While Israel is famous for greening the desert, a recent find of a 1,600-year-old wine press in the Ramat Negev region proves agriculture in arid areas was a mainstay of the land centuries before the foundation of the state.
During digs near the Ramat Negev Regional Council, a team of Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologists discovered a large Byzantine-era structure dating to the fourth century CE, inside of which was the remains of a wine press. The archaeological dig was continued with a team of youth from a Yerucham yeshiva, in an effort to connect the young men with with the country’s physical history.
The southern Negev region, located on the ancient incense trade route, is a sparsely populated arid desert, with some 6,000 residents among its kibbutzim, moshavim and other settlements. Former prime minister David Ben-Gurion famously retreated there, to Sde Boker, in his retirement.
According to IAA excavation director Dr. Tali Gini, “The southern Negev is known as an agricultural region which grew grapes for wine that was exported to the far reaches of the Byzantine empire.”
Today, that tradition of desert winemaking has been restarted through studies done at the Ramat Negev AgroResearch Center. Boutique wineries include the Ramat Negev Winery, and the regional council has established a “wine route” tour, which includes 23 agricultural farms.
The impressive size of the Byzantine building, approximately 40 meters by 40 meters (131 x 131 feet) of chiseled stone, indicates it may have served as a winepress for an army unit in the region, said the American-born Gini. With massive proportions — the juice run-off pit has a diameter of 2.5 meters (approx. 8 feet) and depth of 2 meters (6.5 feet) — the estimated production was an impressive 6,500 liters (nearly 230 cubic feet) of raw wine.
According to the archaeologist of the southern Negev region Yoram Chaimi, the discovery of the wine press came as a complete surprise. “In the entire southern Negev region, there is only one other wine press that is included inside an enclosed structure, which is in [the Nabataean city] of Avdat,” also along the incense trade route.
Gini hypothesized as to why the wine press was abandoned. “In the middle of the sixth century CE, there was a disastrous plague, which led to less need of wine in the southern regions. After the plague, they continued to use the building, but not the winepress,” she said. At the end of the Byzantine period, the area was deserted.
Chaimi said he is recommending to the regional council that the site be more thoroughly excavated, preserved and opened to the public.
In the meantime, to get a taste of Negev wine, one only need visit a local supermarket.