Saudi Arabia Tour Guide: Al Madinah - City of Date Palms

Saudi Arabia Tour Guide: Al Madinah - City of Date Palms Last updated on Sunday 25th April 2010

Modern Madinah is eminently accessible, as it is excellently served by wide, well-surfaced highways. It is situated 308 miles/49km from Makkah, 264 miles/425km from Jeddah, 170 miles/275km from Yanbu, and 590 miles/950km from Riyadh, the Kingdom's capital.

Saudia, the Kingdom's national airline, operates non-stop flights between Madinah and many other Saudi cities. There are also international non-stop flights between Madinah and Cairo, Damascus, and Istanbul. During the season of hajj and the vacation periods of the academic year, many additional flights are provided.

Madinah's altitude of 1,958 feet/597m above sea level gives it a somewhat extreme climate -- very hot in summer, moderate in autumn and cold in winter. Its generally fertile soil is given a boost in more rocky and arid areas, by the addition of clay-bearing soil, which is brought in from nearby to assist in landscaping. This is later mixed with crushed sand, peat moss, dried manure, and compost to balance the mineral content of the soil, thus increasing its fertile qualities. This prepared soil mixture is used particularly in the planting of the date palm.

Date palms line Madinah's streets and highways in profusion, and the city authorities are constantly planting even more, together with many multi-coloured shrubs. It is almost impossible to find a park or garden in the city without at least one palm tree.

The date palm (botanical name phoenix dactylifera) belongs to the class Monocotyledons and the family Palm. It has provided mankind with food (pictured) and building materials since the dawn of time and can be found from the Canary Islands across northern Africa to the Middle East; from India and Pakistan to south-west Asia.

Horticultural experts believe that the date palm has been cultivated since about 6000BC, and every part of the tree has its uses. The wood and leaves provide timber and fabric for houses and fences. The leaves are used for making ropes, cord, baskets, crates and furniture. Bases of the leaves and the fruit stalks are used as fuel, and the fruit yields food products such as date vinegar, date chutney or sweet pickle, date paste for bakery products and additional flavouring for oranges, bananas and almonds. The Arabian-flavoured Bedouin dish known as Canua and roasted whole date seeds are popular as far away as Libya. Even the tree's terminal buds make tasty additions to vegetable salads.

The date palm's single, non-branched trunk grows to a height of 100 feet/30m. The trunk is covered in a spiral pattern with leaf base remnants, known as leaf scars. The feather-shaped leaves are about 13-16 feet/4-5m long, and are crowned with male and female flowers, growing on separate trees. Each flower cluster contains about 1,000 blooms. Only young trees, of between three and seven years old, bear flowers; it is the lateral buds of older trees which bear the fruit.

Cultivated date palms undergo a process of artificial fertilization. The male flowers are cut off and tied to the trees above the female flowers. Seeds or offshoots sprouting from the base of the trunk are used in tree propagation. These reproduce the sex and nature of the parent tree and can therefore be used for commercial planting.

According to Professor El-Said of King Saud University, Riyadh, the sex of a date palm is often difficult to determine and the tree can even change its sex before reaching maturity. An examination of the flowers of a young tree may not necessarily be very helpful in revealing its true sex.

The fruit of the date has one seed and can vary in size, shape, colour and quality of flesh. Unripe dates are green in colour, maturing to yellow, then reddish-brown when fully ripe. A single large bunch may contain more than a thousand dates, and can weigh between 13 and 17 lbs. (6 to 8 kg). Each tree produces between five and ten bunches. Date palms begin to bear fruit at 3 to 5 years, and are fully mature at 12 years.

The sugar content of ripe dates is about 80%, and the remainder is a rich blend of protein, fat and mineral products including copper, sulfur, iron, magnesium and fluoric acid. Dates are therefore highly nutritious. Bedouin Arabs, who eat them on a regular basis, show an extremely low incidence rate of cancer and heart disease.

As the Holy Quran tells us, dates have always been considered beneficial to mothers. When Mary gave birth to the Prophet Jesus (may peace be upon Him) under a palm tree, she heard a voice telling her:

"Shake the trunk of the palm tree towards thee: it will drop fresh, ripe dates upon thee. Eat, then, and drink, and let thine eye be gladdened!" (Quran 19:25-26)

The date palm is often the only available staple food for the inhabitants of desert and arid lands, and as such it is vital to millions throughout North Africa and the Middle East. According to the World Food and Agricultural Organization, there are 90 million date palms in the world and each tree can grow for more than 100 years. 64 million of these trees are grown in Arab countries, which produce 2 million tons of dates between them each year.

Date-producing Arab countries are Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, the UAE, and Yemen. Between them Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia produce 600 different kinds of dates, which accounts for 60% of the world's production.

The date palm is also highly prized as an ornamental tree throughout the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, as it is ideally situated in streets, avenues and driveways. Optimum planting conditions dictate that trees should be set 20-26 feet/6-8m apart and then well soaked with water. The date palm can tolerate a high salinity level of up to 22,000 parts per million.

Iraq is the top commercial producer and exporter of dates, closely followed by Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Algeria. Saudi Arabia contains more than a million date palms, and scored a commendable achievement by doubling its production of dates in 1986. The Kingdom donates 16,000 tons of its annual production of 500,000 tons of dates to the world food programme. Madinah's date market (Souq Al Tumoor) contains about 150 varieties, the most popular of which is Anbara, the most expensive. Other delicious varieties include Ajwa, Halwa, Shalabi, Barnie and Mabroum.

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