Palestine and the archeobotany of occupation: Ancient fruit in the mouth of a hungry god

Uprooted altars in the occupied home of Goliath reveal a goddess of plenty as Palestinians starve

By Rae Hodge

Staff Reporter
Published June 27, 2024 5:15AM (EDT)
Updated June 27, 2024 10:18PM (EDT)
A Palestinian woman shakes olives to filter off leaves during the olive harvest at a grove outside Ramallah in the occupied West Bank on November 11, 2023.  (ARIS MESSINIS / Getty Images)
A Palestinian woman shakes olives to filter off leaves during the olive harvest at a grove outside Ramallah in the occupied West Bank on November 11, 2023. (ARIS MESSINIS / Getty Images)

Every spring, silver-green olive trees across the historical territory of Palestine bloom into white clusters, with the region's iconic green and black fruit to appear as the season wears on. Acacia and artemisia species, cousins of wormwood, gather across the landscape, bedding up Italian ryegrass, crown daisy and showy scabious. Unapologetic bouquets burst purple from the chaste trees and jujube fruit hangs from the Christ-thorn trees — from which, it is said, the crown of a certain 1st Century rebel rabbi was fashioned. All these plants are the source of traditional medicines. The flora of the places now called Gaza, Israel and the West Bank tell the history of a blended people.

Tilled by humans for thousands of years, this region is an endangered miracle of biodiversity, and an ethno-botanical story of shared roots especially worth honoring in a time of war. What local people believe to be the oldest olive tree in the world still stands in the village of al-Walaja, near Bethlehem in the West Bank. It's said to be 5,500 years old, and if that's true it was already there during the empires of ancient Egypt and Babylon, which lasted much longer than any subsequent civilization has managed. Known as al-Badawi by locals, the tree has had many names and titles, including “Bride of Palestine” and “Old Woman.” 

Al-Badawi is stewarded by the family of a man named Salah Abu Ali, who calls himself the tree's servant and says he will not leave its side, come what may. Whether al-Badawi will stand much longer is impossible to say. The separation fence demarcating Israeli and Palestinian territory is just 20 meters away, and Israeli settlers destroyed more than 43,000 Palestinian-owned trees and saplings in the West Bank in recent months, a dramatic escalation from pre-war numbers. 

“Olive will stay evergreen; Like a shield for the universe,” writes Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. There are certainly reasons to hope that the flora of this troubled land will keep telling its story no matter how or when this war ends. Consider the recent discoveries made by archeologists and archeobotanists in a different village not far away, known to Arabs as Tell es-Safi. An ancient temple has been uncovered by the shovelful, revealing a place where sacred plant medicine was central to life and religion.  

Medicine, symbolism, mystery 

Tell es-Safi, known to Israelis as Gath, is 700 feet above sea level on the high plains of the Hebron district, close to the West Bank but within Israel's 1967 borders. A team of researchers from Bar-Ilan University have worked there for decades, under the auspices of the Israeli government. The sheepherding El-Azi family, whose ancestor helped the Jewish immigrants who founded nearby Kibbutz Menachem in 1939, are believed to be the only Palestinians who remain in the village. 

Hellenistic believers, 3,000 years ago — a blended population of many cultures — championed the Greek goddesses of fertility with hallucinogenic traditional medicines in seasonal rituals.

Dr. Aren Maeir is head archeologist at the site, where he’s been digging since at least 1996. He and Dr. Suembikya Frumin, lead researcher and manager of the Archaeobotany Laboratory at Bar-Ilan, are among the scientists behind the discovery of a 3,000-year-old Greek temple at Tell es-Safi. 

Their paper, published earlier this year in the journal Scientific Reports, explores the religious practices of agrarian mystery cults in the region, where the blended population of ancient Philistines — Hebraic, Greek, Arabic, Egyptian and Roman — celebrated native agricultural cycles. Their research reveals for the first time how Hellenistic believers of the period championed the goddesses Demeter, Kore (i.e., Persephone) and Hera with a host of hallucinogenic traditional medicines in seasonal rituals. 

"One of the most significant findings is the identification of earliest known ritual uses of several Mediterranean plants," Frumin said in a release.

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“This new data indicates knowledgeable activity by temple personnel regarding the use of plants with mood-affecting features," she continued. "Our method of quantitative and qualitative analysis of total plant assemblage should be highly relevant for analyzing other ancient cults and for the study of the cultural and cultic history of the region and beyond.” 

Among the recovered plants were traces of poison darnel or ryegrass, also known as “false wheat.” It’s a rich bed for ergot fungus, which can be deadly if used improperly. It produces lysergic acid, an analog of the psychedelic drug LSD, and was used by ancient peoples to brew beer and bake bread for special occasions.

In their excavation of the lower portion of the temple, the Bar-Ilan team found remnants of ancient seeds and fruits used for feasts, rituals and decoration. Analyzing the adjacent cookware and stone finds and comparing accounts of similar temples elsewhere, the team was able to place the ritual evidence to the time of the Philistine culture, roughly 1200 to 600 B.C. This site was likely destroyed, along with the rest of the Philistine city-states, by the Neo-Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II, depicted in the biblical book of Jeremiah as the great enemy of the Hebrew people.

Perhaps even more impressive, researchers managed to reconstruct the plant evidence and how it fits into the region's geographical and agricultural history. 

This site under a modern Palestinian village was likely destroyed in the 6th century B.C. by the Neo-Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II, depicted in the biblical book of Jeremiah as the great enemy of the Hebrew people.

“Although charred plant preservation from a burnt settlement is often limited to seeds and fruits, their unripe forms show the use of flowers and fresh vegetables in the temple,” write the paper’s authors, who used “analysis of the plant assemblages’ phenology to reconstruct possible seasonal/monthly dating of the collection and deposition of various plants in the temples.”   

These discoveries illuminate the long and rich relationship between the ancient Philistines and modern-day Palestinian culture. The plants found in the temple suggest a history of Aegean trade routes, and offer evidence about the enigmatic Philistine culture and the Greek mystery cults that apparently thrived within it. 

“Spatial reconstruction of plant-related activities in the temples and associated contexts," the authors report, include "a study of the ethnobotany of the temple plants, known in neighboring archaeological cultures to be associated with medicine, symbolism, and other functions."

Exile and return; history and hope

At risk of stating the obvious, it's worth mentioning that Palestinian scholars are playing no role in the excavations and research at Tell es-Safi. Israel's war in Gaza, which has killed over 38,000 people and injured more than 86,000, has also destroyed 70% of Gaza’s colleges and universities and damaged many UNESCO-protected sites. Petitioners to the International Criminal Court have argued that the Israeli attack on historical and cultural monuments constitutes a war crime in itself, under international law.

For both Palestinians and many outside observers, the current situation carries echoes of the Nakba or “catastrophe” of 1948, when most of the historic Arab population was driven out of the newborn state of Israel and hundreds of ancient villages were bulldozed to rubble. Archeological digs began almost immediately in the new state. More than 800 artifacts, spanning 7,500 years of history, were reportedly excavated during the 1960s and '70s under the aegis of Moshe Dayan, Israel's legendary former defense minister. Many of those ended up at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Tell es-Safi "was first settled sometime in the late prehistoric period,” Maeir told National Geographic. “It was more or less continually settled until modern times. The last settlement there was an Arab village that was abandoned during the Israeli War of Independence. So basically for about 7,000 years or so, there was continuous settlement on the site.”

To say the village was "abandoned" may be a deliberate euphemism. In 1945, Tell es-Safi was home to 1,290 Palestinians. Less than three years later, it was emptied entirely, along with 16 other villages in the district of Hebron. Some of the residents driven out of Tell es-Safi 75-plus years ago are still alive, and still long to return. 

“It was midsummer, and the farmers had already piled the wheat on the threshing floor when Jewish armed gangs attacked the village, killing many farmers,” said 88-year-old Khadija al-Azza in 2020, recalling for reporters the moment when Zionist militias attacked her village. 

“Terrified villagers fled and left the heaps of wheat unthreshed. We thought that we would return to thresh it. …  We left on foot, carrying nothing with us. After walking one day and one night, we got to the village of Ajjur, where farmers kindly received us in their homes," she said. "We spent three days there, then the Zionist gangs attacked Ajjur and we fled to the east. We walked for two days without water until we reached Beit Jibrin,” a refugee camp in Bethlehem named for another depopulated village in what is now central Israel.

“I wish the time will come when I will be able to return and die in my hometown,” she said in the interview. 

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There is no question that Jewish cultural and religious history runs deep in the ancient lands now variously called Palestine and Israel. But the powerful Judaic narrative of a promised land, now returned to, is only one refrain among many in a land called home for many in exile, a place were many cultures and religions have mingled, overlapped and honored their gods.  

The ancient fruit found in a temple dig feeds history, just as the olive trees feed Palestinians today. Perhaps it's fitting that the first antiquity repatriated to Palestinian authorities from the U.S. was a spoon

“Our hearts burn over our lands,” said Nisreen Abu Daqqa, of the Gaza village of Khuzaa, in an interview with Al Jazeera. “We wait all year long for the olive season, which is the most beautiful season, but the Israelis have deliberately burned our trees using their missiles and tank shells.” 

When Salah Abu Ali talked to Middle East Eye about al-Badawi, the ancient olive tree outside Bethlehem, he spoke of the Old Woman as much more than a plant, as something closer to hope itself. “This tree represents an integral part of our identity and our resistance against the Israeli occupation,” he said. “If this tree continues to stand, our steadfastness will continue.”

By Rae Hodge

Rae Hodge is a science reporter for Salon. Her data-driven, investigative coverage spans more than a decade, including prior roles with CNET, the AP, NPR, the BBC and others. She can be found on Mastodon at 


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Agriculture Ancient Cultures Archeobotany Archeology Botany Commentary Ethnobotany