KETURA, Israel — The plump, golden-brown dates hanging in a bunch just above the sandy soil have been finally ready to pick.
They had been slowly ripening in the desert heat for months. But the young tree on which they grew had a far more ancient history — sprouting from a 2,000-year-old seed retrieved from an archaeological site in the Judean wilderness.
“They are beautiful!” exclaimed Dr. Sarah Sallon with the elation of a new mother, as each date, its skin barely wrinkled, plucked gently off its stem at a sunbaked kibbutz in southern Israel.
They were tasty, too, with a fresh flavor that gave no trace of their two-millennium incubation period. The honey-blonde, semi-dry flesh had a fibrous, chewy texture, and a subtle sweetness.
These have been the much-extolled however long-lost Judean dates, and people deemed the harvest this month as a modern miracle of science.
Dr. Sallon, a researcher of natural medicine, joined up with Elaine Solowey, an expert on arid agriculture, to discover and germinate the ancient seeds. This harvesting of the fruit, celebrated in a small ceremony earlier this month at Kibbutz Ketura, was the culmination of their fifteen-year quest.
“In these troubled times of climate change, pollution and species dying out at alarming rates, to bring something back to life from dormancy is so symbolic,” Dr. Sallon said. “To pollinate and produce these incredible dates is like a beam of light in a dark time.”
Date palms have been praised in the Bible and the Quran, and have become symbols of beauty, precious shade and succulent plenty. In antiquity, the Judean palms, prized for their quality, appeared as motifs in synagogues.
A Roman coin minted around A.D. 70 to celebrate the conquest of Judea depicted the Jewish defeat as a lady weeping under a date palm.
But by the Middle Ages, the famed Judean plantations had died out. War and upheaval made their cultivation impractical, as did their need for copious quantities of water in summer.
So, Dr. Sallon went on a hunt.
A pediatric gastroenterologist who directs the Louis L. Borick Natural Medicine Research Center at the Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, Dr. Sallon was on a mission to revive old data to be used in modern medicine. She had learned from a dusty archive in Jerusalem that dates were not only good for digestion but were thought by traditional healers to enhance blood production and memory, and to have aphrodisiac properties.
She got some date seeds that had been found in the 1960s throughout an excavation of Masada, the desert fortress by the Dead Sea where Jewish zealots, besieged by the Romans in A.D. 73, famously died by their own hand instead of falling into slavery.
She immediately turned to Dr. Solowey, who runs the Center for Sustainable Agriculture at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in Kibbutz Ketura.
The institute, established in 1996 after the Israeli-Palestinian Oslo peace accords, is devoted to advancing cross-border environmental cooperation in the face of political conflict and offers academic programs to Palestinians, Jordanians, and Israelis and International students.
Dr. Solowey planted the seeds in quarantined pots in January 2005, not expecting a lot, but employing a few ‘horticultural tricks,’ she said, to coax them out of their long slumber, involving warming, careful hydration, a plant hormone, and enzymatic fertilizer.
After a few weeks, she said, she was ‘utterly astonished’ to see the earth had cracked and a tiny shoot had emerged. Named Methuselah after the biblical patriarch known for his longevity, that shoot has since grown into a sturdy tree outside her workplace.
But Methuselah turned out to be a male, and male palm trees are usually not good for much on their own. (Gender can be confirmed as soon as the trees flower or by genetic testing.)
So Dr. Sallon went searching once more and selected over 30 seeds from another stash from archaeological sites in the Judean desert, including Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. Planted at Ketura between 2011 and 2014, 6 of the seeds sprouted.
It gave them the names of biblical figures when they germinated, however, as their genders became clear over time, Judah became Judith, Eve became Adam, and Jeremiah became Hannah.
Hannah’s seed, which came from a historical burial cave in Wadi el-Makkukh near Jericho, now in the West Bank, was carbon-dated to between the 1st and 4th centuries B.C.E., becoming one of the oldest known seeds to have ever been germinated.
The research was peer-reviewed and detailed in a paper published in February this year in Science Advances, a leading scientific journal.
After a month, there was another surprise. After growing for 6 years, Hannah flowered in a nearby plot. Now, it was time to play matchmaker. Dr. Solowey painstakingly collected pollen from Methuselah and brushed it onto Hannah’s flowers, ‘because I wanted Methuselah to be the father,’ she said.
The night earlier the picking of Hannah’s dates, there was some discussion of what the proper Hebrew blessing would be at the ceremony — the usual one for the fruit of the tree or the ‘shehecheyanu,’ a blessing of thanks for new experiences.
The next morning, both were recited to a resounding Amen.
Hannah’s fruit most reminded connoisseurs of the ‘zahidi,’ an Iraqi variety known for its mildly sweet and nutty flavor.
Genetic specialists from the University of Montpellier in France said the genotyping for the germinated plants showed that the older seeds, together with Methuselah and Hannah, were closer to eastern varieties that flourished from Mesopotamia to Arabia and all the way to Pakistan. Date palm cultivation is thought to be up to 6,500 years old.
The younger the seeds, the more they resembled the varieties that flourished west of Egypt, like the moist, treacly sweet Moroccan medjoul date that is popular today, and is commercially cultivated in plantations along the Jordan Rift Valley, including at Ketura.
It all made perfect sense to Dr. Sallon.
Ancient Judea was ideally positioned between North Africa and Asia, along major trade routes, and the Romans, who traded all over the Mediterranean, could have brought western varieties with them to pollinate the older varieties from the east.
“Putting it simply, what do we find?” Dr. Sallon stated. “The story of ancient Israel and the Jewish people, of diasporas, trade routes and commerce throughout the Middle East.”
After they have harvested the dates, there was little chance to savor the moment in the ensuing flurry of activity. Minutes after the picking and tasting, the dates were whisked away to be weighed and measured. About a dozen of the hundred from the bunch were individually wrapped in aluminum foil, packed on ice and sent to the Ministry of Agriculture’s research institute.
They collected even the pips of those that had been eaten for further study.
Aside from Dr. Sallon’s curiosity in their medicinal properties, there was some banter among the institute staff about mass producing the old-new fruit, with an eye to marketing the fruit as ‘the dates that Jesus ate,’ and using the funds for research.
“Lucky, it tasted good,” Dr. Solowey said. “If it had been awful, what would I have said? That in the old days they didn’t know what a good date was? There’s a lot of literature about how they were the best dates in the world.”