“As for wines, I have none of Gaza, no Chian or Falernian, none sent by the vines of Sarepta for you to drink […] Nevertheless, we beg you to come; Christ will provide all things, by whose grace this has been made a real homeland for me through your love.”
—Sidonius Apollinaris, Carmina 17 (trans. by W.B. Anderson, Sidonius, Loeb Classical Library)
In the fifth and sixth centuries C.E., Gazan wine was immensely popular throughout the Byzantine world, as attested by several contemporary sources. The wine, produced in the southern Levantine city of Gaza as well as in nearby cities in the Negev desert, was exported out of Gaza’s port.
While wine jars, wine presses and the terraces where the vines were cultivated have been uncovered in archaeological work throughout the Negev, the actual grape seeds have eluded archaeologists—until now. The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) recently announced that grape seeds dating to the Byzantine period have been found for the first time in excavations at the ancient city of Elusa (Halutza in Hebrew), located about 30 miles southeast of Gaza in the Negev. The excavation at Halutza National Park was led by Prof. Guy Bar-Oz and Dr. Lior Weissbrod of the Zinman Institute at the University of Haifa in collaboration with Dr. Tali Erickson-Gini from the Israeli Antiquities Authority.
Hundreds of charred grape seeds were found in Elusa’s refuse dump along with pottery and coins dating to the sixth and seventh centuries C.E.—when the city was in its economic prime. The discovery of the grape seeds offers botanical evidence for the production of Gazan wine, known throughout the Byzantine Empire for its fine quality. Other evidence for Elusa’s engagement in viticulture include an elaborate wine press discovered about a half mile from the city as well as literary references to the city’s wine production.1
The next step for the archaeologists is to work with biologists to sequence the DNA of the grape seeds in order to determine if they were imported from elsewhere around the Mediterranean or if they were native to the Negev.
“It sounds reasonable to assume that the Gazan wine was originally grown in the Negev,” excavation codirector Guy Bar-Oz told Bible History Daily.
Elusa was founded in the third century B.C.E. by the Nabataeans and seems to have been a station on the main caravan route from Petra to Gaza. Between the fourth and seventh centuries C.E., Elusa reached its peak in prosperity, becoming the most important city in the Negev during this time.
1. For more on Elusa/Halutza, see Avraham Negev, “Elusa” in Ephraim Stern, ed., The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land vol. 1 (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society and Carta, 1993), pp. 379–383. For more on Gazan wine, including the viticulture at Elusa, see Philip Mayerson, “The Wine and Vineyards of Gaza in the Byzantine Period,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 257 (1985), p. 75–80.
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