Just 30 miles north of the Red Sea, in the Negev Desert, scientists from the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies travelled back in time two millennia, becoming the first people to pick and sample dates from trees with roots stretching back to the days of Jesus and the Maccabees.

Dr. Elaine Solowey, director of the Center for Sustainable Agriculture of the Arava Institute, and Dr. Sarah Sallon, director of the Louis L. Borick Natural Medicine Research Center of Hadassah Hospital, harvested ancient dates this past week in the culmination of an ambitious, decades-long experiment to raise the biblical-era Phoenix dactylifera — date palm – from the dead.

The date palms, named after the biblical Adam, Boaz, Hannah, Jonah, Judith and Uriel, were grown from among 32 seeds unearthed in archeological digs in the Judean Desert and near the Dead Sea, between 1963 and 1991, and estimated to range from 1,800 to 2,400 years old.

Solowey and Sallon first germinated one of the seeds in 2005, and nicknamed that plant “Methuselah” – the oldest person in the Bible. They eventually managed to grow a few female companions for Methuselah so the plants could bear the once-extinct fruit, which folk tales and historical accounts said contained great healing powers. Today, Hannah has borne one bunch with 111 fruits.

The Arava Institute for Environmental Studies’ Dr. Elaine Solowey in her lab, with a tray of the biblical-era dates she harvested in Israel. Courtesy: Marcos Schonholz

According to Dr. Solowey, the experiment seeks to rediscover the origins of the historic date palm population and confirm the date seeds’ long-term durability, while shedding light on ancient cultivation techniques that nurtured this unique fruit and exploring its potential relevance for modern date agronomy.

“It’s very exciting to taste the dates because I was never sure we would get a female fruit-producing tree. So it seems like a miracle on several levels – pits from archeological digs sprouted successfully and, against all odds, female trees sprouted. We are excited to be restarting an ancient line of dates,” said Dr. Solowey.

“The harvest of the biblical date palms brought years of innovative scientific research to fruition,” said Arava Institute Executive Director David Lehrer. “We proved that we can not only restore an ancient variety to the land, but showed how scientific collaboration and academic partnership benefits all the people of the Middle East.”

The researchers believe the dates were native to ancient Egypt and the Arabian Peninsula, and hybridized in the ancient Land of Israel. The Arava Institute will continue to grow and monitor these trees as part of this ongoing experiment to bring the biblical date palm back to life.

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