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Volume 29, Number 2March/April 1978

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A History of Dates

Written by Paul Lunde

In the centre of the royal emblem of Saudi Arabia, there is a palm tree above crossed swords. To the West, the palm is as much a symbol of Islam as the crescent and star, and this is not unreasonable: just as the olive was a basic element in Mediterranean civilizations, so was the date an economic element in those of Islam.

The date is not, of course; the only palm. This very simple and primitive tree family is divided into more than 100 genera, variously adapted, of which many others are useful to man, in particular the coconut palm, the sago palm, the "dragon's blood palm" and the African palm - which produces the oil for a famous soap of the same name. For most of those trees, however, Arabia is too dry. It is the date palm which is the palm tree throughout the peninsula, and even further. Spreading out from the Middle East, date palms were carried far and wide by Muslim traders and travelers, until today they grow in every Islamic country whose climate is dry enough.

Dates, however, go much further back in time. Remains of dates have been found on a number of neolithic sites, particularly in Syria and Egypt. This means that they were being eaten by man as much as 7,000 to 8,000 years ago, although we have no proof that they were cultivated that early. In the third millennium B.C., however, cultivated dates are spoken of with veneration in the Gilgamesh Epic, the extraordinary tale of a quest which ranges from Lebanon to Bahrain: "And did you not love Ishullanu, the gardener of your father's palm grove? He brought you baskets filled with dates without end; every day he loaded your table."

Date palms also appear engraved on seals of that period, sometimes flanked by animals, sometimes by gods and men, and in Assyria, as later in Greece, it was undoubtedly a sacred tree.

The date may have been less revered in Egypt. It is not represented by a basic hieroglyphic symbol and there are fewer pictures of it than one might expect. Furthermore, the Greek historian Herodotus, who wrote a lively and informative account of the country and customs of Egypt in the middle of the fifth century B.C., says nothing of the cultivation of date palms, although he gives many details on other crops. We do know, however, that date palms existed very early, partly from archaeological evidence and partly from column capitals clearly carved to represent date palms - for example the granite pillars, dating from about 2,500 B. C, of the funerary temple of King Sahure at Abusir, now in the Cairo Museum.

Besides its beauty, the date palm's vital importance to the pre modern economy of Arabia - and indeed to early life on the peninsula - makes it unsurprising that it should be frequently mentioned in the Koran. There is a particularly beautiful reference in the surah entitled Mary. After the annunciation, we are told: "Thereupon she conceived, and retired to a far off place. And when she felt the pangs of childbirth she lay down by the trunk of a palm tree, crying: 'O, would that I had died and passed into oblivion.'

"But a voice from above cried out to her: 'Do not despair. Your Lord has provided a brook which runs at your feet, and if you shake the trunk of this palm tree it will drop fresh ripe dates into your lap. Therefore rejoice. Eat and drink. And should you meet any mortal say to him: "I have vowed a fast to the Merciful One and will not speak to any man today""'

The Prophets Mosque, built at Medina around A.D. 630, was made almost entirely of palms: the columns and beams of the trunks, and the thatching and prayer mats of the leaves. According to one tradition, it was at Medina that the land was first cultivated by the descendants of Noah after the Flood, and it was there that the date was first planted.

Whether that first planting was in Medina or elsewhere, the date palm soon spread to the coasts of Africa, to Spain - where it is still grown in the east, a reminder of the period of Arab domination - and to western Asia. In northern India, however, it is said to have been introduced by the soldiers of Alexander the Great, who spat the stones from their date ration around the camp so that, in the course of time, palm groves grew up. This century the date was introduced into southern California, where is it still cultivated on a limited but productive scale.

But dates are not all that the date palm has produced. From Egypt, Rome took the graceful tree as a decorative motif, especially in mosaics. The Roman examples were rather rough, but soon the design passed to Byzantium, where we find it again and again, in the marvellous mosaics of Ravenna and later, Byzantine Rome. This is hardly surprising, for the palm came to be closely associated with Christianity - hence Palm Sunday and the palm as an attribute of martyrdom. But as an element of design it reaches its finest flowering in the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and in the Great Mosque at Damascus, whose splendor can be seen to the present day.

The date palm's strange waxy flowers, stylized into an almost abstract pattern, were also incorporated into architectural design and during the 18th century, when European fashion turned to the Orient, palm flowers became a very popular motif; some are even embroidered in silk on the hem of a splendid dress now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

In the Arab world, the date is not simply valued as a dried fruit. Pressed into cakes, it is still used as feed for camels and horses and even dogs in the oases of the Sahara when little else is available.

Date stones can be ground and mixed with other flour to eke it out, and the result is a delicious nutty-tasting bread still available in Hofuf. Alternatively, the provident Bedouin, especially in Najd, saved the stones from his dates to soak and feed to his animals when grazing was scarce. Palm hearts are a well known delicacy and the young leaves can be cooked and eaten as a vegetable.

In Arabia, the dates by themselves were once an important sweetening element and are still often eaten with coffee to contrast with its bitterness; syrup pressed from dates is also eaten. There are also sweets based on dates, particularly the dates stuffed with marzipan or walnuts popular in the eastern Mediterranean countries.

For the nomad, the date meant survival. It is a good food, of very high nutritive value and - as Westerners know well - keeps almost forever when dried. The date has a further property: a sugar content so high - up to 80 percent - that it inhibits most germs and so provides a healthy food, unlike much fresh fruit which, in the tropics, is apt to spread disease. The sap of a related species of palm, Phoenix sylvestris, can also be drunk fresh. It is sweet and refreshing, not unlike sugarcane juice. Fermented, it becomes intoxicating and hence forbidden to Muslims, the Prophet setting the limit of three days' fermentation before the drink is considered to be unlawful. Interestingly, three days is also about the time required for the fermenting palm juice to become toxic and dangerous to the health, especially to vision.

The date palm also provides wood for building. Although not very hard, it does well enough in a dry climate: pieces of carved palm wood from old houses can still be found in the markets of al-Khobar, Riyadh, Jiddah and other cities in Saudi Arabia. The wood was also used for some parts of dhows, the hard and valuable teak from India being reserved for the parts exposed to rougher weather. Palm fronds, on the other hand, are useful for thatching roofs and making baskets, mats and numerous other household articles. One of the most attractive of these is the container made of the midribs of the leaves, which can be found packed full of fresh dates at any Middle Eastern market in late summer. Each area has slightly different baskets - those in Dammam, for example, are often colored red. Any parts of the date palm not used in other ways are, naturally, used as fuel. Slow-burning palm-wood chips were thought especially suitable for making coffee.

Insects are the primary pollinator of the date palm in much of its range. But since Arabia does not have a wide variety of insect species, this natural pollination does not ensure the best possible crop: hand pollination is necessary. This process can still be seen in Arabia in the spring. When the fruit begins to form, the spathes are commonly tied up in paper bags to protect them from the insects and birds - for example the famous green ring-necked parakeets, who for many years have pillaged the dates of Dhahran and who can destroy the crop of a whole tree - about 50 pounds - in a few days.

Many other species of birds, bulbuls especially, like to nest in date palms and often use palm fibres as nesting material. And the palms of the oases, in their carefully spaced ranks, also provide the sole shelter for all kinds of ground crops that grow in their blue-green shade - as alfalfa and vegetables do in al-Hasa.

If, in the East, the date palm was enormously useful, in the West it was glamorous. Even its botanical name, Phoenix dactylifera, refers to myth. The phoenix, of course, is the legendary bird, inhabitant of Arabia, of which only one was said to exist. When after 500 years it felt itself about to die, it sought out Shakespeare's "sole Arabian tree," generally thought to be the palm, built itself a pyre of dragon's blood, frankincense and myrrh - all Arabian products - laid a single egg and then set fire to its nest. From the ashes arose the new phoenix. This legend excited the imaginations of East and West, and both European and Arab naturalists and encyclopedia writers speculated at length upon the nature of this mysterious bird. There were even reports of its being sighted.

Less romantically, the generic name Phoenix was probably given to mark the date seed's ability to lie dormant for years - even decades - before germinating when conditions are favorable. Dadylifem means "datemaker"; our word "date" comes from the Greek daktylos meaning date - or finger.

Since the date palm is clearly so basic to Arab life, it is hardly surprising that there should be numerous words to describe its varieties and the stages of its development. Different varieties of dates are distinguished and appreciated by connoisseurs much as we make distinctions between Cox Orange Pippins, Golden Delicious, and Granny Smiths. In North Africa - where dates were introduced by the Arabs - a story is told about one particularly prized variety known as "The Date of Light."

It is said that an old lady named Tuaja went on a visit to Medina and there in the courtyard of the house of Aishah, the Prophet's wife - where, according to tradition, a date palm grew - she picked up some date stones. She was very moved by finding the descendants of the fruit eaten by the Prophet himself and so she threaded the date stones into a string of prayer beads. In the course of time she returned to her home town and, filled with piety after her pilgrimage, longed to study the Koran and the Traditions. The learned men of the city, however, laughed at her, saying she was a poor, ignorant old woman and not worthy of their teaching. She resigned herself to their unkindness and not only performed the prescribed prayers with great regularity, but spent all her spare time sitting with her back to the mosque wall praying, with her date stone beads in her hand. The years passed and she died. As she was carried to the burial ground, her chaplet broke and her date stones were scattered. They were valueless and no one troubled to pick them up, but the following year a number of date sprouts were seen, and within seven years the palms were bearing the most delicious dates ever eaten in North Africa. Some said they were called "The Date of Light" because the trees themselves shone, others because it was known they had first come from al-Madinah' al-Munawwarah, "The Radiant City."

Paul Lunde is a graduate of the London School of Oriental and African Studies and a staff writer for Aramco World Magazine.

This article appeared on pages 20-23 of the March/April 1978 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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