The Middle East waits anxiously in hope that a new palm tree sapling called “Methuselah” may renew life to the famous Date Palm Grove that once flourished in ancient Israel during King Solomon’s rule.
According to Haaretz.com, Dr. Elaine Soloway of Kibbutz Ketura in Israel will soon know if the sapling is male or female. The odds are 50-50, but if it is a female it will become possible in two or three years to taste a date that, though once known widely for succulence and sweetness, disappeared from Judea by the time of the crusaders
The date palms now growing in the region are offshoots of plants imported from California in the 1950s and 1960s, varieties native to Iraq and North Africa.
Dr. Soloway’s sapling grew from a date pit that had been tossed into a clay jar, forgotten and then discovered two millennia later when Masada was excavated in the 1970s (http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/826167.html).
A long history
At one time groves of date palms stretched in a 7-mile wide swath along the Jordan River from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea. Dates grown in the region were so much a part of the culture of Judea that the Romans minted a coin depicting a palm tree, with the words “Judæa Capta” (Judæa captured).
When Jesus came into Jerusalem before His final Passover, the crowds took branches of palm trees and went out to meet Him (John 12:13).
A thousand years before that palm trees were carved on the walls and the doors of the temple Solomon built (1 Kings 6:29, 32).
The Psalmist wrote that the righteous would flourish like a palm tree (Psalm 92:12).
Further back in time, Deborah would sit under “the palm tree of Deborah” when the children of Israel came to her for judgment (Judges 4:5).
From his final vantage point of Mt. Nebo above the Promised Land, Moses looked over to the plain of Jericho, the city of palm trees (Deuteronomy 34:3).
“Tamar,” the Hebrew word for date palm, is a name given to daughters in both ancient and modern-day Israel.
Considered the “king of the oasis,” there are some 600 varieties of dates. Approximately 240 to 360 different varieties of dates grow in Saudi Arabia. There are reputed to be over 350 varieties in Basra, Iraq, alone. The quality of water, soil type and local growing techniques affect the taste of the different varieties.
“Feet in water, heads in the fires”
Dates require irrigation and fertilization. Hand pollination of the date flowers is done as winter moves into spring. Pruning, which is essential to produce a large, high-quality date is done during the spring. Harvest starts in September and ends in November.
The date pit can lay dormant for years before it germinates, as it waits for favorable conditions. Traditionally, offshoots from the base of the date palm were planted, but now tiny cuttings are taken from the heart of the palm. It takes about 20 to 21 months for this growth bud to develop into a seedling that can be planted outside. The ideal growing condition for the date is “with their feet in water and their heads in the fires of the heavens,” as the Arabs put it. Their roots reach deep within the earth for the life sustaining water.
The date palm begins producing at around seven years of age and continues producing for at least another 75 years. Though it may grow to be over 100 feet tall, it is usually cut to a height of about 50 feet to make harvesting of the date clusters easier. Each tree can produce up to around 350 pounds of dates.
A remarkable food
For years Saudi Arabia has worked with the World Food Program (WFP) in a joint undertaking with the United Nations affiliated Food and Agricultural Organization to provide food for drought ravaged nations in Africa. The Saudis built a plant in the al-Hasa Oasis to process the dates, which is the bulk of Saudi Arabia’s contribution to the WFP.
Dates are also known as the cake of the poor—they are perhaps the ideal food for hungry refugees. Two pounds of dates provide almost 3,000 calories. Dates have a high nutritional value and will keep indefinitely when dried, and their 75 to 80 percent sugar content will inhibit the growth of most bacteria. Recent studies have shown the date to be the richest source of antioxidants.
Pregnant or nursing women eat dates to make sure they receive adequate nutrition and energy. The tradition of mothers in Arabia using dry, chewy dates to wean their infants is a tradition that is slowly dying. Chewing on the dates would pacify the infants, strengthen their gums, and take their minds off the pain of teething.
Nothing the date palm produces is ever wasted. The pits of the dates are soaked and fed to animals when grazing is scarce. The wood of the trunk is used for building houses and dhows. The trunk fiber is used to make ropes, palm fronds are used for thatching, baskets and other household items, and any unused part of the date palm is used for fuel or fertilizer.
Within Bedouin culture, date palms are unguarded until it is time for harvesting. The Bedouin follow the principle of Deuteronomy 23:24-25. A hungry traveler may eat some of the dates as long as he leaves the pits and his tribal sign alongside the trunk of the date palm. But should anyone be caught stealing dates for economic gain the tribal judges will heavily fine him.
Following the example of their ancestor Abraham (Genesis 18:1-8), the Bedouin also have a rich tradition of hospitality. Three small cups of coffee and dates are the traditional Bedouin offerings to a visitor.
Recent studies show that dates are the richest source of antioxidants. Coffee came in second.
Truly a blessing from God, the date palm is a much appreciated mainstay of Middle Eastern culture.