When viewed from a distance, the spectacular valley of the AlUla Oasis erupts with vibrant green swatches among the sandstone outcroppings of the desert. These — the tallest of trees providing a canopy of shade to the oasis ecosystem — are date palm trees.
Here, 2.3 million date palm trees produce more than 90,000 tonnes of date fruits each year. But beyond the sugary succulence of every bite, the towering trees and expansive groves play an important part of the local culture and economy — and have for thousands of years.
Date palms have always been a cherished crop for the civilisations that have made their homes in AlUla. In fact, inscriptions at Jabal Ikmah include prayers for the health of the date palm trees. The oasis has allowed date palms to thrive in the region since the 1st millennium BCE, when the Dadanites and Lihyanites inhabited the valley. Additionally, recent excavations of Nabataean tombs in Hegra have uncovered date necklaces, emphasizing the importance of the date palm’s role in ancient civilisations.
Sometimes called “the tree of life,” the date palm also provided communities with endless uses outside of sustenance. When thatched to make shelter, the fronds offered protection from the desert sun and winds, while more artistic weavings produced jewellery or intricately patterned baskets. The trees were also an invaluable source of building materials, giving ancient peoples a means of making rope, fencing and furniture.
So important is the tree’s role that the knowledge, skills, traditions and practices gained from the date palm earned Saudi Arabia a place on UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2019.