Throughout history, the date palm has satisfied the needs—from food to fuel to construction materials—of those who live in desert and tropical regions. Now, the importance of its cultivation is waning.
Since the dawn of recorded history, the date palm has been associated with the Middle East. It has featured prominently in the rituals of the religions of antiquity, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Perfectly suited to the climate of the region, the date palm can endure desert heat, withstand long periods of flooding, and tolerate high levels of salinity. In general, a plentiful supply of water together with prolonged periods of high temperatures are ideal for the growth of the tree and for the ripening of its fruit. An average tree will produce approximately fifty pounds of fruit each year. The date palm has been for the settled Arabs what the camel has been for the nomads, providing a commercial crop to exchange for imported necessities, material for construction, bedding, and an important source of fuel. Beneath its shade they can grow other fruit trees, vines, and aromatic plants, and beneath these cultivate vegetables, melons, and fodder crops. For many it provides a staple food, rich in calories and with appreciable amounts of vitamins. The fruit can be easily packed and transported, while the seeds are ground up and used as camel food.
Date-palm cultivation is labor intensive. Trees may be grown from seed but are usually grown from shoots, suckers, or buds. Soil preparation for date-palm cultivation involves a multistage process, and an elaborate system of irrigation requiring regular maintenance is essential. Because half of all trees grown from seeds are male and unproductive, sophisticated means of growing plants, relying most especially on artificial pollination, have been practiced from ancient times. Each tree requires special care and pruning for optimum yields. Harvesting of dates usually occurs in September and October but may begin as early as mid-August and continue until December, depending on the variety. In Iraq, the unique art of date cultivation has, since antiquity, been acknowledged legally by awarding to tenant cultivators hereditary property rights to the tree independent of the rights attached to the land on which it is grown. Contractual arrangements between cultivators and landowners vary according to differences in the inputs of skill and capital. Tenure practices and juristic ramifications associated with date cultivation are therefore complex.
Dates are most prolific in Iraq where there are 627 varieties. The groves along the Shatt al-Arab make up the largest single area of date cultivation, at one time covering over 100 square miles (260 sq km). Their harvest season long determined trade patterns in the Persian (Arabian) Gulf and much of the Indian Ocean. Until World War II, Iraq provided some 80 percent of the world's date crop, and dates constituted its largest export earnings. With the growth of the oil industry, the importance of dates in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East has declined. Greater oil earnings have reduced dependence on date palms for necessities, the attraction of other more remunerative and less arduous employments has depleted the pool of skilled cultivators, while the pollution associated with oil and modernization generally has had a detrimental effect on date palms.
See also Shatt al-Arab.
Dowson, V. H. W. "The Date and the Arab." Journal of the Royal Central Asian Society 36 (1949): 34–41.
Lennie, A. B. "Agriculture in Mesopotamia in Ancient and Modern Times." Scottish Geographical Magazine 52 (1936): 33–46.