How Plague, Climate Change, and Economic Collapse Destroyed the Negev’s Booming Winemaking Industry

July 29, 2020 | Amanda Borschel-Dan
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Nowadays, most Israeli wine is produced in the northern areas of the country, but in the first centuries of the Common Era the Negev desert was famous for its viticulture. By the 7th century, however, this ceased to be the case. Archaeologists and paleobotanists examining seeds found in ancient Negev trash dumps believe they have discovered why, writes Amanda Borschel-Dan:

Byzantine-era texts laud the vinum Gazetum or “Gaza wine.” The sweet white wine, [produced in the Negev], was exported from the port of Gaza throughout the Mediterranean and beyond, usually in amphorae known as Gaza jars. The Gaza jars were found in large quantities in the Negev trash pits.

Contributing factors to the [decline of Negev wine production] included the Late Antique Little Ice Age, a bizarre widespread climate anomaly that began with a series of massive volcanic eruptions in the 530s and 540s CE, and the Justinian plague of 541-549.

Daniel Fuks, [the lead author of the recent study], believes that one of the main forces causing the decline [was] the decreasing demand for imported wine in a world beset by plague—conservative estimates figure some 20 percent of population centers were killed off—and resultant economic depression even while . . . still being heavily taxed by emperor Justinian.

The Negev settlements had . . . an export-based industry and became more and more reliant on markets. When demand dried up . . . these farther-flung locations would have been the first to be affected. Even if trade continued in Gaza, the Negev settlements are farther away from the port and would require a higher price for their products to make the journey worth the traders’ while.

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