Environment and horticulture in the Byzantine Negev Desert, Israel: sustainability, prosperity and enigmatic decline

Dafna Langgut, Yotam Tepper, Mordechay Benzaquen, Tali Erickson-Gini, Guy Bar-Oz

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This study presents a comprehensive paleoenvironmental reconstruction of the Byzantine and Early Islamic western Negev Desert communities during the 4th-8th centuries CE. The study is based on 33 pollen samples and hundreds of charcoal remains that were recovered from the villages of Shivta and Nitzana. The results demonstrate that during the 5–6th centuries CE flourishing desert agricultural communities existed on the periphery of the Byzantine Empire (Eastern Roman Empire). The presence of diverse fruit-tree horticulture is revealed by both pollen and charcoal remains (grape, fig, olive, carob, almond/apricot, pomegranate, date palm and the exotic hazelnut). The rich botanical assemblages also provide evidence of the cultivation by irrigation of conifers and other Mediterranean trees common to the more humid Mediterranean vegetation zone, including the prestigious cedar of Lebanon. The palynological reconstruction of an ornamental garden at Shivta indicates the ability to invest water and labor, not only for horticultural and construction purposes, but also for ornamental greenery. We therefore suggest that the Byzantine Negev Desert community was a luxury society in contrast to societies living in a mode of survival in challenging desert environments. During the Early Islamic period (since the second half of the 7th century CE), our data show a dramatic decline in fruit-tree horticulture coupled with indicators signifying overexploitation for fuel of the nearby natural woody desert environment. Hence, we claim that in addition to previous possible explanations for the demise of the Negev Byzantine communities (plague pandemic, climate change, the Muslim conquest), overexploitation of the natural vegetation should also be taken into account. This study therefore helps address historical questions that are also pertinent to the modern era, regarding the existence of flourishing societies in challenging environments, overexploitation of the natural environment, and neglect of sustainability.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)160-177
Number of pages18
JournalQuaternary International
StatePublished - 20 Aug 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This study was supported by research grants from the European Research Council under the EU's Horizon 2020 research and innovation program (Grant 648427 ) and the Israel Science Foundation (Grant 340-14 ). We thank V. Epstein for her help in the palynological analyses and M. Cavanagh for his assistance with the graphics. We are grateful to the volunteers who participated in the diggings. Our appreciation goes to Y. Korman for his talented assistance in the preparation of the reconstruction of the garden of the northern church in Shivta and to S. Lev-Yadun for informative suggestions and comments on an early draft of this article. A.M. Mercuri and R. Cheddadi are thanked for their help with cedar pollen identification. Finally, we thank the two anonymous reviewers for their valuable comments on this manuscript.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 Elsevier Ltd and INQUA


  • Anthracology
  • Byzantine
  • Eastern Roman Empire
  • Horticulture
  • Negev Desert
  • Paleoecology
  • Paleoenvironment
  • Palynology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Earth-Surface Processes


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