7th APRIL 2015 - Vol.XXXVIII No.018
Local News

Tracing roots of the date palm...

The date palm is the true tree of life, providing food, drink and shelter throughout history. Bahrain expert and author ELIZABETH SHAHEEN examines its value through the centuries, right up to today. The date palm Phoenix dactylifera dates back to the first Pharaonic dynasties and the ancient Egyptians called it 'Bennu', 'bnr or 'bnr.t'.

These names were used for anything sweet but more significantly for the sun-bird which was assimilated to the exalted sun-god Ra.

This association between the sun-bird and the date palm is testimony as to the indispensable role of this tree to their life.

It is thought that the botanist, Theophrastus (c. 370-285 BC), named the date palm phoenix due to the colour of the dates being similar to the purple dye the Phoenicians were renowned for making from the 'Murex shellfish'.

The Latin word dactylifera derives from the Greek word 'Dactylos', which means finger, for the shape of the dates and leaves.

For the ancient Syrians and Hebrews this word referred to the date palm itself. Linnaeus (1707-1778), the Swedish botanist, gave the plant this binomial name.

The plant's place of origin has been a subject of great debate.

Many believe it to have originated in the lands surrounding the Arabian Gulf and in ancient times, it was ubiquitous between the Nile and Euphrates rivers.

Others hold the conviction that prehistoric man was responsible for distributing the seeds to the Nile and the Indus River in northern India, for they are easy to convey and germinate.

It was one of the first plants cultivated by humans and was a staple of life for thousands of years for the peoples of the Middle East and North Africa.

Nomads planted the date palm at oases in the deserts and Arabs introduced it to Spain. Spanish explorers, in turn, furthered its spread into Mexico and Franciscan and Jesuit missionaries planted seedlings in Banja, California in 1769, from where fruit export began in 1837.

It has long been cultivated on the French Riviera, in southern Italy, Greece and Sicily. Although, the fruit quality is poor and they are cultivated mainly for their picturesque appeal in the landscape.

In Italy, the maintenance of date palm groves is exclusively for religious use on Palm Sunday.

This applies also to Spain, but only the leaves from the male trees are used.

Excavations in Kharga oasis in Egypt recovered a date palm trunk that dates back to the stone-age period.

In addition, in Ruzikate (Sharkia province) excavations discovered a mummy shrouded in date palm leaves dating back to the Predynastic period (c.3500 BC).

Date palm seeds found in Abu Sir (Giza pyramids) reveal that dates were used as mortuary offerings, dating back to the first dynasty (c. 2950 BC).

Coins and relief paintings make known that this plant was regarded as a symbol of fertility.

It was cultivated in the gardens of kings and nobles, and the leaves were an emblem of longevity, and used as mortuary offerings up to the Graeco-Roman era.

In Bahrain, archaeological findings derived from the Dilmun seals, reflect the reverence of the date palm tree.

Cuneiform tablets discovered in Mesopotamia Iraq, reveal that Dilmun dates were highly esteemed as temple offerings.

In ancient times, there were two methods used to preserve the dates.

The first and simplest method involved drying the fruits in direct sun for a few days and then leaving them to rest in the shade until they became completely dehydrated, which is referred to as 'Tamr' form.

The second method entailed pressing a large quantity of dates in a date-palm basket for a number of days, resulting in 'Agua'.

In the Middle East, to this day, these traditions are very much part of society. The Arabs have an entire vocabulary to describe each stage of maturity, sweetness and form.

This revered plant permeated the very fabric of Arab life and continues to play an important role today. Apart from the economic importance for the fruit harvested, all parts of the plant provided many of life's basic needs.

In the past, the dried fronds and branches supplied the family's fuel needs. These were collected in quantity and stored in a purpose built room of the family residence.

The Madabassah, the honey store, was yet another purpose-built room, devoted to the production and reserve of the date-honey.

The fruit cluster made an ideal baby's rattle, while the fruit-stalk became rope or fuel. Wrapping the fruit in muslin provided a baby's pacifier. Syrup, vinegar, alcohol and liqueur were produced from the fruit.

Date beer was applied in mummification. The ancient type of wine arrack continues to be manufactured today.

In ancient Egypt, woven date palm leaves produced sandals particularly for priests and the temple's workers whom were forbidden to wear animal products.

Palm branches provided material for boat construction and the trunks were fundamental to systems used to draw fresh water from the natural aquifers in Bahrain and the eastern province of Saudi Arabia.

Throughout history the leaves and fruit have been associated with medicinal cures, such as asthma, bronchitis, catarrh, depression, haemorrhoids, obesity and as an aphrodisiac, to name but a very few of its medicinal uses.

The form of building, the barasti, is still evident in urban areas of Bahrain. Its construction is made entirely of parts of the date palm.

The walls are made of thatched leaves woven onto the branches, as is the roof. Air freely passes through the structure, thus making it an ideal shelter for desert conditions.

While the trunk provides timber, the mid-rib of the leaves furnish material for baskets, such as the salleh rutab, which are small, round, lidded date baskets, the chised are baskets used for transporting chickens, and sofr, the family dining mat, continues to bring families together for mealtimes.

The leaf petioles are a source of cellulous pulp, and when dried they afford walking sticks, brooms, fishing floats or provide fuel.

Burnt seeds supply silversmiths with charcoal, and raw they are fashioned into necklaces.

Grounded seeds mixed with flour to eke it out produces delicious nut-flavoured bread. Both the fruit and seeds provide animal fodder.

Pliny cited an ancient Babylonian poem that states that there are 360 uses for a date palm - this 'tree of life'.

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