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Trees of life

Source of nourishing food and drink; provider of wood for building; of leaves for ropes and brushes; of fibres for making sieves and baskets. And of sweet fruit, highly nutritious and used in certain natural remedies – even, once, in the brewing of beer.

Palms are part of the landscape of the Middle East,  and they have existed in Egypt since prehistoric times. They are among the country’s most ancient trees.

The date palm (Phoenix dactylifera) appears on columns of the temple of Philae in southern Egypt, and in countless tomb reliefs and frescoes.  In the inventory of the trees in his orchard included in the tomb he prepared for his future burial, one New Kingdom official (Ineni) listed 170 date palms, by far the most numerous kind of tree in his plot.

Wherever you go in Egypt, you will come across the trees. From the western oases to monasteries by the Red Sea in the east, pretty much all along the Nile Valley, in parks and lining streets, you see their distinctive shape reaching into the sky. Close to the ring road around Cairo there are stands of tall palms, handsome remnants of once-magnificent groves on what used to be agricultural land.

Palms are lovely, graceful trees. A well-tended grove of several hundred is a really magnificent sight.  We have just one, a Zaghloul, in our garden, which doesn’t work so well aesthetically (palms need companions, I think). This year it produced nearly 20 kilos of beautiful red dates: along with the lemon, it is our most productive tree.

Right now, we are eating yellow Barhi dates bought at a supermarket: crunchy, like the Zaghloul, but shorter and rounder in shape and more consistently sweet. Every year, I discover varieties I haven’t tasted before and try out something new from the astonishing variety of species or cultivars in the region.

But Egypt has a quite different kind of palm, most likely just as ancient as the date palm, yet little known nowadays, I think.

The doum (Hyphaene thebaica L.) has a distinctive bifurcate trunk, stands less erect than P. dactylifera, and produces fan-shaped leaves.

Doum fruits have been found in Old Kingdom tombs from about 4,500 years ago; the size of a small apple, they have a tough, shiny, brown casing enclosing a small amount of flesh, which can be eaten, and a nut containing sweet juice. The flesh was also ground into flour for bread.

Nowadays, the powdered fruit is made into a drink. I’ve no idea if it is still used for flour, but I rather doubt it as wheat has almost totally taken over.

The doum is commonly seen in Upper Egypt; I remember noticing individual trees, as distinct from groves, on the river bank when we did a Nile cruise from Aswan to Luxor many years ago. More recently, we found these lovely doum palms in the Botanical Garden in Aswan:

In his inventory, Ineni listed 120 doum palms, an indication of how highly they were valued. The next most numerous tree was the sycamore, with only 73. We know that both date and doum palms were planted in the temple complex at Amarna, the new capital city established by the pharaoh Akhnaten around 1360 BCE. Their fruit would have been among the foods he offered to the god.

Dates, meanwhile, were among the wages in kind paid to workmen at Deir El-Medina in Thebes, to the south. Bread, beer and some vegetables were completed by dates: All-in-all a good meal given the astonishing nutritional value of the date.


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