Much of this epic history has been lost to antiquity. But Harry Paris, a horticulturalist at the Agricultural Research Organization in Israel, has spent years assembling clues—including ancient Hebrew texts, artifacts in Egyptian tombs, and medieval illustrations—that have enabled him to chronicle the watermelon’s astonishing 5,000-year transformation.There is lots of information about the early cultivation of the watermelon, including more from late-antique Israel, so read it all, but the section on Hebrew texts is as follows. It would have been nice to have chapter and verse references, but at least some specific texts are mentioned.
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 modern Hebrew word is the same: אבטיח. More on that here.
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.
And what do all of those fruits have in common? They’re sweet. By the third century, the watermelon had graduated from desert crop to dessert. And if sweet watermelons were in Israel, they had likely spread across the Mediterranean.