friend, but because she is an observant Jew, she couldn’t accept it because it wasn’t properly tithed, as Jewish religious law requires. As a result, the tithing ceremony was held on Friday.

Researchers hold a date tree grown by a 2,000-year-old seed retrieved from archaeological sites in the Judean Desert, in Ketura, Israel, September 2, 2020.Credit: Marcos Shonholtz

The site of the ceremony was not happenstance. The open hilltop, which is known as the Hill of Evil Counsel, is at the center of a battle that the neighborhood residents, including Sallon, are fighting against a construction project that they say will obliterate it.

“The Judean date disappeared entirely, and this site is also in terrible danger of destruction. The two stories are related,” she said, “because people destroyed the trees and now the land. But I will secretly plant one of the seeds from Hannah here and hope that in another 20 years, it will produce fruit.”

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