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The vitality of fruit trees in ancient Bedouin orchards in the Arid Negev Highlands (Israel): Implications of climatic change and environmental stability


Thirty-seven sites with fruit tree orchards were found in the arid Negev Highlands of southern Israel. A variety of domesticated fruit trees were planted in these orchards, including date palm, fig, olive, pomegranate, almond, carob, pistachio, grapevine and bitter orange. The orchards were irrigated only by runoff water accumulating in runoff-harvesting systems built during the Byzantine and Early Muslim eras, some 1000–1500 years ago, which, despite their antiquity, are still vivid and occasionally fruit bearing today. The oldest olive trees seem to be direct descendants of trees planted during Byzantine times, whereas the youngest trees were planted by the Bedouin population of the Negev Highlands in the last few decades. The fact that the Bedouin population, with very little experience in agriculture, has succeeded to cultivate a large variety of fruit trees in the present harsh arid climate utilizing the historical agricultural installations has important environmental implications. It indicates that the original builders of the desert agriculture systems were highly sophisticated in transforming desert soil into arable land. However, this was achieved through hard labor, involving the construction of a vast number of stone dams and agricultural terraces to divert channels, and the clearing of rocky surfaces. This huge effort indicates that the climate and environment prevailing during the Byzantine–Early Muslim eras was equally harsh and arid; otherwise, the invested labor would not have been justified. We conclude that the Byzantine farmers, with their greater agricultural experience and long heritage in dry land agriculture, have achieved greater success than today Bedouin population, at cultivating of fruit trees under the harsh conditions of the Negev Highlands. Therefore we deduce that the ancient desert agriculture was not the outcome of better climate; rather, the climate prevailing during the relevant historical times was probably dry and harsh, much like today. The fact that the Bedouin population in that geograghical area is cultivating orchards utilizing the same constructions, and technologies indicates that the present environmental and climatic conditions were are suitable for practicing desert agriculture and have hardly changed since the Byzantine era. © 2019 Elsevier Ltd and INQUA