The 5,000-Year Secret History of the Watermelon according to ancient Hebrew texts and Egyptian tomb paintings
The watermelon has long inspired artists, such as Giuseppe Recco’s Still Life With Fruit (1634-1695). The first color sketches of the red-fleshed, sweet watermelon in Europe can be found in a medieval medical manuscript, the Tacuinum Sanitatis. / Photograph by DEA, A. Dagli Orti/DeAgostini/ Getty
Ancient Hebrew texts and Egyptian tomb paintings reveal the origins of our favorite summertime fruit.
Once the Egyptians began cultivating watermelons, Paris suspects the first trait they sought to change was the taste. Just one dominant gene was responsible for the bitter flavor, so it would have been relatively easy to breed it out of the population.
After that, watermelon growers began selectively breeding for other traits. In that respect, the tomb painting of the oblong melon, which is shown resting on top of a food platter, reveals a clue to how the melon was changing. Since it was being served fresh, it must have been tender enough to cut and eat. Gone was the hard flesh and the need to pound it into watery pulp.
But while the fruit was no longer hard and bitter, it had not yet fulfilled its destiny as the sweet, tender watermelon that we enjoy today.
Hitting the Road
After 2000 B.C., the watermelon’s historical trail must be teased out of medical books, travelogs, recipes, and religious texts. By studying and comparing descriptions from several sources, Paris was able to deduce the ancient names for the watermelon and track its many uses.
Writings from 400 B.C. to 500 A.D. indicate the watermelon spread from northeastern Africa to Mediterranean countries. Paris speculates that, in addition to trade and bartering, the watermelon’s territorial expansion was aided by its unique role as a natural canteen for fresh water on long voyages.
The ancient Greek name for the watermelon was the pepon. Physicians, including Hippocrates and Dioscorides, praised its many healing properties. It was prescribed as a diuretic and as a way to treat children with heatstroke by placing the cool, wet rind on their heads.
The Roman naturalist, Pliny the Elder, was also a fan, describing the pepo as a refrigerant maxime—an extremely cooling food—in his first century encyclopedia, Historia Naturalis.
Paris confirmed that the ancient Hebrew name for watermelons was avattihim. He found a trove of clues in three codices of Jewish Law that were compiled millennia ago in Israel: the Mishnah, Tosefta, and the Jerusalem Talmud. “The rabbis back then didn’t sit in the Yeshiva all day,” says Paris “They were out with the people. They knew agriculture.”
The texts on tithing—the mandated practice of putting aside a portion of crops for priests and the poor—were especially informative. For instance, farmers were instructed not to stack avatttihim, but lay them out individually. That’s a key indicator that avattihim were watermelons, since the rinds were notoriously fragile.
The most exciting reveal in the Hebrew writings was a tract, written around 200 A.D., which placed the tithed watermelons in the same category as figs, grapes, and pomegranates.
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