The Arabs sometimes call the date palm the "king of the oasis." What could be a more deserved title? Anyone familiar with those clusters of green set in oceans of sand knows that the regal tree reigns like a bounteous monarch, offering food and shelter to those who honor him.
From its luxuriant fruit-filled branches down to its sturdy trunk, the palm answers many of the needs of life in the countries where it flourishes. No part of its anatomy is wasted. An ancient Persian hymn enumerates no less than 360 qualities of the palm. Among the Berbers of North Africa a saying that stresses the uniqueness of the palm is often heard: "The culprit who would destroy a flourishing palm would murder 70 holy men."
One of the 170-odd varieties of the palm tree, the date palm is classified botanically as phoenix dactylifera ("the finger-bearing phoenix"). It grows from Morocco in the west across the lower-altitude expanses of the Arab world up to the foothills of the Himalayas. It is also found in pockets elsewhere in the world, notably in the American Southwest where date culture was first introduced by Spanish missionaries and where early in the 1900's offshoots imported from Algeria and Iraq were planted for commercial purposes. (The coconut palm is confined to the coasts of tropical Africa, to India and to the islands of the South Seas and Caribbean.)
Probably the oldest known cultivated tree, the date palm has always seen yeoman service, especially in the Arab Middle East where it is believed to have originated. The fruit is a staple food. It can be eaten raw, cooked, baked into cakes or pressed into a delicious syrup that the Saudi Arabs relish. Rich in carbohydrates, dates possess little fat. They contain about 40 calories an ounce. The longevity of many Bedouins of the desert lands has been attributed, at least in part, to the nutritional benefits of the date, which ranks so importantly in their diet.
Its use as a food source accounts for only one asset of the date palm. The trunk makes excellent house-building timber; the midribs of the larger leaves go into furniture and into crates—for shipping dates! The leaflets of the tree are woven into baskets and floor mats; the fibrous portions of the trunk supply rope; the larger fronds are braided into fences, erected to break the advance of sand dunes. Even the stones of the date do not go unused. Crushed, they are fed to livestock as fodder.
Palms are difficult to grow. The ideal environment for them is, as the Arabs put it, "with their feet in water and their heads in the fires of the heavens." That is, they require maximum moisture and heat. And a good portion of the Arab world fills those two requisites, especially Iraq, the largest date-growing country, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which has two classic examples of palm-rich oases in the oil-producing Eastern Province. One is the gigantic Qatif Oasis alongside the Persian Gulf between Dhahran, the town where the Arabian American Oil Company has its headquarters, and Ras Tanura, site of the Aramco refinery. The other, the al-Hasa Oasis, which has at its center the timeless city of Hofuf, lies south of Abqaiq, heart of the oil field area.
Last year one of the most modern date-packing plants in the Middle East was opened at Hofuf after Aramco had encouraged a leading merchant-grower in the area to launch the project. The latest equipment in the Middle East and the United States was studied before designs for the plant were drawn. Employing about 50 persons, the new plant expects to package some 2,000,000 pounds of dates a year. Of the total output, Aramco purchases up to 120,000 pounds a year.
Many of the date orchards in al-Hasa and Qatif are centuries old, and many of the 2,000,000 palms there have been yielding fruit for 80 years. Some of the trees have reached the ripe age of 200. (In areas where they are sparse, two families often hold half-interest in a tree.)
The date palms in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province begin to bear fruit at 5 to 6 years and attain their richest bearing maturity at 15. In the spring, the gardeners pollinate the trees; harvesting takes place in the fall. It is not at all rare for trees in the two oases to grow as tall as 60 or 80 feet.
American agricultural experts, brought into Saudi Arabia by Aramco at the request of the Government, recently demonstrated to Saudi Arabs that by such methods as thinning out the groves, using better fertilizers and cultivating with machinery, they would be able to increase their yield per tree, which currently averages about 60 pounds per season.
The richness of the Arabic language becomes nowhere more evident than in the abundant nomenclature of date culture. Al-Hasa farmers have about 40 words to describe the varieties of date trees in their oasis. They range from the adhbi type to the yellow zunbur asfar. The date tree's stages of development provide another five words, from habmnbu, the infancy, to tamr, blossoming maturity. The generic term for the date in this area is nalzlil. (The golf course at Abqaiq is called 'Ain Nakhl, the Arabic version of Palm Springs!)
If the date plays a tremendously important role in the contemporary life of Arabia, it was even more so in the days before large-scale international trade. References to the tree and its fruit abound in ancient writings of the Middle East. Hammurabi, the great law-giver of Babylon, specified how far apart palms should be planted. He also ruled that "a palm is worth double the price of the ground it occupies." In the Odyssey we read of Ulysses likening Nausicaa to a palm he once saw on the altar of Apollo in the temple of Delos.
No tree rivals the prominence of the palm in the art of the ancient Middle East. The massive columns crowned with foliage in the temples along the Nile are nothing more than palm trees in stone. In their bas reliefs commemorating victories over their enemies, the Assyrians often insinuated the fate of the vanquished. Soldiers hacking down date trees meant that the conquered people, cut off from their livelihoods, faced certain starvation.
The religious words of the Middle East mention the palm again and again. Solomon once sang: "How beautiful art thou, how comely, my dearest in delights. Thy stature is like the palm tree." In recounting Jesus' triumphal entry into the Holy City through the Golden Gate, Saint John wrote: "When they heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, they took branches of palm trees and went forth to meet him." Once a symbol of victory, the palm branch later came to stand for martyrdom, as witnessed in the wall drawings in the Catacombs of Rome.
For the Islamic peoples, the palm's prominence is evidenced in an admonition of the Prophet Muhammad—"Honor the palm [as you would] your father's sister."