Travels in Morocco, by James Richardson

Chapter 8

El–Jereed, the Country of Dates. — Its hard soil. — Salt Lake. Its vast extent. — Beautiful Palm-trees. — The Dates, a staple article of Food. — Some Account of the Date–Palm. — Made of Culture. — Delicious Beverage. — Tapping the Palm. — Meal formed from the Dates. — Baskets made of the Branches of the Tree. — Poetry of the Palm. — Its Irrigation. — Palm–Groves. — Collection of Tribute by the “Bey of the Camp.”

El–Jereed, or Belad-el-Jereed, the country of dates, or literally, the country of the palm branches, is a part of the Sahara, or the hot dry country lying in the immediate vicinity of the Great Desert. Its principal features of soil and climate offer nothing different from other portions of the Sahara, or the Saharan regions of Algeria and Morocco. The Belad-el-Jereed, therefore, may be properly called the Tunisian Sahara. Shaw observes generally of Jereed:— “This part of the country, and indeed the whole tract of land which lies between the Atlantic and Egypt, is by most of the modern geographers, called Biledulgerid, a name which they seem to have borrowed from Bloid-el-Jeridde, of the Arabians, who merely signify the dry country; though, if we except the Jeridde, a small portion of it which is situate on this side of Lesser Syrtis, and belongs to the Tunisians, all the rest of it is known by no other general name than the Sahara or Sahra, among those Arabs, at least, whom I have conversed with.”

Besides the grand natural feature of innumerable lofty and branching palms, whose dark depending slender leaves, are depicted by the Arabian poet as hanging gracefully like the dishevelled ringlets of a beautiful woman in distress, there is the vast salt lake, El–Sibhah, or literally the “salt plain,” and called by some modern geographers the Sibhah-el-Soudeeat, or Lake of Marks, from having certain marks made of the trunks of the palm, to assist the caravans in their marches across its monotonous samelike surface.

This vast lake, or salt plain, was divided by the ancients into three parts, and denominated respectively, Palus Tritonis, Palus Pallas, and Palus Libya. The first is derived from the river Triton, which according to Ptolemy and other ancient geographers, is made to pass through this lake in its course to the sea, but which is the present river Ghobs, where it falls into the Mediterranean. The name Pallas is derived from the tradition of Pallas having accompanied Sesostris in his Asiatic expeditions with the Lybian women, and she may have been a native of the Jereed. The lake measures from north-east to south-west about seventy English miles, with a third of the breadth, but it is not one collection of water; there being several dry places, like so many islands, interspersed over its surface, depending however, as to their number and extent upon the season of the year, and upon the quantity of water in the particular season.

“At first, on crossing it,” says a tourist, “the grass and bushes become gradually scarcer; then follows a tract of sand, which some way beyond, becomes in parts covered with a thin layer of salt. This, as you advance, is thicker and more united; then we find it a compact and unbroken mass or sheet, which can, however, be penetrated by a sword, or other sharp instrument, and here it was found to be eleven inches in depth; and finally in the centre, it became so hard, deep, and concentrated, as to baffle all attempts at breaking its surface except with a pickaxe. The horse’s shoe, in fact, makes no impression upon its stone-like surface.”

The salt of the lake is considerably weaker than that of the sea, and not adapted for preserving provisions, though its flavour is very agreeable; it is not exported, nor made in any way an article of commerce.

The Jereed, from the existence in it of a few antiquities, such as pieces of granite and marble, and occasionally a name or a classic inscription, is proved to have been in the possession of the Romans, and undoubtedly of the Carthaginians before them, who could have had no difficulty in holding this flat and exposed country.

The trade and resources of this country consist principally in dates. The quantity exported to other parts of the Regency, as well as to foreign countries, where their fine quality is well known, is in round numbers on an average from three to four thousand quintals per annum. But in Jereed itself, twenty thousand people live six months of the year entirely on dates.

“A great number of poles,” says Sir Grenville Temple, “are arranged across the rooms at the height of eight or nine feet from the ground, and from these are suspended rich and large bunches of dates, which compose the winter store of the inhabitants; and in one corner of the room is one or more large earthern jars about six or seven feet high, also filled with dates pressed close together, and at the bottom of the jar is a cock, from which is drawn the juice in the form of a thick luscious syrup. It is scarcely possible to imagine anything more palatable than this ‘sweet of sweets.’”

As we are writing of the country of dates, par excellence, I must needs give some description of the palm, but it will be understood that the information is Tunisian, or collected in Tunis, and may differ in some respects from details collected in other parts of North Africa. The date-palm abounds in the maritime as well as in the inland districts of North Africa. They are usually propagated from shoots of full grown trees, which if transplanted and taken care of, will yield in six or seven years, whilst those raised immediately from the stone require sixteen years to produce fruit.

The date-palm is male and female, or dioecious, and requires communication, otherwise the fruit is dry and insipid. The age of the palm, in its greatest vigour, is about thirty years, according to the Tunisians, after planting, and will continue in vigour for seventy years, bearing anually fifteen or twenty clusters of dates, each of them fifteen or twenty pounds in weight; after this long period, they begin gradually to wither away. But the Saharan Tripolitans will tell you that the date-palm does not attain its age of full vigour till it reaches a hundred years, and then will flourish two or or three centuries before it withers!

The only culture requisite, is to be well watered at the roots once in four or five days, and to have the lower boughs cut off when they begin to droop and wither. Much rain, however, injures the dates, and we know that the countries in which they flourish, are mostly without rain. In many localities in Africa, date-palms can never be watered in the dry season; it is nevertheless observable that generally wherever a palm grows and thrives water may usually be obtained by boring. The sap, or honey of the palm is a delicious and wholesome beverage when drunk quite fresh; but if allowed to remain for some hours, it acquires a sharp taste, something like cider, and becomes very intoxicating. It is called poetically leghma, “tears” of the dates. When a tree is found not to produce much fruit, the head is cut off, and a bowl or cavity scooped out of the summit, in which the rising sap is collected, and this is drunk in its pure state without any other preparation. If the tree be not exhausted by draining, in five or six months it grows afresh; and, at the end of two or three years, may again be cut or tapped. The palm is capable of undergoing this operation five or six times, and it may be easily known how often a tree has been cut by the number of rings of a narrow diameter which are seen towards its summit; but, if the sap is allowed to flow too long, it will perish entirely at the end of a year. This sap, by distillation, produces an agreeable spirit called Arâky or Arâk: from the fruit also the Jews distil a spirit called bokka, or what we should call toddy. It is usual for persons of distinction to entertain their friends upon a marriage, or the birth of a child, with this pure sap, and a tree is usually tapped for the purpose. It would appear that tapping the palm was known to the ancients, for a cornelian intaglio of Roman antiquity, has been found in the Jereed, representing a tree in this state, and the jars in which the juice was placed.

Dates are likewise dried in the sun, and reduced into a kind of meal, which will keep for any length of time, and which thus becomes a most valuable resource for travellers crossing the deserts, who frequently make it their only food, moistening a handful of it with a little water. Certain preparations are made of the male plant, to which medicinal virtues are attributed; the younger leaves, eaten with salt, vinegar, and oil, make an excellent salad. The heart of the tree, which lies at top between the fruit branches, and weighs from ten to twenty pounds, is eaten only on grand occasions, as those already mentioned, and possesses a delicious flavour between that of a banana and a pine-apple.

The palm, besides these valuable uses to which it is applied, superseding or supplying the place of all other vegetables to the tribes of the Jereed, is, nevertheless, still useful for a great variety of other purposes. The most beautiful baskets, and a hundred other nick-nackery of the wickery sort are made of its branches; ropes are made and vestments wove from the long fibres, and its wood, also, when hardened by age, is used for building. Indeed, we may say, it is the all and everything of the Jereed, and, as it is said of the camel and the desert, the palm is made for the Jereed, and the Jereed is made for the palm.

The Mussulmen make out a complete case of piety and superstition in the palm, and pretend that they are made for the palm, and the palm is made for them, alleging that, as soon as the Turks conquered Constantinople, the palm raised its graceful flowing head over the domes of the former infidel city, whilst when the Moors evacuated Spain, the palm pined away, and died. “God,” adds the pious Mussulman, “has given us the palm; amongst the Christians, it will not grow!” But the poetry of the palm is an inseparable appendage in the North African landscape, and even town scenery. The Moor and the Arab, whose minds are naturally imbued with the great images of nature, so glowingly represented also in the sacred leaves of the Koran, cannot imagine a mosque or the dome-roof of a hermitage, without the dark leaf of the palm overshadowing it; but the serenest, loveliest object on the face of the landscape is the lonely palm, either thrown by chance on the brow of some savage hill or planted by design to adorn some sacred spot of mother-earth.

I must still give some other information which I have omitted respecting this extraordinary tree. And, after this, I further refer the reader to a Tour in the Jereed of which some details are given in succeeding pages. A palm-grove is really a beautiful object, and requires scarcely less attention than a vineyard. The trees are generally planted in a quincunx, or at times without any regular order; but at distances from each other of four or five yards. The situation selected is mostly on the banks of some stream or rivulet, running from the neighbouring hills, and the more abundant the supply of water, the healthier the plants and the finer the fruit. For this tree, which loves a warm climate, and a sandy soil, is yet wonderfully improved by frequent irrigation, and, singularly, the quality of the water appears of little consequence, being salt or sweet, or impregnated with nitre, as in the Jereed.

Irrigation is performed in the spring, and through the whole summer. The water is drawn by small channels from the stream to each individual tree, around the stalk and root of which a little basin is made and fenced round with clay, so that the water, when received, is detained there until it soaks into the earth. (All irrigation is, indeed, effected in this way.) As to the abundance of the plantations, the fruit of one plantation alone producing fifteen hundred camels’ loads of dates, or four thousand five hundred quintals, three quintals to the load, is not unfrequently sold for one thousand dollars. Besides the Jereed, Tafilett, in Morocco, is a great date-country. Mr. Jackson says, “We found the country covered with most magnificent plantations, and extensive forests of the lofty date, exhibiting the most elegant and picturesque appearance that nature on a plain surface can present to the admiring eye. In these forests, there is no underwood, so that a horseman may gallop through them without impediment.”

Our readers will see, when they come to the Tour, that this description of the palm-groves agrees entirely with that of Mr. Reade and Captain Balfour. I have already mentioned that the palm is male and female, or, as botanists say, dioecious; the Moors, however, pretend that the palm in this respect is just like the human being. The female palm alone produces fruit and is cultivated, but the presence or vicinity of the male is required, and in many oriental countries there is a law that those who own a palm-wood must have a certain number of male plants in proportion. In Barbary they seem to trust to chance, relying on the male plants which grow wild in the Desert. They hang and shake them over the female plants, usually in February or March. Koempfe says, that the male flowers, if plucked when ripe, and cautiously dried, will even, in this state, perform their office, though kept to the following year.

The Jereed is a very important portion of the Tunisian territory, Government deriving a large revenue from its inhabitants. It is visited every year by the “Bey of the Camp,” who administers affairs in this country as a sovereign; and who, indeed, is heir-apparent to the Tunisian throne. Immediately on the decease of the reigning Bey, the “Bey of the Camp” occupies the hereditary beylick, and nominates his successor to the camp and the throne, usually the eldest of the other members of the royal family, the beylick not being transmitted from father to son, only on the principle of age. At least, this has been the general rule of succession for many years.

The duties of the “Bey of the Camp” is to visit with a “flying-camp,” for the purpose of collecting tribute, the two circuits or divisions of the Regency.

I now introduce to the reader the narrative of a Tour to the Jereed, extracted from the notebooks of the tourists, together with various observations of my own interspersed, and some additional account of Toser, Nefta, and Ghafsa.

Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 15:33