The date palm (phoenix dactylifera) is strongly tied to humanity’s history of religion, art and disappearing empires. Stephen J. Forbes digs up the roots on this hardy symbol of piety and propserity.
The Sunday before Easter is celebrated in Christian churches as Palm Sunday. The placing of palm branches inside the churches of our City of Churches symbolises Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem – “(they) Took branches of palm trees, and went forth to meet him, and cried, Hosanna: Blessed is the King of Israel that cometh in the name of the Lord”. Jesus’ path was strewn with palm branches (botanically fronds or compound leaves) then used to honour victors and victories, and especially victorious rulers.
Jesus’ rejection of the messianic and nationalistic kingship sought by the crowd is apparent in his choice of a donkey rather than a horse – the story of Easter follows. Later Christian iconography employs the palm branch to represent Christ’s victory over death and the victory of the spirit over the flesh – especially in Christian martyrdom. The adoption of the palm branch by Christianity realigns ancient traditions honouring the date palm as a ‘tree of life’ – perhaps in presentday Iran. In ancient Assyria, the date palm was identified as a sacred tree representing Ishtar, the goddess of fertility and warfare and a connection between earth and heaven.
Christians gather in Jerusalem to commemorate Christ’s journey from Mount Olive to the ancient city
The symbolism of the date palm in the Middle East appears to derive from its iconic connection to oases and water, and to food and fertility. The importance of the date palm is not simply the value of the date palm’s fruit – the trunks, fronds and fibre from the leafbases provide construction materials and fuel, thatch for roofing and basketry, matting and cord, packaging and padding. Even more importantly, the tall date palms, up to 20 metres high, determine the environment for date palm gardens that date back to at least the fifth millennium BC in Mesopotamia. The protection provided by this overstorey allows the cultivation of a sophisticated agricultural system that includes a mid-storey of orchard trees such as figs, pomegranates, Christ’s thorn (Ziziphus spina-christi), banana, mango, papaya, various citrus and trellised grape vines above a ground-storey of fodder crops such as sorghum. This permaculture system also drove the development of astonishingly sophisticated irrigation systems.
Religious and political symbolism for the date palm is evident in ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian cultures, later classical Greek and Roman culture and in the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The religious and secular use of palm branches to represent victory are interwoven. In ancient Greece, the date palm symbolised the god Apollo, who was born under a date palm on the island of Delos. The victory of Delian League led by Athenian general Cimon over the Persians supported by a massive Phoenician fleet at the battle of Eurymedon (466 BC) saw him erect a bronze date palm at Delphi to commemorate victory – the statue represented the victorious League as well as presenting a visual pun on the defeat of the Phoenician fleet (Phoenicia, as it was known to the ancient Greeks, employed the date palm as its symbol).
Date palm vessel, MET Tepe Yahya Iran 3rd millenium BC
The date palm appears on Punic coins and the adoption of phoenix for the name of the palm by the Greeks appears to derive from this connection (and is also the name of the ancient King of Tyre – the main city of Phoenicia). The practice of awarding palm branches to victors in athletic contests and in battle in Classical Greece and Rome becomes evident from around this period.
When the Roman Empire invaded ancient Judaea in the first century BC, thick forests of date palms up to 24 metres high and 11 km wide covered the Jordan River valley from the Sea of Galilee in the north to the shores of the Dead Sea in the south. In the fifth century BC, Herodotus had observed that Judaean dates were drier and less perishable than those from Egypt and accordingly better for storage and export.
The tree so defined the local economy that the Roman Vespasian celebrated the recapture of Judaea and the destruction of the Jewish Second Temple in 70 AD by minting Judaea Capta coinage that shows the Jewish state as a weeping woman beneath a date palm. Vespasian’s friend Pliny the Elder wrote that Jericho’s dates were known for their succulence and sweetness and discusses their variety. The ruins of Herod the Great’s palace at Masada that was famously held by the Jewish Sicarii until the Romans overwhelmed the fortress in 74 AD yielded a number of date palm seeds during an excavation in the 1960s. One of these was successfully germinated in 2008 and remains the oldest mature seed yet germinated – carbon dated at 2000 years old. The date is Hayany – an Egyptian variety consistent with a legend that dates came to Israel with the children of the Exodus.
While there are naturalised (commonly attributed to the peregrinations of Afghan cameleers) and cultivated date palms in Australia, there was initially little selection from the myriads of varieties available (as an illustration, the Sultanate of Oman recognises
250 locally grown landraces). The first known central Australian date farm was established at Hermannsburg Lutheran Mission in the 1880s and, in 1951, Victor de Fontenay established the Mecca Date Farm, just south of Heavitree Gap near Alice Springs with 13 different cultivars. The South Australian government established and managed a date farm at Lake Harry near Marree from 1884 to 1916. Subsequently the industry was shifted to the Riverland, although World War I brought an end to the project.
The history of date production in Australia has been fraught and Australia imports 5-7,000 tonnes of dates each year. However, there are champions for date production here, and in recent years a number of date gardens (or plantations) have been established. The success of dates in semi-arid and arid environments provided with access to low-quality and limited quantities of water argues strongly for growth in the industry.
Gurra Downs Date Company’s success proves South Australia’s climate is also ideal for dates
Dave and Anita Reilly at Gurra Downs Date Company near Loxton in the South Australian Riverland are pioneers in modern date production, and supply nursery stock propagated through tissue culture as well as selling premium dates and date products. Serendipitously, Dave and Anita’s date-palm garden happens to be nearby the surviving date palms translocated from Marree to the Riverland a century ago – four of the Deglet Noor cultivars stand as sentinels at the entrance to the nearby town of Barmera.