Date palm (Phoenix dactylifera L.) is a high-energy crop and one of the most nutritious fruits in the tropics and subtropics. Date palm is rich in sugars; palmitic and organic acids; linoleic, lauric, myristic, and other fatty acids; vitamins A, B1, B2, and traces of vitamin C; niacin; potassium; calcium; iron; magnesium sulfur; phosphorus; chlorine; copper; and beta D glucan, a dietary fiber. Dates are a good source of phytochemicals like phenols and cartenoids.
Fossil records of date palm trees date back at least 50 million years. Some claim that date palm originates from the Indus Valley, because Phoenix sylvestris, the wild variety of date and in all probability the predecessor of the date palm Phoenix dactylifera, still grows in India and Pakistan. It is claimed that the species spread to Mesopotamia and the Red Sea region via traders because of its value as a food source. It was cultivated from northern Africa to India and across the Biblical lands. Archaeological evidence indicates that cultivation of the palm occurred during the Neolithic era in Mehrgarh in modern Pakistan (c. 7000 BC), in eastern Arabia (c. 6000 BC), and in the Harappan Indus and Sumerian regions (c. 2600–1800 BC). Because date palms are found around oases in the desert regions of these territories, they came to symbolize immortality, longevity, and renewal. The date palm was cultivated mainly for its fruit, which could be eaten fresh or dried. Wilkinson (1854) lists 360 date palm products. Popenoe 1913 lists and describes 1,500 cultivars of date palm.
The date fruit matures in about 200 days in four stages. The first stage is kimri, or the unripe stage. The second stage is khalal, or the crunchy stage, at which point the fruit reaches full size. The third stage is rutab, or the ripe and soft stage. The final stage is tamr, which is the fully ripe and sun-dried stage. The fruit is harvested in the last three phases. Mature palms can produce 70 to 200 kilograms dates per harvest season. Thinning of the date bunch allows space for new growth.
The Epic of Gilgamesh mentions date palm groves in the Tigris and Euphrates valleys in modern Iraq. The Code of Hammurabi (c. 1750 BC) notes that the date palm was worth double the price of the ground it occupies. The date palm was linked in ancient Egypt to the sun-bird, hence the genus name Phoenix. Dates store well, which was useful in the desert climate of Egypt. Ancient Egyptians made date palm wine, and their priests wore sandals made from palm leaf. The tree was used to construct the temple of the moon god near Ur, regarded as the oldest city in Mesopotamia. Date palm fronds were used as thatching for roofs and baskets, and the trunks were used as supports in construction and plumbing. This low-quality wood remains an inexpensive option even today.
Date palm is associated with Egyptian gods Ammon Ra and Hathor, the goddess of love, fertility, music, and joy: “In a clean place shall I sit on the ground. Beneath the foliage of a date palm of the goddess Hathor …” (The Egyptian Book of Dead). Excavations in Egypt have revealed images of a kneeling man holding a bunch of palm leaves. Scholars interpret this an expression for longevity. When a pharaoh celebrated the thirtieth jubilee of his reign, he held a bunch of palm at mid-rib level during the Heb Sed ceremony. It was believed that the gods had carved notches into the mid-ribs that corresponded to the number of years left of the reign and life of the king (Nazir, 1970; Bircher, 1990). Palm groves were planted around monasteries in the Egyptian deserts, a practice still used today. Date seeds have been found in the Kharga Oasis in the Libyan Desert area of Egypt. A mummy robed with date palm leaves dates to about 3500 BC (Bircher, 1990). A vat containing a beer cocktail using date palm was excavated in Hierakonpolis (Egypt) and dates to about 3450 BC (Amer, 1994). In the 15th century BC, date fruits were paid as wages for construction work at Dier El-Medina temple (Darby et al., 1977). Date palm trees were cultivated in the gardens of nobles and kings. One gardener whose garden was said to contain 170 date palm trees covered the walls of his tomb with paintings of date palm trees. Date palm seeds were used as mortuary offerings in ancient Egypt. Date palm decorations were uncovered in a number of excavations that date as far back as 3rd millennium BC. Rocky stones decorated with palm trees have been found in temples and tombs of the 3rd and 2nd millenniums BC.
The ancient Greeks regarded palm as a sacred sign of Apollo. Cimon of Athens erected a bronze statue of a palm tree at Delphi as part of a victory commemorating the Battle of Eurymedon (c. 469–466 BC; Wikipedia). Palm was a Roman symbol of champions. A palm branch was awarded to victors in athletic contests in ancient Rome. The Romans considered dates a sweet delicacy, importing them from the Arabian Peninsula and northern Africa. Pliny stated that date palm wine was made throughout all the countries of the East. Palm leaves were considered sacred. They were used at ceremonial occasions like the anointment of a King. In the ancient Assyrian religion, the palm tree’s crown represented heaven, and the base of the trunk represented earth. In ancient Mesopotamia, the date palm represented human fertility. In Africa, the date palm shape is said to be similar in shape to the female vagina.
In Islam, date palm grows in the Garden of Paradise in heaven and is regarded as a symbol of peace. Palm trees around oases were regarded as a gift of Allah. A muezzin, or crier, would climb a date palm tree to call the faithful to prayer. The Koran was apparently first written on palm leaves. There are multiple references to the date palm in the speeches and life of the Prophet Mohammed. The first Islamic mosque built in Madina after the death of the Prophet was made from mud bricks and palm fronds, with columns made from palm trunks. The Prophet’s burial place was decorated with palm sticks. It is said that, after the death of the Prophet Umar and Abu Bakr, the friends and close followers of the Prophet Mohammed ordered Zayd Ibn Thabet, the scribe of the Prophet, to collect and collate Koranic words written on the palm leaves. The written Koran probably was an outcome of these efforts. Additionally, the Koran mentions palm 20 times, 15 of which reference God’s bounty to the human race. Some of these are included here:
It is He who sendeth down rain from the skiers: with it We produce vegetation of all kinds: from some We produce green (crops), out of which We produce grain, heaped up (at harvest); Out of the date palm and its sheaths (or spathes) (come) clusters of dates hanging low and near. (An’âm, 99)
It is He who produceth gardens with trellises and without, and dates, and tilth with produce of all kinds and olives and pomegranates, similar (in kind) and different (in variety). (An’âm, 141)
Set forth to them the parable of two men: For one of them We provided two gardens of grape vines and surrounded them with date palms; in between the two We placed corn-fields. (Kahf, 32)
A good word like a goodly tree, whose root is firmly fixed, and its branches (reach) to the heavens. (Ibrahim, 24)
Annas said that the Prophet Mohammed said about this goodly tree that: This tree is the date palm tree. (El Nadawi, 1994)
In Judaism, date palm is called tamar and symbolizes prosperity and abundance (Psalm 92:12). It is also a sign of joy and happiness. The frond of the date palm is part of the Jewish festival of Sukkot. Palm trees adorned ancient temples and are described in Ezekiel (40:16) and other verses. When Jesus entered Jerusalem, his followers waved palm leaves in greeting. After Jesus’ crucifixion, palm became a symbol of martyrdom for Christian people.