It’s possible to divide the world in two: the part that venerates the humble-seeming fruit known as the date, and the part that does not. The part that does is home to hundreds of millions of people, from the Atlantic coast of Morocco across North Africa and Egypt to Mesopotamia and east to India. In this part of the world there aren’t really “dates,” because only a philistine would speak in such generalizations. There’s the plump sugar-bomb medjool, the chewy khalas beloved of Emirati connoisseurs, sweet and sticky Saudi sukkary, tart yellow barhi peeled and eaten fresh, the varieties picked early, called rutab, and served frozen with coffee at the upscale cafés of Riyadh or Abu Dhabi. There’s ajwa from Medina, said to be the favorite of the Prophet, the dark Persian kimia, the translucent deglet noor, and many others with evocative names like halawi or Sagai VIP.

I grew up in the part of the world that doesn’t care (in my case, Canada), where supermarkets banish this queen of fruit to remote corners of the health-food aisle with the lowly prune and the most obscure nuts. But I’ve spent the last three decades living and writing in Israel, part of the world where the date reigns. Now when I visit North America and see these fruits languishing on their remote shelves, it feels like climbing into an Uber with that Washington, D.C. driver who was once finance minister of Afghanistan. You can almost hear them whispering: Don’t you know who I am?

In Israel, I was first drawn to eating dates mainly because they were around all the time, served plain or stuffed with walnuts to guests in living rooms. Then I began to see them less as a fruit than as a kind of cultural marker. There are so many forces pulling apart the people of the Middle East and North Africa. But the date and its magnificent tree are woven through thousands of years of common history, rising elegantly above the dividing lines. The date offers a different view of the region than the one we’re familiar with, and the best place to start its extraordinary story is at the top.

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This article is a selection from the November/December 2022 issue of Smithsonian magazine

A worker in Israel seeks shade.
A worker in Israel seeks shade.  Yadid Levy

At ten feet up the trunk of a date palm and rising, you’re still thinking about the ground receding beneath your feet, but at 20 feet your gaze shifts upward toward the approaching explosion of green above your head. At 40 feet the hydraulic platform shakes to a halt, and Yuval Shabo and the other workers at this Israeli date orchard grasp the trunks and leap into the fronds. It’s spring, when date palms reproduce, and the workers use curved knives to harvest pollen from male flowers, place the pollen in squeeze bottles and then apply it to the white petal clusters atop the female trees. It’s a different world at this height—birds gliding at eye level, the Jordan Valley stretching north toward Syria and south toward Egypt, the green frond sea waving in all directions. The workers stop on occasion to sip water or roll a cigarette. Ground-bound humans and their concerns seem irrelevant. Up here all that matters is the little brown fruit.

I found the same attitude in an orchard 1,300 miles away, near the Persian Gulf in the United Arab Emirates, at the famed oasis of Al-Ain. Here, too, it was pollination season, but at this oasis the old methods are preserved, and the treetops aren’t reached by hydraulic cranes but by fearless workers climbing barefoot. Instead of modern drip irrigation, the trees are watered by an ancient system known in Arabic as aflaj, which pipes in water from springs miles away and distributes it through an ingenious network of open channels, flooding each farmer’s plot in turn. As I crossed the oasis a flash of white fabric far above my head alerted me to a young man named Maksood Baluchi, holding a curved dagger and a basket of male flowers. He shouted down greetings but didn’t have much time to talk. There were lots of trees to go.

The same overriding sense of the date’s importance struck me several times during the past few months, sitting in air-conditioned libraries, hunched over books, looking at the ancient art and literature of this part of the world. When I began my research,  the date palm seemed to appear merely as a background detail in art, from pharaonic tombs and Assyrian palaces to a 2,500-year-old seal impression showing the Persian Emperor Darius shooting arrows at a lion. But after a while my perception changed. The date palms stopped looking like decorations and came to the fore. After all, the pharaohs are long gone and Darius no longer matters, but the date palm does, feeding multitudes, linking people with their ancestors, rising everywhere like millions of green fireworks frozen mid-blast. Maybe these trees are the stars in the story of this region, and we’re the extras?

The date palm is a very old plant. Fossilized remains show that its ancestors were already flourishing 50 million years ago. It was only recently, around 4000 B.C., that enterprising humans in the vicinity of modern-day Iraq domesticated the trees. In the right conditions, a modern date palm can reach the height of a five-story building, live past 100, and produce more than 150 pounds of fruit a year.

Al-Ain oasis
At the Al-Ain oasis in the UAE, date palms are irrigated by a method known as aflaj, which brings water from mountains and springs via tunnels and open channels.  Yadid Levy

Long before refrigeration, dried dates could keep for years, making them invaluable for travelers across seas and deserts. They can be turned into honey by boiling and straining the fruit; in fact, the biblical phrase “land of milk and honey” refers to honey from dates, not bees. They can also be fermented into liquor, like the date wine enjoyed by ancient Babylonians, according to the historian Herodotus. The tree itself was a source of fiber for ropes and baskets, fronds for shelter and shade and columns for construction. That led one rabbi to remark at least 1,500 years ago, long before environmentalism was cool, “This date palm—no part of it is wasted.”

Egyptian architects building the temple of Sahure 4,500 years ago shaped their stone pillars like palm trunks, and the style was still in use 2,000 years later when Herodotus noted “pillars carved to imitate date palms” at a different Egyptian temple. By that time the “palmette,” a stylized motif based on palm fronds, had spread through the civilization of ancient Greece. In The Odyssey, Odysseus washes up on a beach and meets a princess. He has never seen anything as beautiful as her. “Wait,” he stops. “Once I saw the like—in Delos, beside Apollo’s altar—the young slip of a palm-tree springing into the light.”

A 1,000-year-old mosaic
A 1,000-year-old mosaic inside the ruins of a mosque on the road from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Originally a Byzantine church, the site was marked by a lone palm tree. Courtesy Guillaumedye.Academia.Edu

Most cultures in these parts had a role for the date palm in the story they told about the world, as the Iraqi-born food writer Nawal Nasrallah describes in her 2011 book Dates: A Global History, an invaluable compilation of lore. The Sabians of Mesopotamia associated the tree with lunar worship and called it sindirqa, or “road to the moon.” The ancient Sumerians believed the palm was the first tree ever created, and that it was tended by a godly raven. The Roman chronicler Pliny the Elder believed the date palm to be the nesting site of the phoenix, the self-incinerating, self-resurrecting bird of myth.

For the past few millennia a prime tract of date-palm real estate has been the area around the Dead Sea, in what is now Israel, Jordan and the West Bank. Date palms need water underground and dry heat above, and the summertime climate here, at the lowest point on earth, is perfect for this purpose, if unsuited for other purposes, like walking outdoors or thinking straight. For this reason the biggest city in the area, Jericho, is described in the Book of Deuteronomy as the “city of dates.”

2022 International Date Palm Conference
At the Emirates Palace hotel in Abu Dhabi, attendees of the 2022 International Date Palm Conference. High on the agenda: how to stop the invasive red palm weevil.  Yadid Levy

The date also figures in the dramatic saga of the siege of the Masada fortress not far away, on the banks of the Dead Sea. Masada was built by King Herod around 31 B.C. on a towering hill south of Ein Gedi, a Jewish date oasis in ancient times and today. According to the historian Flavius Josephus, writing about a century later, Herod equipped the fort with weapons and provisions including wine, wheat and “dates in great piles.” But Josephus was primarily concerned with the great Jewish revolt against Rome that began in A.D. 66, seven decades after Herod’s death, in which the historian himself participated as a rebel commander before switching sides. When a group of rebels took over the fortress, as Josephus wrote in The Jewish War, they found Herod’s food stores intact, a remarkable fact he attributed to “the atmosphere.” (The area’s parched climate does help preserve ancient artifacts, the most famous of which are the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were rediscovered in the mid-20th century after spending 2,000 years in nearby caves.)

The Jewish revolt ended when Roman legionnaires finally breached Masada’s walls and found, according to Josephus, that the Jews had committed suicide rather than surrender. Left behind on the hill, along with clothes and trinkets belonging to the rebel families, were date seeds, one of which would resurface 2,000 years later to play a role in this story.

After their victory, the Romans struck celebratory coins emblazoned with the words “Judea Capta,” or “Judea conquered,” showing a captive woman seated beneath the symbol of the restive province—the date palm. It was around this time that the palm began to weave itself into religious traditions that spread across the known world.

I’m writing these lines in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the Christian holiday marking Jesus’s entry into the city in the days before he was crucified. The New Testament describes how Jesus was greeted by followers who carpeted his path with palm fronds, a scene echoed at this very moment by thousands of Christians carrying fronds through the alleys of the Old City, a short drive from where I live.

Pillars of the Grand Mosque
Pillars of the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi evoke date palms. The ­­architectural feature made its earliest known appearance 4,500 years ago in Egypt. Yadid Levy

It also happens to be the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, when believers abstain from food during the day and break their fast each evening, according to tradition, with dates. “If you break your fast with coffee or bread, you’ll feel dizzy and a bit ill,” Saoud bin Hamoodah, an affable Emirati I met during my visit to Al-Ain, told me just before the holy month. “But with a date you’re okay.” Here in Jerusalem, thousands of Muslims are gathering to break the fast in the enclosure known in Arabic as the Haram al-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary. The site, famous in Judaism and Christianity as the Temple Mount, is a monumental platform raised by Herod, the same king who built Masada, at the location revered as that of Solomon’s Temple.

Only Jerusalem’s Jews lack a major date-related ritual this week. It’s in the fall that the date palm figures into our tradition in earnest, during the festival of Sukkot, when you’ll see people around town carrying the sharp, closed palm frond known as a lulav. Jewish tradition has a lot to say about dates. “A righteous person will flower like a date palm,” goes the verse in Psalms, one explanation being that the date palm, like the righteous, grows straight and sustains others with its fruit. A scientifically minded rabbi in 12th-century Yemen, Netan’el al-Fayyumi, explained that just as the pinnacle of the animal kingdom is people, and the pinnacle of the human species is prophets, the pinnacle of the plant kingdom, according to God’s design, is this tree. “And among the plants,” wrote the rabbi, “He created the most honorable species, which is the date.”

Date orchards near the Dead Sea
Date orchards near the Dead Sea in Israel. The Hebrew word for date, tamar, recurs as a name throughout the Bible; today it’s among the most popular names for Israeli girls. Yadid Levy

This year, as Christianity’s holy week coincided with Muslim Ramadan in this Jewish-majority city, news reporters were busy covering sporadic rioting and clashes with police as Jerusalem’s different groups jostled uneasily in their sacred spaces. No one took any interest in a place called the Kathisma, which is never on anyone’s list of places to visit in the city; in fact, most people have never heard of it, and until recently neither had I, though it’s a short bike ride from where I live. When it was built more than 1,500 years ago, the church called “the seat,” kathisma in Greek, stood alone on the side of the road to Bethlehem, apparently marked by a venerable date palm. The site is still at the side of the same road, even if the road is now paved, the palm is long gone, and the building is an octagonal ruin exposed to the elements in a rock-strewn lot by a gas station.

According to an early Christian story from the Protoevangelium of James, a text that didn’t make it into the New Testament, Mary, then pregnant, was traveling to Bethlehem when she experienced a vision of two groups of people, one jubilant and the other despondent, and felt her child pushing to be born. She rested on a rock—the seat that gave the site its name. In a related story from another text known as Pseudo-Matthew, set after Jesus was born, Mary was resting at the roadside and wanted to eat from a date palm but couldn’t reach the fruit, so the infant Jesus ordered the palm to lean over, and it did.

Christians built the Kathisma church in A.D. 456 and it became a popular stop for pilgrims. Two centuries later, after the advent of Islam, part of the church became a mosque. A story about Mary and the date palm appeared in the Islamic tradition, which also venerates Jesus, known as Isa, and Mary, or Maryam. In the Quran, labor pains forced Maryam to grasp the trunk of a palm tree, exclaiming, “Oh, would that I had died before this, and had been a thing quite forgotten!” But then a divine voice told her to shake the tree and “it will drop ripe dates on you.” When the archaeologist Rina Avner of the Israel Antiquities Authority excavated the site in the 1990s, she found a stunning floor mosaic of a towering date palm flanked by two smaller ones. It had been crafted by artists working for early Muslim caliphs more than a thousand years ago. (As is common practice, the mosaic has since been covered over with earth to protect it, fortunately for posterity but inconveniently for curious visitors.)

Israeli date palms heavy with fruit
Israeli date palms heavy with fruit. At the top of each tree is a terminal bud, sometimes called the brain, where new fronds appear each year; if it’s cut off, the tree dies. Yadid Levy

The buried mosaic might be the best illustration of the way traditions here quietly draw on the same landscape and on each other: Muslim art rooted in a Christian story about a Jewish woman.

My favorite cross-cultural date legend is much more recent. It’s a spy story. The central character is Avshalom Feinberg, a Jew born in Ottoman Palestine who was secretly gathering information for the British during World War I when he vanished.

It was 1917. The British Army was advancing from Egypt against the Ottoman Turks in Palestine, and Feinberg had joined an espionage ring led by Aaron Aaronson, an agronomist famous for discovering the wild ancestor of domesticated wheat. On January 13, Feinberg and a companion set off on camels, disguised as Bedouin, heading south toward Sinai to link up with British forces. But soon, lost in the desert by el-Arish, they were spotted by Bedouin gunmen accompanied by Turkish soldiers. The Bedouin disguise didn’t fool real Bedouin. Feinberg’s companion was shot but managed to escape, though not for long, and he was hanged by the Turks in Damascus later that year. Feinberg disappeared. “The desert swallowed Avshalom’s body,” as one chronicler put it, “and with it the secret of his death.” Once the British conquered Palestine, and especially after the state of Israel was founded in 1948, the spy became a Zionist legend. But the site of his disappearance was across the Egyptian border, inaccessible to Israelis, and no body was found.

Nothing new emerged until 1966, when the case drew the attention of an Israeli investigator who specialized in locating soldiers missing in action. Several sources provided an intriguing detail, as the investigator, Shlomo Ben Elkana, recounted in a book about the affair: Out in the desert was a lone date palm that some locals called el-qabr el-yahudi, the “Jewish grave.”

When the Sinai desert fell under Israeli control the very next year, during the Six-Day War of 1967, the investigator traveled to the spot. Local Bedouin contacts led him to the lonely palm tree. He hired workers and started digging. First, they found animal bones, then a button. Then a hand grenade. Then two human arm-bones and bits of a spine, parts of a skeleton that was tangled in the roots of the tree. A yard below the surface they found Feinberg’s skull, pierced by a bullet hole. The palm had grown from a date he had in his pocket. But the story didn’t end there.

The Spy Beneath the Sand

Excavating Avshalom Feinberg’s burial site, known locally as the “Jewish grave” Courtesy Avshalom Feinberg Museum
Finding the first bones, October 30, 1967 Courtesy Avshalom Feinberg Museum
The process of sifting the sand and finding the first bones Courtesy Avshalom Feinberg Museum
Disconnecting the roots and taking out the palm tree Courtesy Avshalom Feinberg Museum
Exposing Feinberg’s skeleton Courtesy Avshalom Feinberg Museum
Planting a scion from the date tree at the place where Avshalom Feinberg’s body was found Courtesy Avshalom Feinberg Museum
Feinberg’s burial site Courtesy Avshalom Feinberg Museum

The investigator tracked down a Bedouin elder named al-Haj Muhammad Abu Safra, a devout Muslim who seemed to know a lot about the spy’s death. In fact he’d been there, Abu Safra admitted, though he said it was a Turkish soldier, and not a Bedouin tribesman, who fired the fatal shot. He called Avshalom Feinberg by an Arabic version of his first name, Abu Salim. Abu Safra said they buried the spy where he fell. A year later the palm sprouted. The old man explained that this proved something about the spy’s character, echoing the same idea expressed in Psalms. “We understood that this man had been just and righteous,” Abu Safra said. “Otherwise, no date palm would ever have grown.”

And now back to Masada, the site of King Herod’s fortress and the Jewish rebels’ last stand in the revolt against Rome. The site was excavated by Israeli archaeologists in the 1960s. Among striking artifacts that included biblical scrolls, jewelry, weapons, cosmetics and sandals belonging to the rebels, they found a number of seemingly inconsequential items, including date pits. Almost nobody noticed, and the seeds were stashed in cardboard boxes at Bar-Ilan University outside Tel Aviv. They remained there until 2004, when Sarah Sallon, a doctor specializing in herbal medicine at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, came and asked for them. Although they were 2,000 years old, she had the strange idea that she could make them grow.

A grower climbs a female date palm
At Al-Ain, a grower climbs a female date palm armed with pollen harvested from male flowers. Domesticated palms have been fertilized by hand for millennia. Yadid Levy

The scholars in charge of the seeds were skeptical. Two years earlier, a biologist at UCLA had succeeded in germinating a pair of lotus seeds that had spent 500 years buried in a dry lakebed in China—but the Judean date seeds were four times older. Sallon was persistent, though, and the custodians yielded. Her friend and research partner, the horticulturalist Elaine Solowey, planted three seeds at the kibbutz where she lives in the desert of southern Israel. “No one believed in the idea at first,” Solowey told me as we walked among saplings of myrrh and frankincense in her greenhouse at Kibbutz Ketura. “They thought Sarah was crazy.”

Solowey, a veteran researcher at the kibbutz’s Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, spent six weeks checking in on the seeds every morning: nothing. “I didn’t think anything was going to happen,” she admitted. Over the years she has tried to grow 500 plant species in this desert, and most of them don’t make it. She told me, “I’ve had plants that look at this place and die.”

But one morning there was a crack in the soil of a pot. And then a tiny, pale white sprout appeared, like ET’s finger reaching for contact—a time traveler from ancient Judea. Solowey rushed to add fertilizer and switched to potable water instead of the saline water usually used for crops here, trying to give the frail sprout the best shot at survival.

By June she had a thriving little date palm. Sallon believes the preservative qualities of the Dead Sea area, and in particular the uniquely low UV radiation, are responsible for the extraordinary viability of the seed, which was the oldest ever to have sprouted. (The record was subsequently broken when Russian scientists germinated a seed that had been frozen in permafrost for 32,000 years.) The palm tree, which the two researchers called “Methuselah,” made headlines around the world and became a kind of celebrity, the closest thing the date world has to King Tut or Beyoncé. After that success Solowey and Sallon planted more seeds, and a second from Masada sprouted—Adam, which started out as Eve, until the researchers realized the tree was male. Five more have followed, all named for characters from the Hebrew Bible, including Jonah, Judith and Hannah. In 2020, the project made history again when Hannah became the first to bear fruit.

“Hannah" Dates
These dates are highly unusual—they’re from “Hannah,” a tree scientists grew from a seed from the Roman era—but their flavor, interestingly, is quite ordinary.  Yadid Levy

Only in the past few years, though, have scientists begun to extract significant information from the trees, using an approach they call “resurrection genomics.” Biologists studying the ancient world usually have to make do with scraps of ancient DNA that have badly degraded over time, but the genetic material they are extracting from the trees is simultaneously very old and brand new. “In this case we have lots of genetic information—as much as we’d have from a modern palm,” said Muriel Gros-Balthazard, a scientist at the Institute of Research for Sustainable Development in Montpellier, France, and a member of the team studying the trees. What has emerged is a fascinating story about geography, agriculture and politics in antiquity.

Today’s domesticated date palms originated in Mesopotamia, but the trees on the southern coast of the Mediterranean, west of Judea, were crossed with a species from Crete. The oldest Judean seeds, Methuselah and Hannah, from the fourth to the first century B.C., are also the most similar to palms from Mesopotamia, as you might expect in a country long dominated by eastern empires like Babylon and Persia. The seed called Adam is interesting as the intermediary example: Adam’s mother tree grew in Judea around the first century B.C., as Roman power rose and the imperial grip on the region tightened. Although Adam’s genome remains characteristic of “eastern” or Mesopotamian trees, it contains a significant number of “western” genes from Cretan palms growing in the Roman orbit around the Mediterranean. The trees that grew from younger seeds have even more western genes than Adam. “The genetic story parallels the history of the region that we know, and particularly the Roman conquest,” Gros-Balthazard said.

When I visited Solowey’s little colony of resurrected trees, she pulled out a plastic bag of light-brown fruit—last season’s yield, among the first dates to be harvested from an ancient Judean palm. I could wax poetic about the unique flavor of the Roman Empire and the Bible. I could claim to have tasted history itself. But the truth is that it tasted like a date.

In Arabian Sands, Wilfred Thesiger’s classic account of his travels through the famous “Empty Quarter” of Arabia in the 1940s, the British writer and explorer mentions Abu Dhabi as a sleepy coastal village on the desert’s edge. He would not recognize the metropolis that has sprung up since then thanks to the more profitable brown product exported by the United Arab Emirates, of which Abu Dhabi is now the capital. In my time there, I learned that when local people reach for an expression of their authentic selves, from the time before oil changed everything, they reach for the date. The pillars at the Grand Mosque, for example, are designed like date palms—gleaming white columns topped with golden fronds. In the neighboring emirate of Dubai, there’s an entire artificial island shaped like a date palm. (Another thing I learned is that if you type “dates in Abu Dhabi” into Google, not everything that comes up is related to fruit.)

The first stop for modern date connoisseurs might be the luxury date chain Bateel, which has a franchise next to the Nespresso store at the Abu Dhabi Mall. According to a salesperson named Wendy, the biggest seller in the pre-Ramadan high season was a date stuffed with salted macadamia nuts, though one with candied orange peels was also going fast. A golden date-box emblazoned with the traditional greeting “Ramadan Kareem” seemed like a good souvenir until I calculated the exchange rate and realized it came to $400.

Israeli horticulturist Elaine Solowey
Israeli horticulturist Elaine Solowey was part of the effort to germinate ancient date seeds found near the Dead Sea. “Something special’s going on there,” she says of the hot, dry, salty conditions. Yadid Levy

The ordinary customer might be better advised to take a cab to a less fashionable part of town and visit Al-Mina wholesale market. Many of the workers here, like Nisherd Korath, at Ashiq Dates, are Indians from the state of Kerala. Korath gave me a tour of his shelves: two dozen varieties of the fruit and also date vinegar, date jam, date-seed coffee, pickled dates, and cookies made from dates and camel milk. A few stores down I met Muhammad Ali, also from Kerala. He told me that the big medjools are popular, but mainly with tourists. Locals prefer the Emirati khalas and the Saudi sukkary, which are smaller and homelier, and have a complex taste that hints at caramel and coffee. I tasted them all and the locals know what they’re talking about. In the pre-Ramadan rush, Ali said, his store was moving about 2,200 pounds of dates every day.

But all is not well in the date world. The enemy is at the gates, and this is what brought me to Abu Dhabi, the scene of the International Date Palm Conference, held at the Emirates Palace hotel under the royal patronage of President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan. (The elderly sheikh died in May 2022, not long after my visit.) The conference played out beneath vast chandeliers and life-size artificial palm trees. At a stand near the escalators a representative of the Emirati date concern ZAD handed out cookies made with date sugar, and also wondrous dates that tasted exactly like chocolate, which turned out to be fake dates made of chocolate.

The date palm has many old antagonists—fruit rot, for example, or the Black Scorch. But none matches the red palm weevil. Native to the Indian subcontinent, the weevil reached the Middle East in 1985 with a shipment of palms from Southeast Asia to a port in the Emirates, according to Jose Romeno Faleiro of Goa, India, one of the top scholars in the field. “The weevil has conquered most of the ecological habitats across the world,” Faleiro told the audience—from the palm enclave of Elche, in southeastern Spain, to the Caucasus, on the southern border of Russia.

At another session, an Emirati scholar named Ali Elbattay laid out the grim statistics: 50 million farmers worldwide are affected by the weevil, which burrows into the trees and eats them from the inside until they die. Around the Mediterranean alone, the weevil’s damage is estimated at more than €450 million as of 2019. Mekki Chouibani of Morocco offered a grim prediction that he illustrated in cartoon images projected on a screen: first a weevil infestation, then a loss of income, abandonment of trees, encroaching desertification, and finally a farmer forced to leave home, hunched over with a pack on his back. The weevils are everywhere. Many palms in my Jerusalem neighborhood have fallen victim, including one across the street that expired as I wrote this article.

Date palm pollen
Date palm pollen, seen inside male flowers, was traditionally given as a supplement to increase libido and fertility in both men and women.  Yadid Levy

If the weevil poses a global problem, it has also summoned global ingenuity. One solution proposes drones with thermal cameras that can spot infestations: Trees invaded by weevils are hotter than healthy trees, and the hope is that if infestations are caught early, individual trees can be treated without spraying a whole orchard with pesticide. Other solutions have been tried and abandoned, like dogs trained to smell or hear the bugs as they burrow into the trunk. My personal favorite is a contraption devised by Italian scientists called the EcoPalm Ring, which looks like a giant metal dog collar but is actually a circular microwave. The ring wraps around the trunk and is lifted by a crane up the length of the tree, cooking the weevils inside.

Of particular interest at the conference was the presence of a few Israelis, which would have been hard to imagine a few years ago, before the American-engineered agreements known as the Abraham Accords inaugurated official ties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco. If we understand the date palm as a unifier in a divided part of the world, dates offer an obvious field of cooperation. A weevil sensor manufactured by an Israeli company, for example, has already been drilled into thousands of trees in the UAE and Morocco, as well as in Arab countries that won’t trade directly with Israel but purchase the sensors through a third party. The sensor picks up the vibrations of weevil larvae and sends a warning to an app installed on the farmer’s smartphone. Conference participants heard from Dror Shalitin, the Israeli CEO of a company that has pioneered a genetically engineered substance that is injected into date palm trees and eaten by the weevil. Once ingested, it switches off a vital gene and kills the bug without leaving any chemical trace, as a pesticide would. The precise details are a trade secret. Eventually, Shalitin told me, the substance can be genetically engineered into the trees themselves, making them weevil-proof.

The red palm weevil
The red palm weevil is threatening date crops all over the world. “Only the cold regions are not affected,” one expert warns.  Yadid Levy

The panel’s moderator was noticeably cold to the Israeli, and one woman slipped out when he stood up to speak, suggesting that dates can’t overcome all entrenched divisions. But most participants seemed open-minded, and the Emirati organizers did their best to make their Israeli guests feel welcome. Sarah Sallon, the Israeli researcher behind Methuselah and the resurrection project, received an award for her work. The conference was an argument for shared tastes and affinities, or at least for the salutary effects of a common enemy—in this case, a little red bug that cares nothing for borders or religion but only about date palms, and needs to be fought by people who share that way of thinking.

Date palms have been domesticated for so long that it’s easy to forget they once grew wild. Occasionally you’ll see a palm growing alone somewhere like a gleefully escaped convict, feral and unkempt, surrounded by offshoots protruding from the trunk, looking less like a tame orchard tree than like a fierce bush. But these are cultivated palms gone rogue, not authentically wild trees. In fact, for a long time no one could find the date palm’s true ancestors.

A few years ago, Gros-Balthazard, the French scientist, heard from colleagues about unusual palms growing in the Hajar Mountains of northern Oman. The trees produced strikingly small seeds, the researchers observed, a common feature of wild plants, which have not been bred to bear larger fruit. Gros-Balthazard and her team sequenced the trees’ genome and found that they were dramatically more diverse than the palms we know, and in 2017 they published an article in Current Biology announcing that the elusive wild date palm had finally been discovered.

Al-Mina Market in Abu Dhabi
A variety of dates at Al-Mina Market in Abu Dhabi. One Muslim hadith, or oral tradition, states, “A house empty of dates is a poor house indeed.”  Yadid Levy

The wild palms are not just a curiosity. The world is warming and the population is growing, so a tree that likes the heat and produces durable fruit with a wide range of uses has a lot to offer. But to survive, even venerable domesticated palms will need to adapt new characteristics, such as the ability to deal better with drought. Many useful traits have been lost during thousands of years of breeding, but they may well be found again in the more varied genomes of wild palms, which have been getting by on their own for millennia—in desert wadis, without irrigation. “It’s because you’re diverse that you can adapt,” Gros-Balthazard said. “What’s coming is climate change, increasing drought and water salinity, everything that is threatening the date palm population right now. The wild date palms might carry some interesting adaptations, and these could be bred with cultivated date palms to create the date palms of the future.”

It’s impossible to say what this part of the world will look like in the centuries to come, or what sort of people will be bustling around at ground level, eating, quarrelling and telling each other stories. But it’s safe to say that whoever they are, somewhere nearby will be a stand of these trees, traveling gracefully through space and time without moving an inch.

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