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.
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.
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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