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DESERT FRUIT The Dates of Al Jufrah


DESERT FRUIT The Dates of Al Jufrah

edited by Marta Mancini

Field research and texts by Marta Mancini Translated by Carla Ranicki Photographs by Marta Mancini and Carlo Bergesio Historic map from the Istituto Agronomico per l’Oltremare Illustrations by Irene Roggero Design and layout by Alice Lotti Printed on recycled and ecological paper For their invaluable assistance, suggestions and support, many thanks go to Dr. Bashir Gshera, local coordinator of the project; Mostafa Ali Gringo, guide and interpreter; Elsanoussi Jalala; Mahmoud Abobaker Fadil; the Libyan Board of Improving and Developing Olive and Palm Trees; all the people of Al Jufrah who contributed in various ways to the production of this publication; Massimo Battaglia, Italian coordinator of the project; Stefania Sani, librarian at the Istituto Agronomico per l’Oltremare, Prof. Milvia Luisa Racchi; Piero Sardo, President of the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity; and Michela Lenta, in charge of Mediterranean Africa for Slow Food.

DESERT FRUIT The Dates of Al Jufrah Do not love me my master like a palm that the wind caresses and then leaves languishing Do not love me my master like a door that the hurried man constantly pulls and pushes Love me my master like a date that the glutton sucks voluptuously down to the pit‌ [Popular Arab ballad quoted by Giorgio Assan; La Libia e il mondo arabo; Rome, Editori Riuniti, 1959; p. 25]

THE WORLD MAP OF DATES The map shows where the highest concentrations of date palms are in the world. The best zone in the world for cultivating 10°


30° Twenty-ninth parallel




the palms and one of the historic caravan routes along which dates were traded are both along the 29th parallel. 10°









Twenty-ninth parallel


The number of palm trees in Al Jufrah has grown from around 88,000 in the 1930s to 3 million today. Half of the dates produced in irrigated plantations come from Waddan, while the rest come from Hun and Sokna. Zellah and Al Fugha are oases where date production is more traditional. Privately owned plots in Al Jufrah are of moderate size, between 6 and 10 hectares. One hectare can be planted with around 100 palms and each palm produces between 40 and 100 kilograms of dates a year.



THE 95 FLAVORS OF LIBYAN DATES Some of the best dates in the world come from Libya, and dozens of different date varieties have been preserved here. This extraordinary heritage is the fruit of centuries of history, carefully safeguarded by today’s farmers to give hope for tomorrow’s desert. Compared to the dates that flood European supermarkets around Christmas, Libyan dates represent a glorious celebration of biodiversity and flavor. Today, 400 different date varieties are still grown in the country, of which 95 are of commercial interest. This incredible wealth has served as a highly effective natural defense for the Libyan plantations, which have remained safe from pathogen attacks like Bayoud disease. Having destroyed two-thirds of Morocco’s palm groves during the last century, the disease is now spreading to Algeria and threatening the Tunisian plantations. Libya’s date varieties can be divided into three major groups: the fleshy-fruited coastal varieties, which can be eaten fresh or refrigerated for months (Bronzi, Taluni, Baudi); the semi-soft varieties from the central zone, mostly consumed fresh (Bestian, Kathari, Abel, Tagiat,

DATE NAMES The Arabic word tamar means both “date” and “October,” the month in which dates are harvested. As a sign of the centrality this fruit has always had in the everyday life and economy of the desert populations, the same word is also used to refer to fruit in general. Dates are so important in Arab culture that the Arabic language has five different words for the fruit’s different stages of development: hababouk (unripe, green), kimri, blah or khalal (fresh, slightly astringent, juicy and fibrous, hard), rutab (medium moisture), tamar (overripe, dry).

Saiedi); and those from the southern oases, less succulent and fleshy (Amjog, Emeli, Awarig, Tascube, Intalia, Tamjog). These latter varieties are suited for drying and can be stored for up to 10 years. They were highly valued by the caravans that used to cross the desert.

Those familiar

with the desert have many different ways of distinguishing the varieties: the shape of the palm’s foliage, the appearance of the leaves, the length of the thorns, how the bunches of fruit hang. But even a European would immediately be able to see the striking diversity among the fruits when they are laid out next to each other, even before experiencing the bewildering symphony of flavors on their palate. Kathary dates are greener than the yellowish Sokeris; Tagiats have a tapered shape; the prized Halimas offer an incomparable concentration of pleasure, their sweetness caressing the mouth without 9

ever becoming cloying. The country is also rich in sayings and legends associated with the fruit, such as the old adage “if you plant Berni dates, you’ll eat Berni dates,� referring to a particularly resistant variety able to guarantee food security.

The date palm varieties grown in Libya today are the same as those described by the Italians between 1926 and 1930, showing how the impressive local genetic wealth has not been lost over time, but wisely maintained and regenerated.


The Libyan government recently launched a major project to encourage, improve and promote the production of dates, planting new palms in various desert and semi-arid regions of the country, expanding research institutions in the sector and supporting technical and scientific exchanges, with the aim of genetically, agriculturally and biologically improving the crop in arid environments.

THE ADVANTAGES OF BIODIVERSITY Single-variety cultivation is not only more susceptible to possible parasitic epidemics, but also at greater risk in the event of unusual weather patterns. If these occur during certain key stages in the plant’s life cycle, such as flowering and fruit setting, they can result in serious production losses. Single-variety crops are also more vulnerable to market fluctuations dictated by the changing preferences of consumers. In other Maghreb countries the renewal and conservation of traditional varieties is no longer ensured. The resulting impoverishment in biodiversity has already led to major cultivation of selected varieties and the spread of monocultures for export. Those varieties held to be

of lower quality or lesser commercial value are particularly suffering. The complete abandonment of traditional crops will inevitably lead to the reduction of the genetic variability available to the species, a variability that comes from a long natural selection and constitutes the primary factor for environmental adaptation. As in other countries, drought, salinity, desertification and aging palm groves have created problems for date cultivation in Libya, but farmers recognized the importance of safeguarding the varieties common at a local level. Today they have access to a heritage that is extremely valuable for the environmental and economic future of the country and the whole Mediterranean basin. 11

THE TREASURES OF AL JUFRAH Dates express what the French call terroir: the special combination of soil and climate that characterizes the identity of a geographic area. The fruits of the Al Jufrah palms represent the essence of a land shaped by nature and expertly tended by the people of the oases.

The Al Jufrah region of central Libya has long been recognized as an ideal zone for date growing, thanks to its soil composition, abundant aquiferous reserves and climate (its seasons, temperatures, temperature swings, humidity level and so on). The particularly fortunate characteristics of this area mean that the palms grow easily. Cultivation is effectively organic, because no synthetic chemical pesticides or fertilizers are used. This undoubtedly has positive consequences for the flavor of the fruits, which are naturally rich in sugars and highly nutritious. Dozens of different varieties are still being grown in Al Jufrah. These local varieties, each with their own sensory characteristics, can astonish attentive and curious palates. These are a few of the most common varieties: 12


EL AB iety r


Kathari: Highly esteemed, though slightly astringent; stays soft for the whole year; has a stubby oval fruit, greenish-yellow in color, with a thick, hard skin and soft flesh. Tagiat: The dark-brown, elongated oval fruits, with a smooth, thick, hard skin and soft flesh, keep quite well. A popular old saying claims that hunting dogs run fast because they eat Tagiat dates. Abel: Dry, easy to store and transport; oval fruit, yellow with brown patches; smooth, tough, thick skin; hard flesh with a sweet but astringent flavor. Halima: Considered a rare delicacy, they represent the highest quality of date. The very soft fruits are larger than average and pleasantly sweet without being cloying.



G var IAT iety

Saiedi: Of ancient Egyptian origin, but now considered one of Libya’s most important varieties, it has a translucent dark-brown fruit, shaped like an elongated oval, with a thin, tender skin and soft, syrupy flesh. The palms can be irrigated with brackish water. They are highly resistant to parasites and very productive, producing a regular yield each year. The fruits are appreciated for their pleasant flavor and because they store well.






et ari


Bestian: With a low sugar content, this is the date variety most recommended for diabetes sufferers. Hamria: Very abundant in Al Jufrah. This variety is particularly good for the production of lagbi, the juice extracted from the palm’s trunk.


M var RIA iety

Saiedi, Kathari, Bestian, Hamria, Abel and Tagiat, among other varieties, were identified as particularly valuable and reserved for export by an Italian royal decree in 1928. The

palms were closely guarded by the colonists, and when the dates were harvested the Italians would buy all the best fruit, leaving little for the local inhabitants. 15

DATE NUTRITION A fleshy dried date contains more or less the same constituents as the fresh fruit, in concentrated form: high in sugars and fiber, and no or very low fat. In general, nuts and dried fruit are rich in calories (100 grams of walnuts, for example, have 660 kilocalories, hazelnuts 625, pistachios 642, almonds 542 and pine nuts 569). Their energy content makes them a particularly good food in cases of fatigue or physical weakness.

New palm groves began to be planted in Al Jufrah in 2005. In El Hizam El Gerbi, an area near Sokna, 12,000 hectares stretching over 70 kilometers have been reclaimed and 780,000 palm shoots have been planted. The far-sighted decision was made to preserve the traditional genetic heritage by planting local varieties: Tagiat, Tasfert, Talis, Kathari, Saiedi and Abel. The positive effects

of these expanses of young palm trees on the edge of the desert have already been felt. In recent years the sandstorms that usually plague the area in the fall have considerably diminished, while the rising humidity level seems to be slowing down the desertification process.

Within a few years

many of the new palm groves will begin production, which will more or less double the quantity of dates available for export compared to what is produced today. There is no doubt that the country’s 16

Dates, on the other hand, have quite a low calorie count: around 250 kilocalories per 100 grams. They are rich in simple sugars and minerals like potassium, useful for rebalancing the presence of liquids in the body and assisting the cardiovascular system, as well as calcium, phosphorous, magnesium and iron, all effective in preventing muscular cramps and lowering blood pressure. Fresh dates are preferable to dried because of the higher content of vitamins A and B, carotenoids and fiber, which contribute to the fruit’s remineralizing and laxative properties.

entry into the World Trade Organization and the possibility of using the Protected Denomination of Origin system will open up new opportunities for exporting the fruit. Additionally, the new plantations established by the government will be subdivided into small plots and distributed among the region’s farmers, who will now be able to benefit financially from international sales.

APPROXIMATE NUTRITIONAL AND ENERGY VALUES FOR 100 GRAMS OF PRODUCT: ENERGY (calories) 250 Kcal Calcium Iron Magnesium Phosphorous Potassium

50-70 mg 1-2.7 mg 55-70 mg 50-70 mg 240-500 mg

Water Sugars Fats Protein Fiber

20-25% 65-75% 1-2% 1.5-2.5% 7-8% 17


PALMS AND OASES To the Western imagination, an oasis means little more than palm trees. In fact, an oasis is a complex microcosm, functioning according to an interconnected virtuous circle. Palms are the vital hub at the heart of this system.

In the desert, where for hundreds of kilometers there is nothing to see but expanses of sand and stones, barren mountains and phantom waterways, one can suddenly come across an area where life flourishes: small green zones (Medwin or Al Fugha, in the case of Al Jufra) or actual towns (the Sokna-Hun-Waddan area) which have developed thanks to the water welling up under the ground.

Humans have taken advantage of the natural protection offered by palms to cultivate vegetables, fruit trees, fodder and even grains. Peppers, onions, garlic, fava beans, pumpkins, tomatoes, eggplants, pomegranates, figs, citrus, wheat, barley and alfalfa for livestock have all long been planted in gardens alongside the palms. Palms create

An oasis exploits aquifers and deeper groundwater to protect itself from the advancement of the surrounding sand dunes. Arabs like to say that the date palm “must have its feet in the water and its head in the fire.� Indeed, as the palms grow their roots seek out the water flowing in the ground. Their foliage creates a kind of umbrella, protecting the soil around them from the sun’s fiercest rays and allowing other plants to sprout and grow in the shade.

their own protection from the sun, concentrate water vapor, attract insects, produce the humus which they then feed on, protect the ground from atmospheric agents and allow cultivation under their foliage, which further increases the positive dynamics triggered by the palms. This is the oasis effect, capable of creating self-reproducing and self-sustaining life cycles in conditions of scarce resources. Within the oasis system, the amount of available water is not only renewed, but also increased. 19

Fatma Said Ejkhuri


I’m 60, and I’ve been running the plantation for the last

35 years, since my husband died. Listen, I’m not managing the business from up above. I actually work, I use my hands. I open the channels when it’s time to irrigate, I take care of the animals and I watch over the workers when they pollinate the palms, harvest the dates and extract the lagbi, the palm juice. I sort the different qualities of dates. The Tagiat rejects go to the animals, while the first grade, together with the Abels and Katharis, I’ll sell to clients who come to buy here directly, without needing to take them to the market: Those who know me know my dates are good! There’s always something to do:

An oasis should be understood as an artificial creation that exists because of the sophisticated environmental knowledge of the humans who live there. The aridity of the desert is interrupted by specific situations that create niches and microenvironments in contrast to the surrounding hostile conditions. The presence of palms generates favorable dynamics. Humans intervene with a wealth of traditional knowledge, in harmony with nature, ensuring a prudent and often collective management of resources. As a result, community models in equilibrium with the resources develop, often remaining stable for very long periods of time.


I come here every day, I leave home at 6 am, I walk five kilometers, but I’m happy to do it, not just because this way I bring home money for my family, but also because it’s good for my health. In fact, if I stayed home what would I get from it? I would become fat and then when it came time to bury me they wouldn’t even be able to lift me up! Better to work and be surrounded by nature.

THE DATE PALM Native to Asia Minor, the date palm has been known to man for 5,000 years. For many ancient cultures it has served as a symbol of prosperity and riches (the Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians and Arabs) or honor and victory (the Greeks, Romans, Jews and Christians). Particularly characteristic of desert oases, date palms are found in hot, arid regions around the planet, but are most common in the Middle East, India, North Africa, the Canary Islands and the southern United States. The tree can grow up to 30 meters high and begins to produce significant quantities of fruit from its eighth year, reaching full maturity at the age of 30 and beginning to decline after 80 to 100 years. Each bunch produces between 100 and 200 fruits, and weighs around 12 kilograms; each tree can produce on average 100 kilograms of dates a year. The name “date” and the date palm’s scientific name, Phoenix dactylifera, come from the Latin word dactylus, meaning finger or toe.



HARVESTING AND SELECTING DATES To climb up the palm tree, which over the years can reach a considerable height, harvesters use the simplest of means: hands and feet. Tough calluses form on the skin after contact with the hardened spines where fronds have been cut from the trunk. The most expert and experienced workers can climb even the highest palms in just a few seconds. Many use a simple harness made from a strong rope woven from palm fibers, while others use a more modern ladder. Some old and very tall palm trees have holes cut into the trunk for hands and feet, easing the climb to the top. During the first stage of the harvest (between September and early October), the harvesters climb the palms several times a week to remove the fruits from the bunches as they gradually

reach the right ripeness level, leaving the unripe fruits to keep maturing in the sun. So during this first part of the season, selection takes place directly on the tree. In the later harvesting stage (end of October), when the falling temperatures prevent the fruit from ripening further, selection no longer takes place among the fronds, but on the ground. Branches with remaining clusters of fruit are detached from the palm and the fruit is divided into first, second or third grades. Rejected fruits are ground up to feed to animals or used to produce alcohol in non-Muslim countries. Dates that have not fully ripened on the palm are left in the sun for around a week before being packaged. 23

THE VALUE OF THE DATE PALM The Arabs have a saying, “the palm is our dear mother (al-umm al-hanuna).” Only its fruits, its wood and its leaves make life in the desert possible. Without palms, nobody could survive in such a harsh environment.

And the pains of childbirth drove her to the trunk of a palm-tree: She cried (in her anguish): “Ah! would that I had died before this! would that I had been a thing forgotten and out of sight!” But (a voice) cried to her from beneath the (palm-tree): “Grieve not! for thy Lord hath provided a rivulet beneath thee; “And shake towards thyself the trunk of the palm-tree: It will let fall fresh ripe dates upon thee. So eat and drink and cool (thine) eye. And if thou dost see any man, say, ‘I have vowed a fast to ((Allah)) Most Gracious, and this day will I enter into not talk with any human being.’” [Surah Maryam, 23-26, translation by Yusuf Ali]

Whole civilizations

have developed thanks to the date palm, and popular sayings recall their importance: “In a house where there are no dates, the inhabitants will suffer from hunger,” for example. In the Muslim religion, which has spread widely among the desert people, great value is attached to this tree and its fruits. The 19th Surah of the Qu’ran tells of the birth of Isa (Jesus) and describes an image full of divine tenderness: the Lord, Allah, comes to the aid of Maryam (Mary) and eases her suffering during childbirth with the fresh, ripe fruits of the date palm: 24

The Muslim tradition

has also passed down some hadiths, sayings of the Prophet, which confirm the importance attributed to the palm in the life of the universe and humans:

The Prophet Muhammad said, “When doomsday comes, if someone has a palm shoot in his hand he should plant it.” [Sunan al-Baihaqi al-Kubra].


Date Palm Uses

Until a few decades ago, the trunk, cut into thin sections, was used to build supporting beams, doors, windows and stairs in houses, while the woven branches, covered in lime, were used for roofing. The leaves and branches were also used to make fences to divide agricultural properties. A zeriba is a shelter built from palm fronds (known as zerba in Arabic), where tools for the fields could be stored. Also built out of palm fronds, a cecabart is a clever circular hut in which the hot air rises in the middle and leaves through a chimney-like opening, making the hut fresh and airy, rare and precious qualities in the desert. Still today, skilled craftsmen transform the leaves into vessels for storing food, everyday objects, incense and jewelry as well as mats, hats, belts and bags. 26

Craftsmen divide the leaves according to the dimensions of the object they want to make and dry them in the sun for a day. When they are ready to use the leaves, they soak them in water for half an hour. Once softened, the leaves are woven to form braids of various widths. The braids are dampened to make them more flexible, then tied together to form circular mats used when eating on the ground, baskets, food containers, lids and small jewel boxes.


The tough fibers wrapped around the trunks can be woven into ropes, which can make the harnesses harvesters use to hoist themselves up the palms. The wood not used for construction feeds the fires used to cook food and heat the cold desert nights and winters.

The apical dome of the palm can be skilfully tapped to extract a juice called lagbi, thirst-quenching, sweet and highly nutritious. The cutting operation is very delicate, requiring great care so as not to cut into the heart of the tree and kill it. In the past the lagbi was collected in a colocynth. This round gourd, typical of the desert, has little flesh but makes an excellent container when dried.


The fruits of the palm have long been an essential food for both humans and animals. Following the logic typical of rural areas or anywhere with limited resources, where nothing is thrown away, the date pits (and today the third-grade dates) were used to feed camels, dromedaries and goats, giving their milk intense aromas. Eaten fresh during the harvest season, and pressed or mixed with other poorer ingredients to be conserved for leaner months, dates have always been central to the diet of desert peoples. For the nomads and the animals that allowed them to cross the desert, dried dates were a vital energy-giving food able to withstand the hottest temperatures. They were also a precious commodity to be bartered for grains grown along the coast.

Traditional Foods from the Date Palm

For centuries dates were a staple food for the people of the Libyan desert, and many recipes for date-based dishes have been passed down through the generations. During feasts or special occasions, some families still serve these dishes, but today’s lifestyles no longer require the high energy supply needed by those whose day involved heavy physical work or crossing the desert by caravan. The elders of Al Jufrah remember when it was necessary to stock up supplies for the months far from the harvesting period, and refrigeration was not yet an option. Men would crush the dates with their feet in a kind of vat, or with a long, heavy stick in a karou (acacia-wood mortar), while women used their hands and a large, round, shallow vessel made of terracotta. Some worked the dates without removing the

pits, because the seeds gave a particular pleasant flavor. The paste was stored in terracotta vessels or palm leaves and in the winter served as an everyday food for families, its calories helping to protect against the cold.

Today, pitted dates are still often pressed for storage. Before eating, the paste is softened in hot water and then modeled by hand into little sweets, usually decorated with walnuts, almonds, pistachios or hazelnuts. In the past, Libyan women used the date paste to make basisa, a typical dish for Ramadan. The dates were heated over the fire with the addition of oil and perhaps ground toasted barley. Doba was made by mixing the dates with the casein obtained during the clarification of goat’s milk butter.


Dates that are less fleshy, and so less suited to being eaten fresh, can be slowly boiled in water to make date juice. When strained and further concentrated, the juice becomes a syrup, called rubb, which can be drunk straight or poured over a dessert made from ground barley, traditionally prepared for the religious holiday Mawlud, a celebration of the birth of the Prophet. In times past it was also mixed with oil or clarified butter (samen) and spread on bread. During Ramadan, the sacred month of Islam, Muslims fast from dawn to sunset to help them remember that everything they possess comes from God, and to symbolically identify with the poor of the world by feeling hunger for at least 27 to 29 days every year. Dates are a key element of the evening meal, and the breaking of 30

the fast, whether in Mecca or Jakarta, Marrakech or Istanbul, is marked by the call of the muezzin from the mosque as the faithful drink a glass of milk accompanied by fresh dates. Date syrup is particularly appreciated as a beverage during this time, as its high energy content can immediately restore many of the substances needed by the body after hours of fasting.

The milk-white palm juice called lagbi can be boiled for many hours to obtain a syrup that looks like dark-brown caramel, a prized nectar reserved for special occasions. Bread cooked in the ashes is a desert specialty, and a piece dipped into palm syrup is a real delicacy. In the 1930s the Italians fermented lagbi to obtain palm wine, and Libyan families still make vinegar from lagbi by fermenting it for 40 days.


NOT JUST FOR CHRISTMAS The European custom of eating dates after a meal, particularly after the epic feasts of the Christmas period, is not recommended. Given their nutritional richness, the fruits can weigh down digestion, providing unnecessary excess calories. The dried fruit is a highly nutritious food, as shown by the many Libyans whose evening meal is still just a few dates with a glass of milk or the many European Muslims who during Ramadan refortify themselves after a day of fasting by drinking date syrup or eating dates. All dried fruit is highly


digestible when eaten at breakfast, or as a snack not too close to other meals, and because of its high fiber content, it aids the functioning of the intestinal system. Dates make an ideal source of quick energy for sportspeople, and their magnesium helps muscular activity. Dates can be eaten plain or in desserts, but they are also excellent paired with cheeses, particularly flavorful ones like goat cheese, Gorgonzola and aged pecorino. Date syrup can help ease the symptoms of coughs, colds and respiratory inflammations in general.

DESERT AND WATER IN CENTRAL LIBYA The Al Jufrah region lies in central Libya, around 650 kilometers southeast of Tripoli. There is no one single oasis, but rather three main adjacent oases (Sokna, Hun and Waddan) within a radius of around 40 kilometers, and

two smaller oases, Al Fugha and Zellah, around 200 kilometers southeast and southwest from the main nucleus. The region’s significant water resources and loose soil has allowed the development of different groups of palm trees.


The large basin of Al Jufrah (from the Arabic jof, meaning belly or hollow) stretches from west to east and is bordered to the south by the spurs of the volcanic Jebel Soda, the basaltic Black Mountains; to the northwest by the eroded slopes of the Jebel Machrigh; to the northeast by the Jebel Waddan, the Waddan Mountains; and to the east by the Harugi Mountains.

The desert landscape is much more than just dunes and sand. Here it is a vast flat expanse of gravel (serir) or large pebbles (hammada), interrupted by hills shaped like truncated cones, smoothed by the millions of years since their formation. The land is furrowed by wadi, riverbeds now permanently dry but once able to fill with water in just a few moments, becoming dangerous when sudden, heavy rains would cause flash floods. From above, the network of wadi looks like a maze of lines intersecting the whole land, their course easily traced by the vegetation that concentrates along them, mostly tamarisks and African acacias. The roots of the trees sink deep in the ground in search of water and their leaves become spines to limit the dispersion of moisture and protect against animals desperate to feed on their greenery. The acacias are so resistant that on average they live for 200 years.

The average altitude of Al Jufrah is around 220 meters above sea level, but there is a considerable difference (around 60 meters) between the area of Sokna and the eastern part of the plateau, caused by ancient movements of the Earth’s plates. Springs of water flow around 34

Sokna and feed the rest of the region, and Sokna has long been considered the most precious water reservoir in all of Al Jufrah.

The abundance of water

just a few meters below the surface has allowed the cultivation of palm trees, which in the past were rarely irrigated. There were around 88,000 trees in the 1930s in Al Jufrah. Sadly, the Sokna plantations, probably the largest with around 35,000 trees, were partially destroyed during repeated clashes between Arabs and Berbers, who had one of their strongholds here. In fact the story of Al Jufrah has always been marked by the ongoing conflict between various ethnic groups and raids by nomads on more settled peoples, possessors of the region’s only wealth: palm groves and vegetable gardens.

“Wild” palm groves, growing without human intervention, draw out water with their roots. They still survive today, after hundreds of years, independent of people. But the selected varieties of palms planted by people in “gardens” are irrigated so that they fruit more abundantly and produce softer, more succulent dates. While production from an irrigated tree can reach up to 80-100 kilograms, a non-irrigated palm produces on average just 15-20 kilograms of fruit. The palms can be irrigated using the traditional system, through a mesh of soil channels surrounding every plant, or with modern drip irrigation, which uses much less water. The local people recall that up until the 1960s the slopes of the Jebel Soda were green with vegetation, and, like the whole surrounding


area, would become covered with grass as soon as it rained, allowing the inhabitants of the nearby village to raise animals other than camels. But today the landscape has dried up, and the 1963-1964 season remains imprinted in local memory. Back then, the peasants of Sokna rushed to the slopes of the Black Mountains after the extraordinarily abundant rains allowed them to plant even wheat and barley. In the new millennium, rains able to quench the earth’s thirst for at least a short period of time come every three to seven years.

serves, even though the water-bearing layer has descended from 3-5 meters to 150-200 meters, while for more than 20 years Waddan has been drawing on fossil water, non-renewable reserves left imprisoned in the earth’s depths (between 1,500 and 2,200 meters) by ancient geological movements. This sulfurous water flows out at a temperature of over 70°C and very high pressure. It is left to cool in reservoirs before being mixed with fresher water and pumped to the fields for agricultural irrigation.

In 1938, an Italian observer was still able to collect accounts of sporadic light snowfalls in the region and to state that “the basin has inexhaustible aquifers, at various depths” (Emilio Scarin in La Giofra e Zella. Le oasi del 29° parallelo della Libia occidentale; Florence, Sansoni Editore, 1938; p.34). This kind of bold confidence would be misplaced today. Sokna still has the best water re-

Censuses carried out by the Italians in the 1930s show that the population of the region was then around 6,700 residents. At the start of the 21st century, that figure had risen to around 60,000.


The local people were able to establish a way of life that was extraordinar-

ily well-suited to the harsh environment and extreme hostility of the desert. Since ancient times, these islands of green in the middle of the sand were used by merchants as stopovers as they traded spices, gold, salt and ivory. Over the centuries the oases developed and grew thanks to their function as staging posts, hubs of traffic and communication for the Sahara. They beame lively crossroads of different cultures and sometimes birthplaces for important civilizations.

The Al Jufrah oases, which for centuries offered providential resting places along the caravan routes that passed through here, are today easily accessible by a network of all-weather asphalted roads.



CARAVANS AND CASTLES Our globe’s 29th parallel is one of those lines along which history has left deep traces. Some of the memories of what happened here have crumbled into the

Since the remotest of times, a caravan route has run along the 29th parallel, connecting Egypt to the east with Fezzan to the west and crossed by pilgrims and merchants on camelback with their goods. During the journey, the travelers would eat almost nothing but dried dates, a food that could last for months even in the hot sun, offering essential nutrition and the energy needed for the tough desert crossings. It was along this trade route that Arabs ventured into the west of North Africa between the 7th and 11th centuries. During those centuries in which the caravan routes determined the destinies of whole geographic areas, Al Jufrah found itself in a strategic position, located as it was along the west-east route from Timbuktu to the Egyptian

sand of the Ghibli that “winds the sky into skeins” (as Mario Tobino wrote in Deserto della Libia) confusing the images of the past.

Red Sea. The great pilgrimages along this route would pass through Siwa, Jagbub, Jalo and Zellah to reach central Sudan during the glorious age of western Sudanese empires. The journey undertaken in 1324 by Emperor Kanku Musa, accompanied by a caravan of 60,000 men, and the 1496 pilgrimage of Askia the Great are still famous. Al Jufrah is also on the north-south route that began in Tripoli, passing through Terhuna, Ben Ulid, Bu Ngem, Sokna, Umm El Abid and Sebha and stopping at Murzuq (the Paris of the Sahara) before reaching the Niger River and Lake Chad. Black slaves would be brought from Fezzan and the desert regions even further south, passing through Sokna before reaching Misurata, where they would be traded for grains grown in the fertile strip of coastal plain or goods manufactured in the northern cities. 39

Detail of a Map of Tripolitania (a former province of Libya), Istituto Geografico Militare, 1911 The ancient caravan routes are shown in red.


The caravan routes functioned because they could rely on the oases, while these in turn developed thanks to the commercial traffic. The water and shade of the oases which still today conveniently dot the roads would refresh travelers and their camels. Over the course of the centuries the miraculous abundance of water at oases like those in Al Jufrah convinced many travelers, merchants and later Arab conquerors and Muslim missionaries to stay for longer, turning these places into their permanent home. 41

By one of those strange analogies that so often occur in human history, the settlements that developed in the Al Jufrah strip of Libyan desert bore a curious similarity to the medieval villages that dotted Carolingian Europe. A fort would be built on top of whatever high ground could be distinguished in the flat landscape of sand and crushed stone. From here, the horizon could be scanned for the potential arrival of enemies and defenses could be organized. Just as with a medieval European castle, the houses of the common people rose up around the palace in which the rulers lived, while the whole village was protected by a sturdy wall with watch towers. The main roads would radiate out from this hub. The settlements of Sokna, Waddan and Zellah, the oldest in Al Jufrah, were originally organized like this, and traces of the historic citadels can still be seen today. 42

Waddan The history of Waddan dates back to before the Islamic era. It is said that two hostile strongholds, Dolbaq and Busi, were built in these hills, probably around 2,000 years ago. By now they are long abandoned and buried under the sand. The people who lived here grew figs, vines and date palms, and according to the local guides, they were “tall, much taller than the Arabs who came later.� The inhabitants of Dolbaq and Busi worshipped the sun god. They buried their dead in a fetal position with the hands covering the face, turned towards the south, the undisputed kingdom of the divinity. Perhaps because of the limited resources, the two settlements often faced each other in battle. The ancient origins of the Waddan settlement have been shown by the discovery of many kilograms of jewelry and coins with pre-Islamic im-

ages on them, found during the excavations carried out by the Italians in the 1930s when they rebuilt the foundations of the fort. Waddan, in the middle of the defensive line that passed from west to east via Ghadames, Al Jufrah and Jagbub, was probably the site of battles between the Romans and the Garamantes, the native Berber population of central-southern Libya. These legendary warrior-herders were decidedly unwilling to submit to foreign invaders, whether Roman or Arab. Their capital was the city of Garama (now Jerma), close to the Idehan Ubari desert, 150 kilometers from Sebha. The castle of Waddan, surrounded by a sturdy, winding wall and with a mosque at its foot, was built in the 7th century by Arab conquerors from the East who had come to convert the people of the Maghreb to the worship of Allah. Waddan and Zawilah (around 500 kilometers further south) became key centers for the spread of Is43


lam. The houses of the common people also lay within the walls of the Waddan stronghold. A remarkable 35-kilometer-long underground channel connected a spring in the el-Bhallil mountains to the fortress. The channel showed the rulers’ shrewdness, as it served not only to transport water but also as an ingenious defense against enemies. From the castle towers, the inhabitants of Waddan could make out any strangers who might position themselves at the foot of the mountains, near the water. They could pass undisturbed through the underground channel to the bottom of the well, where they would cut the ropes the enemies were using to draw water up in buckets, thus forcing the undesired guests to move on elsewhere. This non-violent tactic proved highly effective. Waddan remained the capital of Arab Al Jufrah until the Ottomans moved the center of power to Sokna.

Sokna Sokna’s castle, surrounded by a wall, is comprised of a few two- and three-story buildings arranged around a well and a large courtyard used in the past to keep troops and animals safe. Sokna was long the political hub of the area, thanks to its precious reserves of good-quality water. The Caimacans, the deputies of the Ottoman Empire’s Grand Vizier and rulers of Al Jufrah, established and maintained their seat of power in the Sokna fortress for all three centuries of Turkish domination, from the start of the 17th century to 1929, when Italy definitively established its occupation. At the foot of the hill on which the castle rises lies the site still used today for the daily date market. Various 19th-century European explorers venturing into the desert passed through Sokna, located along the route into the immense Sahara. Mentions of Al Jufrah can be found in the diaries 45

and travel journals of these geographers, who had varying degrees of awareness of their role as forerunners for successive political and military colonizations.


Zellah Zellah, whose origins date back to a thousand years before Christ, is 160 kilometers southeast from Waddan. The fortress dominating the main hill, offering 360-degree views of the desert and surrounding palm groves, was built by the Italians in 1928 on the ruins of pre-existing buildings. The citizens who have heard tell of abundant rains in the past dejectedly observe that today desertification is advancing: The fortress’s well has dried up and there are fewer and fewer “wild” palms. The nearby palm grove of Medwin, with some trees over 200 years old, used to be called “the sister of Siwa” when it was just as lush and luxuriant as the famous Egyptian oasis. Unfortunately the hundred or so inhabitants of

Medwin were hard hit by malaria at the start of the 1900s and today their mud-and-stone houses are just ruins in the sand. The Zellah palm groves were traditionally fed by water from distant springs, carried to the trees by subterranean canals built by digging a successive series of wells, similar to the ancient foggara system. Dates have a long history and vital importance in this area. In 1947, following the Second World War, a terrible famine struck Al Jufrah. The already weakened people fought off disease by eating Zellah dates, the only resource

available in the whole region. At the time it was a three-day donkey ride to reach Zellah from Hun, Waddan or Sokna, but the fruits of the far-off village proved to be a priceless treasure. Even today, 1947 is still known as “the year of the Zellah dates.� A curious fact was recorded by an Italian observer in the 1930s: Until the end of the 19th century, ostriches were raised in Zellah. The trade in their feathers was a source of income, while the eggs, decorated with leather braids, were given as offerings to the religious leaders called marabouts.


Hun The story of Hun is the story of a succession of towns progressively swallowed up by the desert, and it has come to be known as “the wandering city.” Though we do not know exactly when Izkan (the “first Hun”) was founded, we do know that the settlement disappeared five centuries ago due to some sudden incident, possibly an earthquake, flood or plague. The “second Hun” was built during the Turkish period and remained standing for 350 years until it was abandoned because of the sandstorms that relentlessly eroded the walls of the houses. Around the middle of the 19th century the inhabitants wrote to the Ottoman authorities asking for permission to build a new town. The result was the “third Hun,” which unlike the concentric arrangements of the older villages of Berber origin (Waddan, Sokna and Zellah), had 48

the square layout typical of Arab settlements. The main road divided the town into two neighborhoods, animated by the same sense of rivalry seen between the contradas in Siena. In a tradition similar to Siena’s Palio horse race, representatives from the two sides of the town would take part once a year in a competition in which family affiliations were put aside and all that counted was loyalty to your neighborhood. It involved a kind of Greco-Roman wrestling, in which the fighting would start between three-year-old children, then pass from winner to winner before finally reaching those in their sixties. This unusual competition is today part of the lively folklore festival, which fills the squares of Hun with music and dancing for days. Locals are inspired to rediscover their own traditions and this authentic festival is far from an artificial construct designed for tourists on the hunt for exoticism.


During their first attempt

to conquer the area, in 1914, the Italians established their logistical base in Sokna, already a center of local power for the Ottoman Empire. That first Italian foray proved to be short-lived, and it was only in the late 1920s that the fascists managed to definitively occupy the region, establishing their capital in Hun. Seeing the abandoned state of many of the old town’s buildings, the Italians distributed funds to the citizens of Hun to rebuild the mosques. They also founded the first research and experimentation center for dates, forcing workers reduced to semi-slavery to move the dunes, carrying away piles of sand with their hands in order to plant Kathari 50

palms, one of the most important local varieties. The fascist rulers also dug an artesian well to provide fresh water for the crops and drinking water for people. The well still exists today, though it is no longer in use. In the 1970s, the “third Hun” was abandoned to the elements in favor of dwellings with more modern comforts, like indoor bathrooms. Today the old town is used as the picturesque background for displays of local craftwork. The area were the “second Hun” once stood has become a favorite spot for picnics among the dunes, with views of the sunset and the marabout (a place of popular worship around the tomb of a religious figure).



Al Fugha In the minds of many Europeans, the word “oasis” conjures up a small corner of paradise lost in the sea of the desert. Al Fugha corresponds perfectly to this image. In the 1930s, it consisted of 2,500 palm trees and a few hundred inhabitants; today little or nothing has changed in the rhythms of life, in the reassuring sensation the shade of the palms provides to anyone passing through, in the feeling of finding oneself in a remote spot in the desert, surrounded by imposing plateaus. The Al Fugha oasis rose up naturally around a source of water that flows from the mountain along a 500-meter underground tunnel to the plateau, on which palms grew wild. Resources here are shared, because private property has little meaning in a place where human intervention is so insignificant compared to the work of nature. Al Fugha built its fortune on the breeding and sale of camels, used to transport goods in the de-

sert. Inevitably, the fortunes of this once flourishing crossroads declined as the ancient caravan routes were gradually replaced by asphalt roads and the camels by powerful cars fuelled by the oil that gushed abundantly from Libya’s sands. Though no longer inhabited, the charm of the 12th-century village, built from stone and mud, remains unchanged. Paths lead out to the houses from the entrance gate, which was closed at half past eight every evening to protect against unexpected visitors. Each house had its own well fed by water from the spring, carried there by incredible natural underground channels. At the time, dates were a precious resource. Dates harvested from the religious-owned grove were kept in the mosque’s storehouse, which was closed with three locks, their keys entrusted to three different guardians. It was a way of saying: to trust is good, not to trust is better. After all, the fruits were destined for community feasts or to help the needy, and everything had to be done to protect them from theft. 53




LIBYANS DO NOT LIVE BY DATES ALONE If you get tired of eating dates in Libya, there are plenty of other delicious traditional dishes with which you can satisfy your appetite and curiosity.

A word of advice: When visiting Libya, try to get an invitation to lunch at a family’s house. The conviviality of a meal shared with hosts whose sense of hospitality has been passed down unaltered through the generations, and the attention to detail shown by the women in preparing and presenting dishes on splendid silver trays are pleasures – in our age, luxuries – that should not be missed. Spending a few hours relaxing on the comfortable divans in the dining room of a Libyan home or in a Bedouin tent offers a restorative break for the body and mind.




Rishda: Libya’s “national dish,” very thin noodles handmade from flour and water, with a sauce of onions, tomatoes, chickpeas, meat and spices (black pepper, sweet paprika, turmeric and cinnamon). The Italian presence has left its mark in the kitchen; Libya has numerous dishes of pasta in sauce, generically called maccaroni.

A sheep’s stomach, cleaned and stuffed with a mixture of rice, aromatic herbs, liver, kidneys and other kinds of meat, then steamed or stewed.

Couscous Other typical North African and Mediterranean dishes found in Libya include couscous with mutton or chicken, stuffed vine leaves filled with rice and spices and a spiced soup (shorba).

Basin A kind of porridge made from barley, water and salt and served with meat (or fish, along the coast) and spiced vegetables.

Bread Various types of fragrant and flavorful bread: In addition to fitat, there is also tammasi, cooked on the inner walls of a terracotta oven buried in the ground; tannur, cooked in clay vessels; taajilah, a round and soft flat bread cooked under the ashes by the Tuareg; and other typical breads made from barley and millet.

Fitat Hard-wheat bread similar to Sardinian carasau (the type from Ghat is particularly thin and crunchy), layered with vegetables – favas, lentils, zucchini, garlic and fresh tomato – and lamb sauce.

Desserts Meat Stewed camel meat, served with a sauce over rice or couscous.


The typical Arab desserts, based on honey, pistachios and almonds, are common here, as are magrood, biscuits made from semolina, flour, yeast and sesame seeds.



THE SIGHTS OF LIBYA If you go to Libya in search of the exquisite dates of Al Jufrah, here are some other archeological and natural attractions that should not be missed:


The capital, with its blinding-white medina and the impressive Jamahiriyya Museum, which contains finds from prehistory to the present day and one of the largest collections of classical art in the world.

Jebel Nafusa

Hills of constantly changing colors behind Tripoli, dotted with Berber villages and qasr, fortified granaries.

Leptis Magna and Sabratha

Two of the best-preserved Ancient Roman cities in the Mediterranean. In Leptis Magna, the imposing ruins, backed by the sea, are overgrown with fragrant Mediterranean herbs.


THE SIGHTS OF LIBYA Cirene and Apollonia

Ancient Greek ruins, showing Roman and Byzantine influences.


The modern capital of Cyrenaica, whose architecture still bears traces of Italian style. The lively suq of al-Jreed is well worth a visit.


An oasis-village set in a desert of red rock, once an essential stopping place for the caravan routes, protected by UNESCO and known as “the jewel of the Sahara.”

Ubari Lakes

In the midst of the Sahara, these palm-fringed salty lakes appear miraculously among the dunes of the Idehan Ubari, the Ubari Sand Sea.

Jebel Akakus

One of the country’s most fascinating desert landscapes, with mountains guarding prehistoric rock paintings from 12,000 years ago, and the Tuareg village of Ghat built from clay bricks.


THE PROJECT This publication has been produced as part of the Miglioramento e valorizzazione della palma da dattero nelle Oasi di Al Jufrah in Libia program for improving and promoting date palms in the oases of Al Jufrah in Libya, funded by the Directorate General for Development Cooperation of the Italian Ministry for Foreign Affairs and coordinated by the Istituto Agronomico per l'Oltremare (IAO) in Florence in collaboration with the Libyan Board of Improving and Developing Olive and Palm Trees. The project’s origins lie in the commitments made between Italy and Libya to strengthen and develop relationships between the two countries. The central government and local authorities in Libya share an interest in improving agricultural, forestry and pastoral systems. As part of the effort to support the agricultural improvement of land cleared of Second World War surplus, the Italian government has begun providing assistance and collaboration in the agro-zootechnical and environmental sector. In Al Jufrah, activities agreed on by the two countries began in May 2009. They are aimed at encouraging local economic development through coordinated actions to support producers of quality dates, whether individuals or associations. The strategy is led by two guiding principles: identifying and guaranteeing quality dates through production protocols that will ensure the consistency and quality of the final product; and protecting the agrobiodiversity of Al Jufrah by promoting the local palm varieties and strengthening traditional oasis-management systems. The initiative involves all the actors in the date production chain, reinforcing associations and relationships between producers, processors and traders; encouraging the protection of the environment and raising awareness about quality dates among consumers. This last objective will draw on experiences in Italy promoting typical local products using the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) and Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) systems, closely linking a product and its place of origin. The aims of the Italo-Libyan technical and scientific collaboration are to increase the quantity and quality of date production through the selection and genetic improvement of local varieties; to introduce cultivation systems able to optimize the use of water and energy resources and reduce negative external effects; and to improve processing systems and marketing domestically and abroad. 63

Project Partners The coordination and technical and scientific supervision of the project are led by the Istituto Agronomico per l’Oltremare (IAO), an agency of the Italian Ministry for Foreign Affairs with widespread experience in the management of international cooperation projects in rural areas and responsible for other bilateral agricultural and zootechnical programs in Libya. The IAO’s GIS (Geographic Information System) Unit is mapping the distribution of different palm varieties in Al Jufrah’s five oases. The Libyan Board of Improving and Developing Olive and Palm Trees, founded in 1988, headquartered in Tripoli and with operational branches throughout Libya, is the local partner at an operational level and plays a key role in the program. Biological analyses are being carried out in its specialized laboratories, while its greenhouses and land are being used for field tests.


In a reciprocal exchange of skills and knowledge, Italian and Libyan experts in the sector are collaborating on studies of the systems and productive potential, with the aim of ensuring optimal use of water, energy and natural resources and improving the living conditions of the rural populations. As part of the Miglioramento e valorizzazione della palma da dattero nelle Oasi di Al Jufrah in Libia program, departments from the Faculty of Agriculture at the University of Florence are working together with experts from the Libyan Board of Improving and Developing Olive and Palm Trees to facilitate the transfer of important specific skills. Researchers coordinated by the Genetics section of the Department of Agricultural Biotechnologies are using molecular markers to genetically fingerprint the date palm varieties. This information allows the tracing of their geographic origin and is essential to genetic improvement. Under the supervision of the Department of Plant Production, Soil and Agroforestry Environment Sciences, the biological and productive characteristics of the date varieties present in the selected oases are being identified. In consultation with the Department of Agricultural and Forestry Economics, Engineering, Sciences and Technologies, proposals are being drawn up for the mechanization of the fruit washing, storing and packaging processes. The Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity, by virtue of its proven experience in promoting traditional, high-quality foods, is assisting with adding value to Al Jufrah’s dates and their commercial promotion. Specifically, in collaboration with producers, experts from the Foundation are defining the quality parameters for selecting the best dates. The Foundation has also produced this publication and a documentary on the oases and Libyan dates and will be helping producers participate in events organized by the Slow Food association.

More information about the topics explored in this publication and the issues dealt with in the Miglioramento e valorizzazione della palma da dattero nelle Oasi di Al Jufrah program can be found in materials available from the library and historical archives of the Istituto Agronomico per l’Oltremare in Florence and the following departments of the Faculty of Agriculture at the University of Florence: Agricultural Biotechnologies; Plant Production, Soil and Agroforestry Environment Sciences; and Agricultural and Forestry Economics, Engineering, Sciences and Technologies. 65

DESERT FRUIT The Dates of Al Jufrah 09 / 2010

Desert Fruit The dates of Al Jufrah  

A journey into the hearth of Libya in the oasis of Al Jufrah, along the course of ancient caravan routes, with the discovery of a unique her...