One of the most endearing symbols of the Sultanate is its ubiquitous date palms. Going back to time immemorial, dates have been nothing short of a life giver and sustainer for the people in Oman.
The Sultanate of Oman is a country that’s steeped in its traditional hospitality and well-known for its warmth. Visitors to any Omani home are naturally welcomed with warm smiles and an offering of dates and ‘kahwa’, the time-honoured Omani coffee, flavoured with roasted cardamom and rose water.
An ancient and interesting tradition of this land is that a shoot of a date palm is planted to celebrate the birth of a son. As the child grows so does the date palm, providing him and his family with most of life’s necessities, as he grows older. In the days long gone by, this system ensured that the family that is attached to a particular tree will therefore never starve, nor be in want of life’s basics necessities of food and shelter.
Dates have been a staple food in the Middle East for thousands of years. Dates were and still are the natives’ traditional food. According to an English expression dates have been called as “the bread of the desert” and dates are served with kahwa, with snacks, and with breakfast, lunch and dinner all through the year. Considered as the most important crop of the country, the date palm plays a pivotal role in the myriad social, religious and cultural facets of the land.
The importance of consuming dates can never be underestimated. For a mere fifteen dates a day satisfactorily supplies an adult body its daily required rations of essential vitamins, minerals and other trace elements. Stored in clay pots dates keep without spoiling for several years at a stretch. This is one of the primary reasons why dates became a staple diet for desert travellers and seamen of yore.
No part of this precious tree is wasted, as tree parts are completely utilised either as food, or to provide shelter, even clothing during the country’s primeval days and also as fodder for cattle and fuel source to keep the family hearth burning. The wood of the date palm provides an important source of building material, while leaves and fronds are used to make baskets and ropes – a remarkable variety of uses which has led to the date palm’s popular description as the “tree of life”.
Interestingly mentions of this magnificent tree are even found in the Holy Scriptures, Qur’an, as well as the Bible. In fact, the date fruit is even today amongst the first of food that is consumed when Muslims break their day-long fast during the holy month of Ramadhan.
Dates are something of a self-contained nutritional super-fruit, and an excellent source of protein, vitamins and minerals. Their high sugar content (40–80 %) also protects them against bacterial contamination and makes them extremely durable – dried dates can last for years without getting spoilt. They can also be pressed for their juice, used to make beverages, syrups and vinegar; in earlier times, boiling date syrup was used as an offensive weapon poured onto attackers attempting to scale the massive fort walls and embankments. A case in point of such recorded usage was said to be pretty common in the defence of the Fort of Nizwa, built in the 1650s by the second Ya’rubi Imam, Imam Sultan Bin Saif Al Ya’rubi. Since Nizwa was and is one of the major date cultivating belts of Oman, dates were in copious supply, which encouraged its usage as a weapon of destruction. The boiling date syrup was poured from the shaft of the fort directly beneath to seriously scald the unfortunate attempting intruders !
One of the key reasons why Omani dates have become so famous around the world is because of the natural arid environment in which they thrive. Where man and beast find the going arduous, date palms flourish with its bountiful fruits. During the blistering summer months when temperatures shoot up to up to 48 °C or about 120 °F, date palms produce their richest harvests.
Leading the pack of the date cultivating regions within Oman, Nizwa takes the pride of place. Some of the Sultanate’s best harvests come from this region alone with the varieties Al Khalas and Al Khunaizi being acknowledged as the best of the lot. The ideal date cultivating weather conditions like the long and hot summers and low humidity in the atmosphere and the abundance of water here are said to be the primary reasons for the resounding success of this region towards its contributions as the best quality and high yield date cultivation belt.
Date cultivation in Oman is given precedence and priority over all its other indigenously grown crops. Over 50% of the cultivated land is dedicated exclusively for date cultivation. According to a traditional Omani saying, the date palm “needs its feet in water and its head in fire”, a combination provided locally to perfection by its intensive falaj irrigation system and the country’s burning summer temperatures.
Today there are an estimated eight million date palms in Oman (outnumbering the population by over four times!) and making the Sultanate the 8th largest producer of dates in the world. 82% of cultivation that happens in Oman goes for the growing of dates, and almost half of cultivated areas in Oman are covered by these. Almost a quarter of a million tonnes of dates are produced every year. Over forty different varieties of dates grown indigenously with some of the more popular and prized varieties of dates being the Al Khalas, Al Khunaizi, Al Khasab, Al Naghal, Ash Patash and Qashkantrah.
Knowing well the significance of this amazing tree, in the very recent past, His Majesty Sultan Qaboos had issued royal orders to plant one million date palms in the country, so as to substantially enhance the supply locally and globally.