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LESSON VI

MESOPOTAMIA'S DATES AND OTHER PRODUCTS

You remember that after leaving our kelek we took passage on an English steamer for Basra (or Bassora). Let us land there and go to a reception, where we shall meet a real queen; one to whom her subjects are ever loyal. She and her ancestors have ruled in the desert for thousands of years, and though many rulers have risen to power and fallen all about her, her throne has never toppled. We find her court beside the quiet creek or the irrigation ditch, where she stands surrounded by her stately lords and ladies-in-waiting. For, as our Arab guide tells us, “The date palm, the 'queen of trees,' must have her feet in running water and her head in the burning sky.” When we ask him why his people call the date the “queen of trees,” he tell us of its many excellent and unusual characteristics. It grows in the heart of the sandy desert where nothing else will thrive, and is almost the only plant that alkali will not injure. With very little cultivation it yields large crops. It furnishes the owner of the garden with protection from the sun, with food, and with many things needed for his home. No wonder the early Semitic tribes from whom the Jews are descended considered the date tree sacred.

In olden days, as well as at the present time, the date palm was the chief source of supply of material for food and shelter for millions of people. As we visit the various countries of Southwest Asia we shall find many people who have practically no other means of livelihood. They depend on their crops of dates far more than the farmers of the United States do on their harvests of wheat or corn. We shall see how this palm tree has earned its title "queen of trees.

The largest date garden in the world.-Mesopotamia is believed to have the largest date orchard in the world. This garden contains over five million trees which line both sides of the Shat-el-Arab, the mighty river made by the conjunction of the Euphrates with the Tigris at Kurna. The garden ranges from less than one mile to more than three in width. The river floods fill the numerous canals, so the gardeners are sure of water for irrigation. The silt brought down by the stream from the far-away mountain acts as a fertilizer and makes the land extremely rich.

A good investment. This area is divided into small orchards varying from a part of an acre to several acres in size. They are sometimes separated by walls of dried mud, with perhaps a palisade of the thorny palm leaves on them.

The date tree grows to be very tall with all its foliage in a great crown at the top. The feathery leaves, which often stand edgewise, allow much light to filter through, so oranges, figs, and apricots are grown beneath the palms. Many owners plant vegetables under the trees in their gardens. These often pay the cost of upkeep, so that the entire fruit crop is profit.

Date culture leads all other kinds of farming in the amount of food produced in a given area. Pound for pound the date contains as much nourishment as bread. Wheat lands are exhausted by a continuous crop in less than twenty-five years, but date gardens that were described by ancient writers in the time of Christ still yield good crops. Many of the trees are cultivated only one year in three, but still bear large quantities of fruit. You can readily see why an Arab will often refuse as high a price as five thousand dollars per acre for his date garden.

Growth of the tree.—The date palm which stretches upward fifty or sixty feet without branches, does not change its shape nor increase much in diameter after it is three or four years old. On the tall, slender trunk there are many rough places, each one of which is a mark left by an old leaf that has

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fallen off as the tree grew. These scars make it easier for boys to climb the trees at harvest time.

The tree from one root produces a great number of suckers. If these suckers are not cut off, they send up shoots which form a kind of forest by their spreading. It was in a grove of this kind that Deborah dwelt and judged the children of Israel in the days before they asked God for a king (Judg. 4. 5). It was probably this multiplication of the tree that the psalmist had reference to when he said, “The righteous shall flourish like the palm tree” (Psa. 92. 12).

SEED TIME AND HARVEST

There are two kinds of date trees, the male and the female. Only the female tree bears dates, and unless artificially fertilized it bears but few. The gardener ties a piece of a male flower on each blossom in the six to twenty clusters on every female tree, or else shakes a branch of flowers from the male tree over the clusters to supply them with pollen.

Each of these clusters forms a bunch of dates averaging from ten to fifteen pounds, and sometimes weighing up to forty pounds. The dates ripen gradually, so the harvest does not all come on at once.

A busy time.-When the Arabs are ready to harvest the crop an expert with a heavy saw-toothed knife climbs to the top of the tree. He cuts each cluster and hands it to a boy just beneath him on the trunk. This boy hands it to another and so on until the cluster is safe on the ground. The number of boys needed for this work depends upon the height of the tree, but it sometimes takes six or seven. The boys toss the ordinary date clusters down to sheets that are spread upon the ground. These dates are used at home or sold to nomads, for whom they are packed in skins or baskets. The pickers handle the fruit that is to be shipped more carefully.

In some parts of the desert little ratlike animals live in the

tops of the trees and fatten on the dates. When the boys go up to pick the dates, these rats run out to the ends of the leaves, which are often from ten to fifteen feet long. The boys shake the trees and the animals fall to the ground. The shock does not hurt them, and they scamper off in all directions. The little children who have gathered to join in the run catch many of them. At night the mother kills the animals which have been caught and broils them over the coals for the children, who are very fond of this meat.

Preparation for market.-In some districts the green or imperfect dates are picked off and the cluster is packed, stems and all, in large boxes. In others the fruit is stripped off the stems and sorted before it is packed. There are many kinds of dates, just as there are varieties of apples. Certain kinds are preferred by each nation, and to have a ready sale the right kind must be shipped. The dates that are sent to America are the sweet varieties.

At Basra, the wharves are piled with lumber all ready to be nailed into date boxes which contain from twenty-two to sixtysix pounds. These are sent to England or America, where the fruit is repacked, often in gay cartons with pictures of the desert on them. From Bagdad, the dates are shipped in skins to Turkey and Egypt.

Home uses of the fruit.—When first picked, date honey drips from the bunches of fruit. This is carefully saved, for it is delicious. The fresh fruit is eaten by the Arabs with butter from goat's milk and dark bread if they can get it. Dried dates are the food of both man and beast in the desert. These are often pulverized and cooked as a meal. Bedouins make a date paste which hardens so it will keep. Vinegar is made from the juice of the green date. The seeds are crushed and fed to animals.

A LIFE OF USEFULNESS

The palm tree begins to bear dates when it is from eight to twelve years old. At fifteen it bears a good crop, and at thirty it is in its prime, though it continues to bear fruit for many years after that.

That nothing is lost.-When the tree no longer bears dates the natives cut off the leaves and make an incision in the top of the trunk just below them so they can gather the sap. This they make into palm wine. They save the leaves for mats and cook the bud as a vegetable. The fibers of the palm make excellent ropes and a stuffing for saddles. The women make thread from the stem of the great date clusters.

The men use the wood of the trunk in building bridges and houses, boats and carts; and in making beds, tables, chairs, and even bird cages! The Arabs make baskets and string from the bark and use it in building fences.

I. In what section of the United States has the culture of dates

been carried on successfully? 2. Why was that region selected for the experiment? (Ref.,

Commerce and Industry, by J. R. Smith. The Story of
Foods, Crissey. How the World Is Fed, Carpenter.)

AN OUTLET FOR THE PRODUCTS

The outlet for the date and other crops of southern Babylonia is the town of Basra, founded by the Mohammedans and once an important city. It is surrounded by a wall seven to nine miles in circumference. Within this inclosure are rice fields, date groves, and gardens intersected by canals, as well as the homes and business buildings. The bazaars are stacked with all kinds of goods, for this place is the great emporium of the old Turkish empire for Eastern produce.

The commercial center of lower Babylonia.—Basra is seventy miles from the mouth of the Shat-el-Arab, but English ships of 500 tons can navigate here, and they have captured the trade once carried in Arabian vessels. Wheat from this valley is sent yearly to Marseilles, London, and India. Basra

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