When scientists found 2000 year-old plant seeds buried deep inside the ancient fortress of Masada, no one dared hope that they would lead to the recultivation of one of the most powerful trees in Israel. This is the story of Methuselah, the 18-year-old tree sprouted from biblical roots!
Since the earliest records of human history, the date palm tree has been a symbol of life and prosperity in the Land of Israel. They were cultivated in the region as far back as 3100 BCE by the Mesopotamians and due to their sweet and long-lasting fruit they were even considered a gift from the heavens. As far back as the days of King Solomon, Israelites were busy cultivating this special tree, known for its compatibility with sandy desert areas. It was considered to be a symbol of fertility, blessing, peace and prosperity and was important enough to be mentioned several times in the Bible including the well-known verse in Psalms: “The righteous shall flourish like the palm tree” (Psalm 92:12).
The Bible describes the date palm being carved into the walls of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem, while several biblical women were given the name “Tamar” – the Hebrew word for the date palm tree. It was so important that its image appeared on ancient Judean and Roman coins and is even featured on the ten-shekel coin in modern-day Israel.
It is hard to overstress the importance of this species. As far back as 400 BCE, Herodotus would speak of the Judean date tree with pride, expressing appreciation for the dry and non-perishable dates which made them perfect for export (Palm Trees in the Greco-Roman World – Wathiq Ismaeel Al-Salihi). In the 1st century CE Pliny the Elder commented that the dates from this tree type were famous for their succulence and sweetness.
However, the date palm was to meet a sad end. Most of these trees were razed down over time as farmers cleared new fields or as invaders sought building materials for their homes and weapons for wars. When the Romans came to take control of the region in 70 CE, date palms were an integral plant to the Judean economy, making them a prime target of destruction for the Roman empire. By the year 500, the plant was thought to have been wiped out in its entirety. It’s worth noting that Asaph Goor, in his prominent article “History of the Date through the Ages in the Holy Land,” contests that the date tree was not actually wiped out completely until the 14th century, during a collapse in agriculture under the Mamluks. Either way, it is agreed that the poor tree was killed off far before the modern state of Israel was founded.
That was, until 2005, when Dr. Elaine Solowey stepped into the picture. Dr. Solowey was a horticulturalist who specialized in desert environments. One fateful day, a discovery that had been made years earlier was brought to her attention by the Arava Institute.
In 1963, Professor Yigal Yadin and his team of archaeologists discovered a handful of 2,000-year-old date palm seeds at Herod’s Palace on Masada. They were found at the northern entrance of the palace, next to the site of the ancient food stores, and they had been preserved in a small clay jar that had been maintained by the extremely dry and sheltered environment for millennia.
Dr. Solowey hurried to send the seeds to the University of Zurich, where researchers radiocarbon-dated the seeds to between 155 BC and 64 CE.
When this discovery was made in 1963, Israel was experiencing a terrible drought and the archeologists feared that if they replanted the seeds immediately, they would wither and die. To preserve whatever treasures these seeds had been hiding away for the last two millennium, they were held in storage at Bar-Ilan University, waiting patiently for a day when the weather conditions might improve and a scientist with enough skill and passion might suddenly appear on the horizon.
Dr. Elaine Solowey was certainly sure of her skill set and knew that she could be the one to revive the ancient seeds. She had been studying endangered medicinal herbs, searching for plants that could be grown in marginal and arid areas, and studying biblical plants native to southern Israel. In short, she had all the expertise needed for this monumental task.
Dr. Solowey, not one to stick to traditional methods, took a baby’s bottle warmer and used it as an incubator in which she could slowly hydrate the seeds. After they had sprouted, she fed the sprouts a careful mix of fertilizers and growth hormones and to everyone’s surprise, a baby sapling was born. “I assumed the food in the seed would be no good after all that time. How could it be?” said Solowey.
She decided to name the new tree “Methuselah” after the biblical character with the longest lifespan. Six of the cultivated seeds were planted in Ketura in Southern Israel. The first surviving male from the other 5 seeds was named Adam and the first surviving female was named Hannah. These seeds from Masada are the very oldest ever to be germinated.
Years later and the seeds were doing ex-seed-ingly well. All six seeds originally found on Masada had lived to adulthood and Methuselah itself was producing his own babies! “He is a big boy now. He is over three meters tall, he’s got a few offshoots, he has flowers, and his pollen is good,” Solowey said three years later. “We pollinated a female with his pollen, a wild female, and yeah, he can make dates.”
The story of Methuselah was picked up worldwide and the tree was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records. In 2016 Dr. Elaine Solowey deservedly received the Ben Gurion Prize for the Development of the Negev and she is currently working to build an ancient date grove with date trees cultivated in the same conditions found in biblical descriptions. She longs to see how the dates differ to those we can create from Methuselah today.
Any interested person can take a trip to Ketura and visit Methuselah and his five friends including Adam and Hannah. As for Dr. Solowey, she will be known forever more as the magical woman who revived the great Judean date tree.