The date palm, which was recognized by UNESCO on Wednesday, has for centuries played an important role in the growth of civilizations in the hot and dry regions of the Arab world.
Now date palm-related knowledge, traditions and practices have been inscribed on Unesco’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
The tree, whose roots penetrate deep into the soil, allowing it to grow in arid climates, has not only been a source of food but also of economic gain.
“Date palms gather in oases of different densities within desert areas indicating the presence of water levels suitable for irrigation,” according to a nomination put forward by 14 countries – the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Palestinian Territories, Sudan, Tunisia, and Yemen.
The ancient crop also faces some modern challenges. Gulf countries have fought hard to eradicate the red palm weevil, which originally came from Asia and was first detected in the region in the 1980s.
The beetle, which is barely a few centimeters (around an inch) long, produces larvae that feed off palm trunks, killing the trees.
“In Gulf countries and the Middle East, $8 million is lost each year through removal of severely infested trees alone,” according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
All parts of the date palm were and are still used in some parts of the region for shelter or to produce a range of products, including handicrafts, mats, rope and furniture.
To celebrate and promote their date palm heritage and palm products, some of the submitting countries hold annual date festivals, most notably the annual Liwa Date Festival in the UAE and the Dates Festival in Al-Qassim in Saudi Arabia.
Those maintaining the cultural aspects and viewed as “bearers and practitioners” include date palm farm owners, farmers who nurture the plant, craftspeople who produce traditional and related products, date traders, artists and performers of associated folklore like story-tellers and poems, UNESCO said.
The UN body stressed that the date palm has, for centuries, “played a pivotal role in helping people face the challenges” of their environment.