Since its development in the 19th century, the Jaffa orange has been one of the land of Israel’s best known agricultural exports. Another citrus fruit, the citron (or etrog) plays a crucial part in the rituals of the holiday of Sukkot. But these fruits are native not to the Near East but to Southeast Asia. The archaeobotanist Dafna Langgut explains her findings about how they arrived in the Levant:
Citrus was first cultivated by humans at least 4,000 years ago in Southeast Asia, and all cultivated species derive from a handful of wild ancestors. Several years ago I found the earliest archaeobotanical evidence of citrus in the Mediterranean in a royal Persian garden near Jerusalem dating to the 5th and 4th centuries BCE. . . .
The citron (citrus medica) was the first citrus fruit to reach the Mediterranean, via Persia. The citron has a thick rind and a small, dry pulp, but [because] it was the first to arrive in the West, the whole group of fruits (citrus) takes its name from this economically unimportant species. . . . The citron and the lemon (a hybrid of the citron and the bitter orange, which was introduced to the West at least four centuries later) were originally considered elite products. For more than a millennium, [they] were the only citrus fruits known in the Mediterranean Basin. . . .
Because it is used during the Sukkot holiday, [the citron] is frequently depicted on Jewish coins and mosaics. . . . . Remains of this species were also found in gardens owned by affluent members of the western Roman world—for example in the area of Vesuvius and around Rome—dated to the 3rd or 2nd centuries BCE. It appears that the citron was considered a valuable commodity due to its healing qualities, symbolic use, pleasant odor, and rarity. . . . Its spread therefore was helped more by its representation of high social status, its significance in religion, and unique features. . . .
In contrast, the sour orange, lime, and pomelo were introduced to the West much later, beginning in the 10th century CE, by the Muslims—probably via Sicily and the Iberian Peninsula.