The lemony secrets of an ancient garden

An ancient garden on the outskirts of Jerusalem yields a fascinating find about what was growing 2,500 years ago.

 The lemony secrets of an ancient garden


An aerial view of the ancient garden site

By Rivka Borochov

An intriguing archeology site perched on a hill two miles from the Old City of Jerusalem suggests that ancient powers at the time had a thing for opulent and exotic gardens. The discovery of an ancient royal garden a few years ago at Kibbutz Ramat Rachel stirred up the imaginations of researchers from Tel Aviv University in Israel.

Based on the intricate network of pools and irrigation channels, the researchers concluded that the 2,500-year-old site was home to an ancient and splendid royal garden. Since then they have been trying to figure out what was planted and growing in the garden.

The problem is that trees and plants don’t live through centuries. If pollen was preserved at the site, there just may be clues to what kinds of assemblages of trees and plants were present in this garden. But an early look at the pollen trapped in ground sediments proved to be futile. The pollen was oxidized and could not be studied.

The watering system is so elaborate that the researchers from Tel Aviv University –– Oded Lipschits, Yuval Gadot, and palynologist Dafna Langgut, together with Prof. Manfred Oeming from the University of Heidelberg –– suspected that the plants and trees growing there must have been worth the effort. The garden could have been a place where the empire of Persia flaunted her wealth and power. The scientists were determined to find clues.

Their research based on pollen analysis reveals some very exciting finds for Jewish people, historians, archeologists and anyone interested in the life and times of ancient gardens in the Middle East.

Like the Garden of Eden or the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the images of ancient gardens inspire dreams and fantasies of what life was like back then.

Built by local Judeans, but under the orders of the sponsoring foreign empire, the site could have been an important administrative center for the powers of the time.

Thank the renovators

The story rolls back to Lipschits, Gadot and Oeming, who are the directors of the Ramat Rachel site. Lipschits asked fossilized pollen expert Langgut to take a look at the ground sediments at the site to see if she could determine what kind of pollen records were left behind. She was skeptical that anything of value would be found in such conditions, and they gave up the idea. Then one day Langgut heard a talk about Ramat Rachel, and learned that there was an ancient plastered pool on the site. This was her “eureka” moment.

“The pool was coated with plaster. As it takes a day or two for the plaster to dry, my assumption was that pollen grains were trapped within the plaster. They probably used the water from the pools and tunnels to produce the plaster … and to water species like water lilies. So this is a way in which the pollen can get trapped,” she says.

 The lemony secrets of an ancient garden

Unique water gutters at the Ramat Rachel garden

But what were the chances that the ancient plastering would have been done in the spring, when plant and tree pollen is blowing in the wind?

Using a special technique to separate the fossil pollen, the researchers led by Langgut were, in fact, able to indentify the species of plants and trees adorning the lush royal garden.

To their surprise, the new analyses had much to reveal. Most important, perhaps, was the finding of pollen from citron (etrog in Hebrew) inside the layered plaster. According to the researchers, this is the first evidence of the cultivation of citron in Israel. The etrog, an unusual tree that bears extraordinarily fragrant fruit, is considered a special symbol, one of four species used by Jews to celebrate the autumn holiday of Succot.

The impact of India and Lebanon

The citron is not indigenous to Israel. It originates in India and its Hebrew name comes from Persian. This may hint that the tree was imported into ancient Israel at the time of the Persian Empire, which ruled over a vast territory that also included parts of India and up to Egypt.  

Certainly, the decision to import various trees has had a lasting impact on the region and on Judaism as well, says Lipschits.

Other species uncovered from the pollen include water species such as lilies, grapevines and the local fig, but most exciting for the researchers is a list of exotic plants and trees like the citron, the Persian walnut and the cedar of Lebanon. These normally are not found in the Judean mountains.

The cedar of Lebanon was an important tree used in building the Jewish temple and it is widely believed to have been imported from Lebanon.

So who were these foreign powers that could have commissioned such an opulent garden, and whose choice in foliage and plants has affected the religious rites of the people in the region? Time will tell. Until then, the researchers from Tel Aviv University are recreating the plants and trees grown there.

 The lemony secrets of an ancient garden

Artist’s rendering of the Ramat Rachel garden

The aim is that visitors will soon be able to experience Ramat Rachel gardens as they once were.