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PALMYRA

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DATE  CULTIVATION

If one has to see a single archaeological site in Syria then it should be Palmyra.  While it is possible to suggest that there are Greek, Roman and Iranian influences in the art and architecture of the city, it is probably best to simply appreciate Palmyra as a unified culture. If what remains is any gauge, then the city reached a very high degree sophistication when considered on a world scale. Yet at the root of the city’s prosperity is a rather ubiquitous concern.  The water that supplies the oasis made the site a vital one for traversing the desert. Silks coming from China and gold coming from Rome passed through this hub, and the inhabitants of the city grew wealthy taking tolls from the caravans.  At the same time the city was famous for the date palm, which explains the name taken from Greek “Palmyra”.  In Arabic the name is Tadmor, which also means “date.” With abundant water and ample opportunity to sell dates to hungry travellers, it is no surprise that dates from this region are famous today as well.

The palm groves in Palmyra require regular supplies of water, and they are grown only in the vicinity of the spring.  The ruins, as well as the modern habitation zone, occupy the area outside of date cultivation.

Date sellers line the streets of Palmyra.  Many varieties are on sale, continuing an ancient tradition.


The date is far more important than just a food source, however, as the date palm provided a number of different materials that have been exploited by humans for thousands of years.  The wood from the trees provides timber, which is rare in desert environments.  The leaves can be used for rope and cord, as well as baskets and furniture.  All parts of the plant can be used as fuel. Many parts of the palm are also edible.  Dates have a high sugar content, and can be used as a sweetener in other foods - as well as being appreciated alone - and turned into vinegar. Sugar was very important for the ancient world, as most fruit would require careful drying if not consumed immediately.  Dates have a relatively high water content, leaving them easy to eat, while resisting spoilage. Even the seed can be prepared into Canue, a Bedouin dish of roasted date pits. The young leaves of the plant can be prepared as a salad. It is therefore not surprising that the earliest finds of the plant come from Iran, Egypt, and Pakistan dating to circa 6000 BC. While no one is certain where dates were first domesticated, some of the earliest evidence originates from the ancient site of Eridu in Iraq dating to c. 4000 BC. Dates are noted in Sumerian and Akkadian sources from about 2500 BC.

Date culture is limited by geography.  The plants require high temperatures and low humidity, but they require ample water to grow.  This is the origin of the phrase: “growing with its head in fire and its feet in water”.  As a result they were and continue to be grown in the Sahara and in many countries of the Near East, where there are hundreds of varieties. Dates are still used as a staple food in many regions.  According to the World Food and Agricultural Organization, there are some 90 million date palms in the world, with over 60 million date palms in the Arab world.  Of these the crop can total about 2 million tons of dates. The date palm has a wider distribution than in the Near East alone, as it was taken into Spain with the coming of Islam and introduced into America with the Spanish.  Large scale groves exist in dry climates such as California, where the date is an important crop, and the trees have become an unofficial symbol of the state. Many Americans are surprised to learn that the date palm is not a native plant, and may pause to consider how many other things that are taken for granted originate in the East.

The ceremonial importance of dates continues to the present.  The tree is a symbol of life for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  According to the Qur’an (19:25-26), the Prophet Jesus was born under a date palm and Mary was told to eat the dates, which are also considered a healthy food today.

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DR. MURRAY EILAND

ARCHAEOLOGIST

UNIVERSITY OF DAMASCUS

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