Date palm heritage in Arab World celebrated by UNESCO

The date palm has long been a symbol of prosperity in the Arab world. It is also associated with fertility.
Sunday 15/12/2019
A Palestinian farmer checks the palm tree fruit to make sure it is disease-free. (Culture & Arts Association, Palestine)
A Palestinian farmer checks the palm tree fruit to make sure it is disease-free. (Culture & Arts Association, Palestine)

Tunis - It may have been the first tree cultivated by humans, who started harvesting its fruit more than 7,000 years ago.

Its fruit is mentioned in the Quran at least 20 times, scholars say, and twice as many times in the Bible. The Sumerians called it the “Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.” The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) said “few plant species have developed into an agricultural crop so closely connected with human life.”

Now, the date palm and its traditions have been included on UNESCO’s list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The agency congratulated the 14 Middle Eastern countries that put forward the nomination and praised the date palm’s role in civilisation.

“Date palm knowledge, skills, traditions and practices have played a pivotal role in strengthening the connection between people and the land in the Arab region, helping them face the challenges of the harsh desert environment,” UNESCO said in a statement December 11.

“This historic relationship in the region has produced a rich cultural heritage of related practices between people in the region — knowledge and skills maintained to this day.”

The date palm is the signature tree of desert oases, the rare shade provider that produces sweet, delicious fruit. Its scientific name, Phoenix dactylifera, refers to the ancient Phoenicians, who were among its first exporters. The date palm has been crucial to life in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia for millennia.

This was not lost on the nominating countries, which wrote: “Date palms gather in oases of different densities within desert areas indicating the presence of water levels suitable for irrigation. As a result, this aided mankind in settling down despite harsh conditions.”

The FAO noted that the date palm provided a high-energy food that could be easily stored and carried, while its towering trunks, some reaching 36 metres, offered shelter from the tough desert climate.

“One could go as far as to say that, had the date palm not existed, the expansion of the human race into the hot and barren parts of the ‘old’ world would have been much more restricted,” the FAO said.

Experts disagree about the origin of the date palm but it probably came from the Fertile Crescent between Egypt and Mesopotamia. Dates were a staple of the Indus Valley Civilisation, which stretched through Afghanistan, Pakistan and north-western India, and were popular in ancient Rome. They followed trade routes to Spain and, historians said, reached Mexico and California by the mid-1700s.

The date palm has long been a symbol of prosperity in the Arab world. It is also associated with fertility. Trees are either male or female, with the latter bearing the sought-after dates.

The tree has been immortalised in art and literature as well as holy texts. In Islamic culture, dates are among the first foods eaten after the sun sets during Ramadan. Many Jewish scholars contend that the Bible’s reference to “a land flowing with milk and honey” was an allusion to honey from dates.

To celebrate their date palm heritage, some countries have annual festivals, notably the Liwa Date Festival in the United Arab Emirates and the Dates Festival in Al-Qassim in Saudi Arabia.

The date palm has an intriguing future. Scientists are studying the tree as a source for biofuel, a so-called carbon sink and as a crop capable of withstanding drought. The FAO puts the annual global production of dates at about 8.5 million tonnes, with countries in the Middle East and North Africa the largest producers.

The date palm’s longevity is also legendary: reports indicate that one of its seeds successfully spouted after being dormant for 2,000 years.

The countries that nominated the date palm for UNESCO cultural heritage status were Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, the Palestinian territories, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen. The designation was made at the 14th session of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage in Bogota, Colombia.

The countries must submit a report to the UNESCO committee every six years on measures they have taken to safeguard “the intangible cultural heritage in their territories.”

Moroccan workers prepare soft dates for storing.  						          (Direction du Patrimoine Culturel du Maroc)
Moroccan workers prepare soft dates for storing. (Direction du Patrimoine Culturel du Maroc)

Experts disagree about the origin of the date palm but it probably came from the Fertile Crescent between Egypt and Mesopotamia. Dates were a staple of the Indus Valley Civilisation, which stretched through Afghanistan, Pakistan and north-western India, and were popular in ancient Rome. They followed trade routes to Spain and, historians said, reached Mexico and California by the mid-1700s.

The date palm has long been a symbol of prosperity in the Arab world. It is also associated with fertility. Trees are either male or female, with the latter bearing the sought-after dates.

The tree has been immortalised in art and literature as well as holy texts. In Islamic culture, dates are among the first foods eaten after the sun sets during Ramadan. Many Jewish scholars contend that the Bible’s reference to “a land flowing with milk and honey” was an allusion to honey from dates.

To celebrate their date palm heritage, some countries have annual festivals, notably the Liwa Date Festival in the United Arab Emirates and the Dates Festival in Al-Qassim in Saudi Arabia.

The date palm has an intriguing future. Scientists are studying the tree as a source for biofuel, a so-called carbon sink and as a crop capable of withstanding drought. The FAO puts the annual global production of dates at about 8.5 million tonnes, with countries in the Middle East and North Africa the largest producers.

The date palm’s longevity is also legendary: reports indicate that one of its seeds successfully spouted after being dormant for 2,000 years.

The countries that nominated the date palm for UNESCO cultural heritage status were Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, the Palestinian territories, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen. The designation was made at the 14th session of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage in Bogota, Colombia.

The countries must submit a report to the UNESCO committee every six years on measures they have taken to safeguard “the intangible cultural heritage in their territories.”

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