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Largest Byzantine Winepress In The World Unearthed

The huge wine production complex annually produced more than half a million gallons of wine.

When an initiative to expand the Israeli coastal plain city of Yavneh first took off, few could have imagined the endeavor would include a fabulous archeological find: the largest and most impressive Byzantine winepress ever unearthed.

As part of preliminary work to build a new neighborhood, archeologists found the 1,500-year-old industrial complex, which includes five winepresses, warehouses to age and market the wine, kilns for firing the clay jars storing the wines and tens of thousands of intact and fragmented earthenware jars.

The wine produced at the site was a light white “Gaza wine” famous at the time. It was exported via the Gaza and Ashkelon ports to markets in Egypt, Greece and Turkey.

The large size of the site led archeologists to estimate that some 2 million liters (528,344 gallons) of wine were produced there annually, all by hand — or rather by foot, as the grapes were crushed by treading on them.

The largest known wine industry area in the world dated to the Byzantine period. (Assaf Peretz/ Israel Antiquities Authority)

Drinking wine was common in the Byzantine period, both for adults and children. This was because water was often either unsanitary or unpalatable, and wine was used as a “concentrate” to improve its flavor or as a replacement drink.

“Gaza and Ashkelon wine was considered a quality wine brand of the ancient world, whose reputation has spread far and wide, a bit like Jaffa oranges denote their origin and quality today from Israel,” said archeologists Elie Hadad, Liat Nadav-Ziv and Jon Seligman.

“Everyone knew that this was a product from the Holy Land, and everyone wanted more and more of this wine.”

An aerial view of the large ancient winepress discovered in the coastal city of Yavne. (Assaf Peretz/Israel Antiquities Authority)
Yavneh excavation directors, from left, Elie Hadad, Liat Nadav-Ziv and Jon Seligman with some of their finds. (Yaniv Berman/Israel Antiquities Authority)

“It is well known … that the wines of Gaza had earned an international reputation during the Byzantine period, particularly during the fifth and sixth centuries C.E. when pilgrimage to the holy land reached its peak,” the late Philip Mayerson, former Professor Emeritus of Classics at New York University, wrote in an article published in the Israel Exploration Journal in 1992.

The Israel Antiquities Authority and the Israel Land Authority, which carried out the digs, together with Yavneh municipality, invited the public to tour the winemaking complex before it is covered to protect it from impending rains.

The complex will be open to visitors once the findings are preserved and made accessible.

Produced in association with Israel21C.