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A Date with History

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This is a guest post by Rachel Gordon, Educational Programs Specialist in the Library’s Informal Learning Office, with thanks to Muhannad Salhi of the African and Middle Eastern Division for help identifying resources, and for his Ramadan blog post.

It’s a particularly appropriate time to think about the date palm and its dense, sticky, highly nutritious and delicious fruit, with the observance of Ramadan from April 1st to May 1st this year. The holiest month in the Islamic calendar, Ramadan is a time of prayer, reflection, fasting and time with friends and family, as outlined in this blog post from our colleagues in the Library’s African and Middle Eastern Division.

Fasting from sunrise to sunset is an integral part of observing the holy month. It’s customary to eat a few dates before Iftar, the dinner to break the fast. Tradition has it that this is what the Prophet Mohammad himself did. The high nutrient and carbohydrate levels of the fruit make it a good way to refuel quickly and to alleviate the effects of fasting – which makes you less likely to overeat during the evening meal. Dates are easy to digest, and their sweetness gives you an immediate jolt of sugar and energy.

Two black-and-white images of a row of date palms, with a man standing beneath them
Date palms, Alexandria, Egypt circa 1919; Stereograph card collection, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress


Believed to be the oldest cultivated fruit, dates have a long history in the Middle East, going back thousands of years. They are mentioned in the Code of Hammurabi, a legal code named after the ruler of ancient Babylon from 1795 – 1750 BCE. Inscribed in stone, the 282 laws covered a wide range of subjects, as the first two pages of this Law Library of Congress report describe. The detailed regulations regarding date production are testament to its great importance to the Babylonian economy. The rules are outlined in Date Culture in Ancient Babylonia, a short pamphlet published in 1920.  The author also states that large date palm orchards existed in the region as long ago as 2400 BCE and describes a modern day “seemingly endless forest of palms of some five million trees in the Shatt-el-Arab waterway. He outlines ideal growing conditions and ancient growing techniques such as artificial pollination.

Over the centuries, date palms travelled from the Middle East and North Africa to Europe and later, the Americas. Photographs of dates growing in Spain, India, and Hawaii illustrate their spread. Today, the lucrative U.S. date industry is worth millions of dollars. It’s concentrated in California and Arizona, although dates are also grown elsewhere. There are many different varieties, but most domestic production is of the Deglet Noor (originally from Algeria) or Medjool (of Moroccan origin) kinds. Date farming in the US really took off in the early 20th century, thanks to plants sourced from the Middle East. Another digitized booklet in the collections, Date Culture in Southern California (1912), traces its history and development in America. From the late 1800s, Walter Swingle* of the U.S. Department of Agriculture was in charge of importing of specimens for domestic cultivation.

The Library’s extensive Arabic language collections include resources on the date palm. Unfortunately, few are digitized, but the catalog gives a good idea of what is available for research onsite. Materials include volumes on date production in Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, an atlas showing the distribution of date trees, and a book on  palms in literature.


As the perfect pre-Iftar pick-me-up, dates make an ideal gift during Ramadan. Commercial options range from simple packages of plain dates to elaborate and pricey gift boxes of stuffed ones, and delicacies such as date-filled maamoul cookies, but it’s easy to make your own stuffed dates to enjoy at home or give away. There are plenty of recipes online, with all kind of interesting and inventive fillings, but you can come up with your own too. Just pit your dates and get started.

Nuts are one traditional choice – almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts and pistachios all work well. Almond paste, dried apricots and candied orange peel (my favorite!) make for delicious combinations too. For a real taste of the Middle East, sprinkle your chosen fillings with finely chopped pistachios or dried rose petals. A few drops of orange flower or rose water are lovely too, but use these very sparingly or it can seem as if you’re eating perfume. Package up your creations, add some decorative ribbon and maybe a hand-drawn label and you’ll have a lovely gift for Ramadan or any time of year.

Ramadan Mubarak!

*Walter Swingle was a busy man. Besides importing date palms, he acquired many Japanese and Chinese language materials for the Library of Congress. You can read about his connection with the Library here, and learn about his role in the gifting of Japanese cherry trees to Washington, D.C.

Comments (2)

  1. I love the filling suggestions at the end of this post, complete with suggestions for preparing a homemade gift of stuffed dates for presentation.

  2. I enjoyed reading this blog about Dates. The timing with Ramadan is great. Dates have a special place in Middle Eastern culture in general and Muslim culture in particular. In the month of Ramadan Muslims breakfast with dates following Prophet Mohammed’s practice (Sunnah).
    While the proverb “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” is known in much of the world, the Muslim equivalent is “seven dates a day keeps the doctor away.” The Prophet has many narrations about the benefit of eating dates not only in Ramadan but all year long.
    “A house without dates, its inhabitants are hungry”. Also, the Quran mentioned the Palm tree about 20 times.

    This gives the date a sort of mystical property, almost supernatural. (Ramadan Mubarak!)

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