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Dates and crusades

A fascinating story: someone is said to have sprouted a date seed unearthed at Masada, from a date eaten during the siege there almost 2,000 years ago. It appears that 500-year-old seeds had been sprouted in England, and 1200-year old seeds in China, but this would be the first 2,000-year-old seed.

The dates of ancient Judea were famous, but they’ve since disappeared, so if the tree is female and it continues to do well maybe we’ll see what the fame was about. Which brings us to one of the mysteries of history, and of Times historiography: when did the dates of Judea disappear? At the beginning of the story the guy says they were “destroyed by the crusaders,” [why? just because the Crusaders were evil?] but by the end it appears they were “destroyed before the Middle Ages,” and thus long before the Crusades.

Since I’m a bit of a hothead, I decided to write the Times about it. My letter:

Dear Mr. Calame,

At the beginning of Mr. Erlanger’s piece today on the sprouting of a 2,000-year-old date seed he says the dates of Judea were “destroyed by the Crusaders,” but by the end he’s saying they were “destroyed before the Middle Ages,” and thus long before the Crusades.

This might seem a minor inconsistency, but (1) the story’s surprising enough to raise some doubts, so the reader needs assurance that Mr. Erlanger and the editors are at least thinking about what they’re writing, (2) the Crusades are relevant to current events, so a well-informed journalist who writes about the Middle East should be very familiar with their approximate dates (no pun intended!), and (3) the claim the Crusaders destroyed the date palms is a bit surprising, and passing it on in direct contradiction to something else in the story may lend color to complaints about the Times’ anti-Christian bias.


UPDATE: I heard back from the Times:

Dear Mr. Kalb,

Thanks for writing and sorry for the delayed response. In case you missed it, this correction ran today:

Correction: June 15, 2005, Wednesday An article on Sunday about the successful germination of a 2,000-year-old date seed by Israeli doctors and scientists referred incorrectly to the Koran’s mentions of the date palm. They were to the tree in general, not to the date palm of Judea. The article also misstated the timing of the Crusades, when the date palms of Judea were destroyed. The Crusades took place during the Middle Ages, not before.

Joe Plambeck
Office of the Public Editor
The New York Times

My response:

Dear Mr. Plambeck,

Thanks much for the response.

The assertion that “the crusaders destroyed the date palms” still seems odd:

1. A conqueror, would-be conqueror or occupier wouldn’t intentionally reduce the economic value of land.

2. Trees were commonly destroyed in the course of pre-modern military operations, especially sieges. Still, would that really extend to all trees of a certain type over such a large region?

3. If it did, and the date palms were so wonderful, why didn’t anybody replant? The seeds last 2,000 years, and seedlings (presumably) would have been available from nearby areas the Crusaders didn’t go. It appears from the piece that after the Crusaders destroyed the palms nobody in Judea wanted to grow dates for the next 750 years, until new plants were brought in from California. That seems extraordinarily strange.

All in all, it seems more likely to a non-specialist that the date palms disappeared as a result of general conditions than specific actions of a specific group like the Crusaders. All that, of course, is a priori reasoning that could be wrong. Still, the other errors in the piece give one pause. Could Mr. Erlanger have gotten this point wrong as well?

Best wishes,

James Kalb