Palm Trees: Meet the Middle East’s Oldest Friends

Date Palms Have Been Highly Prized Since the Dawn of Civilization for Their Wide Variety of Uses
Dr Hamed El-Mawsly pictured in his office, Ain Shams University Egypt. (Amira El-Noshokaty)
Authentic Nubian baskets made using materials derived from palm trees. (Amira El-Noshokaty)

The palm tree is one of the oldest trees to have been vividly documented in our intangible heritage. Growing in 14 different Arab countries that vary in climate, palm trees have always been an honourable motif of Arab culture. 

According to the Egyptian archive for folklife and folk traditions, palm trees date back 80 million years. However, they have been part of middle-eastern civilization, especially in the Arabian Gulf, for some 5000 years.

In ancient Babylon (Iraq) the palm tree was known as the holy tree of goddess Ishtar. In ancient Egypt, it was the tree of the goddess Hathor and seen as a symbol of long life. It was also known as the "Tree of Paradise" due to its immense environmental benefits. Mention of Palm trees in the holy books of Judaism, Christianity and Islam also reflect their long-held cultural value.

In 2019, date palm-related knowledge, traditions and practices were inscribed on UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity after date palms were nominated for consideration by 14 Arab countries.

"O PALM TREE CLIMBER"

In Nubia, Egypt, the palm tree is part and parcel of their daily lives. "Every part of the palm tree is useful," explained Dr Mostapha Abdel Qader, head of the Nubian Heritage Association.

"The trunk of the palm tree is used to make the roofs of Nubian Houses. They were a common feature in Islamic architecture because of their strong and resilient nature. Take the Amr Ibn El-As mosque in Cairo for example, the roof is made out of palm tree trunks and has been standing for over 600 years," he added.

The palm tree's trunk contains rough fibres that are often used to make ropes and the leaves utilized to make baskets, Angarib (Traditional Nubian Bed), tapestries, and rooftop covers.

The heart of the palm tree, known as al Gumar, consists of white palm leaves that are used as the foundation of authentic Nubian baskets. They weave the foliage or green palm leaves onto the foundation then colour it with natural dyes from the environment. al Gumar is also an edible delicacy, Abdel Qader told me.

The palm tree's foliage is also used in tapestry and is a commonly used material in the roof structure of authentic Nubian houses.

On the other hand, al Orgoun, which is the stalk of the dates, is crushed and made into heavy-duty rope used in water wheels for it becomes more durable when soaked in water. As for the dates, they vary in quality depending on the soil. However, the most popular types of Nubian Dates are al-gondela, al-bartomodah and al-barkawi.

"Palm trees are precious to Nubians. According to Nubian traditions the groom to be, usually bathes in the Nile then walks around a palm tree seven times as a form of blessing, for the palm tree is a holy tree and is known to be one of the trees of heaven," Abdel Qader explains.

The palm tree is a hero of Egyptian songs. "O palm tree climber" is one of many folk songs that document a unique element of Egypt's heritage: the extraordinary and challenging seasonal job of "palm tree climbers". They climb the trees in all upper Egypt to collect the dates. During date season, which begins after the flood season in October, fields in the Assuit governorate are covered with various dates. According to the Atlas of Date Palms in Egypt, Egypt has almost 79 types of dates ranging from red to yellow.

There are several folk games associated with the palm tree. One of the most famous ones is Hoksha which is a similar, and possibly older version, of the British game of Hockey. Hoksha is a popular folk game played in upper Egypt, where kids use palm leaves as hockey sticks.

FROM DATES TO FURNITURE

Throughout the centuries, the Palm tree seems to continually prove its loyalty and friendship with our environment. In more recent years, technology has allowed us to recognize the endless uses of the agricultural gem. At Professor Hamed El-Mawsly's office at the Faculty of Engineering, Ain Shams University, the palm tree is the centre of his studies and lifetime work.

"My relationship with palm trees started with my visit to Sinai in the seventies.  In 1979, our university organized a trip to Sinai after its liberation from occupation. I visited the homes of people in Arish, and I was surprised to know that they make their roofs out of the palm tree leaves. It was the first time I'd seen palm trees used in the construction of buildings," he recalled.

"The people of Arish would make a tapestry from the palm leaves, and then they would lay it over tree trunks and add some reeds. Finally, they would top it with mud. Their ceilings were slightly sloped to allow the rainwater to run off."

El-Mawsly explained that he discovered that palm trees were an integral part of the ancient Egyptian peasant life through his studies.

Traditional fences and beds were made using palm leaves. According to the book, Date Palm Fiber Composites, date palm midribs were used as girders, fixed across the timber frame to build beds in ancient Egypt, above which a woven mat made from spadix stem fibers were fixed to make the mattresses. 

El-Mawsly is the CEO of The Egyptian Society for Endogenous Development of Local Communities (EGYCOM), founded in 2003.  Believing in the capability of local communities to self-develop by making better usage of the environment, EGYCOM launched several programs to rediscover each community's local materials and how to make use of it.

"We worked throughout upper Egypt, and our latest project is in Minya governorate. There are very underprivileged villages in Minya, and they have a lot of palm trees. Plus, the culture of making use of palm trees is already there. So, we decided to build on it and created projects that would generate income for the locals," he said.

EGYCOM aims to help villages to take advantage of the county's 15 million productive palm trees.

"In al-Qayat village, which is one of the most underprivileged villages in Minya, we helped men make furniture out of palm leaves to sell and export," El-Mawsly explained.

Tables, desks, chairs, even Arabesque, and much more were produced as part of the EGYCOM programme that represented Egypt in international exhibitions worldwide.

"We worked on projects using reeds, and we also made amazing rosaries from the seeds of dates. I am currently supervising a PhD study where palm leaves are used to make charcoal," he added.