Dates in Egypt and Arabia: the date palm has been grown in these parts for time out of mind,
since archeologists tell us that the ancient Egyptians were eating dates thousands of years ago.
They ate their dates fresh, like candy; they ate them dried; they pressed dates into bricks and
preserved them that way. Meanwhile in Arabia, the Bedouin were hanging up clusters of ripe
dates and using the syrup which dripped from them as a sweetener; they called this sweet yellow
syrup drip-honey. Thus the Muslim metaphor which turns up in Burton's translation of the
Arabian Nights: sweet as drip-honey, a man could say of his sweetheart.
Here is how dates used to be cultivated by the Arabs of the lower Euphrates and
Arabia proper. Every date tree had an owner; a date is a valuable possession. Both male and female trees
flower at the end of February. The flower grows from
the stem, between the uppermost branches or leaves; it looks like a bunch of white wheat. The
flower of the male tree is sweet, and the Arabs eat it as bread, either green or roasted; that of the
female tree is bitter and nauseous, but it is only the female flower that bears fruit. About mid-March,
when the trees are completely in flower, they are pruned; some Arabs take sprays of blossom
from the male tree and graft them into the crown of female trees. The fruit ripens in August and
September. When ripe, it is pulled. Some dates are strung on lines made of goats' hair and dried
in the sun; some are preserved moist, packed immediately in baskets of palm-leaves, where the
sugar in them keeps them from spoiling. The date is the greatest of blessings from God, yielding
food for man, horses, and dogs, and there are said to be three hundred and sixty different uses for
And in Napoleonic times the Muslims of Egypt were still pressing their dates into bricks: they were
cutting unripe dates, pressing and drying them, and using them as a food for travelers on caravans.
Such bricks of dried dates could be so hard that the traveler who wanted to make a meal from
them had to hack them up with a hatchet first; all this comes from the account of the French
naturalist C. S. Sonnini, who traveled throughout Egypt in the year 1780. He found date-trees
growing everywhere he went, from the southern Theban area to the Delta of the Nile. These
were phoenix dactylifera, the date-bearing greater palm or Indian date-tree . . . and this is what he
has to say about this date-palm, in the style of the time which was eccentric in its S'es. I quote
his own words because they are frankly fun to read:
". . . although it requires little or no culture, it yields a confiderable profit, on account of the
immenfe confumption of its fruit. The date varies in quality ; that which is produced in the
environs of Roffeta is delicious, and boats are laden with it for the market of Cairo. The whole
clufter of fruit is cut before it is quite ripe, when it is thruft into bafkets made for the purpofe, and
having no other opening than a hole, through which the branching extremity of the clufter
projects. In this fituation the dates fucceffively ripen. By pounding and kneading them, thick and
folid black cakes are made, for the ufe of the caravans in their journies through the deferts. Thefe
cakes are fo hard, that they muft be cut with a hatchet ; pieces of them, fteeped in water, afford a
cooling, and, at the fame time, a nutritious beverage.
". . . The dates are not the only produce of this fpecies of palm-tree ; by hard beating its bark, its
branch-like leaves, as well as the rind of its clufters of fruit, filaments are obtained, from which are
manufactured ropes and fails for boats. The leaves ferve likewife for making bafkets and other
articles. The very long rib of the branches, or leaves, is called in Arabic dsjerid. From its
combined lightnefs and folidity, it is employed by the Mamaluks, in their military excercifes, which
they throw at each other from their horfes when at full fpeed."
Sir Richard Burton, The Arabian Nights
Source: Kinnear, A Geographical Memoir of the Persian Empire.
Sonnini, Travels in Upper and Lower Egypt
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Last Updated on September 15, 2000 by Sylvia